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Gang labeling in dispute when analyzing Chicago violence

Toussaint Reed and Malcolm Rashad hold a picture of their slain friend Cornelius Jordan. They say the West Englewood native was mislabeled as a gang member at the time of his shooting death. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)

The city of Chicago is making a concerted effort to fight gang activity and one important part is to track it. That involves pegging some crimes as “gang related,” a label that the police department applies to most murders in the city.  Some residents inside Chicago neighborhoods, and even some crime experts, say police are too loose with the term.

They worry police can’t fight crime well until they understand why it happens.Malcolm Rashad met his best friend Cornelius Jordan on the block they grew up on in West Englewood.

They rode their bikes together as little boys and ran races up and down Wood Street.

Last year someone gunned down 26-year-old Jordan on the very same block.

Rashad says his friend got caught in crossfire meant for someone else. The grief cut deeper when friends and family heard the supposed circumstances of Jordan’s death.

The Chicago Tribune reported: “Police suspect that the shooting was gang-related, but didn't elaborate.”

[0:32] RASHAD: "When he died and I heard them say it was gang related, I said he wasn’t even affiliated with any gang. He was a family man. He always kept his kids around and he was just a happy person. He always worked hard."

Rashad says the burden of living in high-crime Englewood allows terms like gang related to inhabit the streets. It’s easy to categorize and it’s a shortcut to finding out what the real problems are.

Rashad says his slain friend’s neighbors didn’t feel empowered to challenge the police or calling the murder “gang related.” And Rashad feels police lump him, too, based on being a black man from a violent neighborhood.

[1:08] RASHAD: "Sometimes I get pulled over and I be in my uniform."

Rashad is a security officer.

[1:15] RASHAD: "First thing they ask is do you have your gun on you. I say see me with my uniform, my badge on, my ID, I have license, insurance and I have a badge on the back of my car."

Toussaint Reed was another friend of the shooting victim, Cornelius Jordan.

Reed has thought about why his friend’s death was branded as gang related.

[1:38] REED: "Most of the guys that are passed away or killed are young. And that could be one factor. The second factor is the neighborhood. The third one could be like a stereotype of how that person looks or what he has on. If he doesn’t have a shirt and tie on, it’s just automatically characterized as, I mean, gang related."

Using the term “gang-related” might seem straightforward enough, but experts and community members worry its use is a bit out of date.

Chicago’s African-American gang problem is much different from 20 years ago. Guys wore certain colors, gymshoes and hats to gesture allegiances.

Murders are half what they were in the early 1990s. The crack-cocaine era is gone, a time when street gangs flourished.

Law enforcement locked up notorious gang leaders from that era.

Some of today’s so-called gangs are actually small, splintered groups or crews.

But, police still use the term “gang-related.”

[2:28] GORMAN: "We don’t label members. They label themselves."

Joe Gorman is commander of the gang investigation division for the Chicago Police Department.

[2:37] GORMAN: "They’re very proud of their gang and they’re self-admitted gang members. Secondly, there’s part of some investigative work that may label a person or identify a person as a gang member whether it be through an investigation or be through different tattoos."

Gang motivated vs. gang associated

Chicago police distinguish the terms ‘gang associated’ and ‘gang motivated.’  The percentage of murders that are gang-motivated through June of this year is 53 percent. Gang-related shootings and murders would be closer to 80 percent.

Gang-associated means the victim or offender is a gang member, regardless of whether the murder is tied to actual gang activity.

Gang-motivated means the motive for the murder was directly related to gang activity.

LeVon Stone hears something different about gangs and violence than police do.

He’s the hospital response coordinator for CeaseFire, a violence interruption program. Stone goes to Northwestern, Stroger and Christ hospitals to find out the backstory behind a victim’s shooting or stabbing.

[3:43] STONE: "At Christ Hospital alone, we’ve seen over 500 patients a year. And to me I would be lying to say 10 percent of them are gang related. Strictly from what the patients is saying. Not from what I’m assuming. Not from my own speculation. Talking directly to patients it’s interpersonal. The majority of the stuff that’s happening in the Chicago area is interpersonal."

What’s “interpersonal violence?”

It’s a misunderstanding that’s gone badly.

[4:10] STONE: "You riding in your car down the street. You’re in a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. You pull in front of someone’s home and you’re blowing the horn. Someone says, hey, man stop blowing your horn. Get out your car, park. It’s personal. He don’t know you, you don’t know him. It ain’t about what you ride, what you got on, ain’t none of that. Someone feels the need to tell you don’t blow your horn here."

Stone himself is in a wheelchair. Twenty years ago, he was shot and paralyzed. Wrong place, wrong time. He grew up during the peak of Chicago’s crack-cocaine trade.  

Stone says when he listens to guys sitting in the hospital bed … and they tell him what happened, he’s getting it straight. If victims say an incident didn’t have anything to do with being in a gang -- he believes them.

He says victims don’t have any reason to lie … because he’s not a cop.

And, the work he does isn’t about finding the perpetrator. It’s about stopping retaliation.

That’s what Chicago Police Commander Gorman says the department wants, too.

[5:08] GORMAN: "There is no magic formula. And we as an organization drill down best we can to prevent the next violent act, the retaliatory act. And if there isn’t a retaliatory act then we can put this in the basket that this was over a girl. But if there becomes retaliation where it goes back and forth a little bit, then I would consider that in the gang-related basket."

Northeastern Illinois University professor and gang expert Maurice McFarlin sees emotions at play in Chicago’s violence.

Emotions running too high?

[5:40] MCFARLIN:  "Some of it’s over drugs. Some of it’s over hurt feelings. Simply hurt feelings. Some of it’s over girlfriends. Some of it’s over people losing their money in other ways, maybe a gambling debt or something of that nature. So it’s really not so much gangs as it is I would say fragile people."

McFarlin says how violence is branded in Chicago is important. It’s not just a game of semantics.

He says labeling people gang members actually makes the job too easy for police officers. It lumps people together and you can’t really say why crime’s happening.

[6:22] MCFARLIN: "Now I’m making you anonymous. If I’m making you anonymous, I don’t have to have any feelings for you."

Which, defeats the point of tracking and naming crimes in the first place. 

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