Public safety experts and youth advocates are pitching a range of ideas to prevent crime and chaos by young people in downtown Chicago: paid peacekeepers, summer jobs, improved transportation and more police.
Over the past weekend, two teenage boys were shot and 15 people were arrested in the midst of large crowds and fighting in the Loop. The mayhem came on an unseasonably warm and beautiful Saturday where temperatures hit the 80s. That has many worrying crime or discord will continue this summer as the weather heats up and young people look to enjoy the city’s picturesque downtown.
“I know folks are looking at this as a possible preview of what the summer is going to be like. It doesn’t have to be that way,” said Norman Kerr, a local public safety expert. “There’s some things that can be put in place to mitigate it.”
The former assistant deputy mayor for public safety now does his own public safety consulting as CEO of Trajectory Changing Solutions. Kerr is one of several people WBEZ interviewed about potential solutions to the issue of young people involved in violence downtown.
Here are five ideas they proposed as Chicago prepares for summer.
Pay anti-violence workers to keep the peace
Chicago in recent years has invested more resources in non-policing solutions to violence.
Kerr said the city could employ a team of anti-violence workers to patrol downtown hot spots on the weekend and help turn down the temperature when situations get heated.
“There has to be some sort of investment in a cadre of individuals who can [stop] some of the conflicts that are brewing. They can help to mitigate it,” Kerr said. He said those teams must be property funded and put in place before kids get downtown.
Attorney Kara Crutcher represents the youth nonprofit Good Kids, Mad City. She said the city should pay young people to keep the peace.
“We have so many young people that are actually already trained in this and that are going to be able to speak and meet other young people in a way that adults simply aren’t going to be able to,” Crutcher, who is the assistant director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern University Law School, told WBEZ’s Reset.
Give young people stuff to do in their own neighborhoods and downtown
Cecile DeMello, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, said the community nonprofit had a lot of success last year asking young people to plan and host their own safe events as part of the Summer Kickback series.
“When [young people are] in charge of events as leaders, they definitely can provide us with different ideas about how to market an event, how to think about safety. Then they are advocates amongst their peers about, ‘how do we get together safely?’ ” DeMello said.
She said the city needs to expand on programs like Summer Kickback and try to help young people organize positive events at the places and times that teens are gathering.
Kerr said while many neighborhoods sponsor activities for youth, many are not happening on the weekends. More programming is needed in neighborhoods and downtown, he said.
“We’ve seen this for the last few years that young people go down there every weekend. This is not a fluke, this is the trend,” Kerr said. “Many of them are leaving their communities to begin with to go downtown because they think downtown is safer.”
Keep kids busy with jobs
Crutcher said the city could prevent so many young people from convening downtown by greatly expanding its youth jobs program.
“These are young people that are on the brink of the rest of their lives. They have energy and they need to put that energy someplace,” Crutcher said.
She pointed to the Peace Book ordinance pushed by Good Kids Mad City, which among other recommendations calls for adding 20,000 more jobs for young people.
Some of those jobs, Crutcher said, could be aimed at preventing violence.
“Those jobs include not just your traditional jobs. It’s learning about restorative justice. It’s building skills to de-escalate instances of violence at the lake. It’s basically saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make peace this cool thing so that we can live and navigate this city in a healthier and safer way,’ ” Crutcher said.
Improve transportation for young people trying to leave downtown
DeMello said young people tell her they take ride-share services downtown. They may live in areas not well served by public transit; the buses may not come fast enough or some may not feel safe walking to and from the bus stop.
DeMello said it’s easy for the teens to catch rides downtown in the early evening, but as day turns to night, many of them have a harder time finding a ride back.
That means teens who were ready to leave by 8 p.m. may end up stuck downtown for hours, making it more likely they’ll be swept up in chaos or cause trouble themselves.
DeMello said the city should get creative about ensuring transportation out of downtown. Maybe it’s working something out with Uber and Lyft or providing shuttle bus service.
Put more cops downtown
But some people are calling for a heavier hand in dealing with unruly teens downtown.
Thomas Weitzel served as police chief of west suburban Riverside for 13 years. He’s now retired.
He said Chicago Police “should be doing a lot more” to address the problem and advocates for an even heavier presence of uniformed police officers downtown who strictly enforce laws against young people gathered in the area.
“I usually would not go down this road, but this must happen because these gatherings happen repeatedly,” Weitzel said in an email. “It’s not like [the Chicago Police Department] doesn’t know this will happen again because it will.”
Weitzel said police should be monitoring social media and sharing the information with patrol officers in real time. And officers should be singling out and targeting the few young people who are instigating fights and other criminal behavior.
But others WBEZ interviewed rejected the idea of solving the issue with more arrests.
“We always underestimate the number of those who are really active and those that need support. I don’t think just arresting a couple people will send the message to others that you don’t want to do this. It’s not going to serve as a deterrent,” Kerr said. “Some people are challenged by that. So I don’t think we can really go that route.”