Government Technology

Social Media Transforms the Way Chicago Fights Gang Violence

A mural in Chicago is titled A Mother's Greatest Fear, referencing the city's gang-related violent crime
This mural in a Chicago neighborhood is entitled “A Mother’s Greatest Fear.” Officials estimate that between 50 to 80 percent of the city’s violent crime is gang-related.

After experiencing a homicide rate that earned it international attention last year, Chicago is upending the traditional style of policing and using social networks to rank people’s likelihood of killing and being killed.

September 30, 2013 By

It’s Friday afternoon on the far West Side of Chicago, and Barbara West, a petite, soft-spoken African-American woman, is out knocking on doors. West isn’t a salesman or solicitor; she’s the commander of the Chicago Police Department’s 15th District. Today, she is visiting a special subset of her constituents—the 20-plus people who are likeliest to shoot someone or be shot themselves. She’s accompanied by Chris Mallette, a 6-foot, 2-inch, 250-pound former linebacker and football coach who now heads the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, an anti-violence initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation and supported by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The 15th District—like Chicago as a whole—has a murder problem. In cities such as New York and Los Angeles, homicides have fallen by nearly 80 percent since the early 1990s. Crime in Chicago has fallen too, but its murder rate has remained stubbornly high. While the homicide rate today is only half of what it was a generation ago, Chicago residents are twice as likely to be killed as New Yorkers or Angelenos. For young African-American men that likelihood is higher still. One out of every 400 young black men is killed each year in Chicago’s highest-crime neighborhoods. Much of the violence is associated with the city’s gangs. Chicago Police Department officials estimate that 50 to 80 percent of the city’s shootings and murders are gang-related.

It isn’t just Chicago. Some 80 percent of the nation’s largest cities and half the country’s suburbs report significant gang problems. But Chicago’s gangs are different. First, there’s the scale of the problem. With some 100,000 documented gang members, Chicago has more gang members than any other city with the possible exception of Los Angeles. (Researchers estimate that gangs account for at least half the homicides in those two cities, a number so large that together they make up about 20 percent of all gang-related homicides nationwide.)

Last year, Chicago experienced a spike in homicides that brought national—indeed international—media attention. The 15th District’s murder rate surged in 2012, due in part to a feud that broke out within one of the area’s largest gangs, the Four Corner Hustlers, a faction of the Gangster Disciples that controls the area’s lucrative marijuana trade. Most police departments would have responded by “flooding the zone” with additional officers, a tactic known as “hot spot” policing, and perhaps targeting the Four Corner Hustlers for narcotics operations. In fact, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has done just that. But it’s also doing something far more unusual. It’s figuring out exactly who is likeliest to kill and be killed in each district.

The 20-some people that West and Mallette are visiting all have connections to the neighborhood’s 48 active gang factions. But what makes these individuals extreme risks is whom they associate with—in other words, their networks.

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