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Chicago Tribune Dahleen Glanton column

Chicago Tribune - 6/14/2018

June 14--The Chicago Crime Commission has released a new book of street gangs, complete with more than 1,000 mug shots of mostly young African-American and Latino men it calls "the worst of the worst."

If you weren't horrified already by the gun violence that has permeated our city, this updated "The Gang Book," commissioned by a group of Chicago business leaders, will likely scare the heck out of you.

Unfortunately, fear only serves to further alienate us from one another and does nothing to address the root causes of our city's problems -- unemployment, segregation and generational poverty among people of color.

The commission estimates that 59 gangs, with a total of more than 100,000 members, are operating in the Chicago area. And the number of gang leaders -- those heartless, menacing monsters who are beyond redemption -- is nearly double the 600 featured in the last book that was published in 2012.

For those needing justification, the book offers another reason to be suspicious of every black and brown face they encounter on the street. The commission has sent a message that some young men and women aren't worth the time it would take to save them. They are worthless thugs, plain and simple.

There is no question that some of the crimes committed by gangs are unfathomable. The 2015 execution of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, who was lured into an alley and shot multiple times because of his father's gang ties, immediately comes to mind.

But every young person who lives on a block where there is gang activity is not a gang member. That doesn't stop law enforcement officials from labeling them as such.

The book acknowledges that Chicago's gangs no longer follow the traditional hierarchy model with a centralized structure. Instead, they are a collection of more than 2,400 cliques or sects, known as gang factions.

The commission's previous "The Gang Book," released six years ago, erroneously included so-called leaders who had turned their lives around years before their names and pictures appeared in the publication. Some of those listed, in fact, were dead.

Already, some activists on the city's South and West sides are raising concerns about the new version.

They say it provides yet another tool for pushing young African-Americans and Hispanics through the prison pipeline rather than offering them the resources they need to improve their lives.

Publishing such a book at a time when the Chicago Police Department is reconsidering the fairness of its gang database does seem irresponsible and unfair on the part of the commission.

The book relies, in large part, on information from Chicago police, who have been widely criticized for keeping out-of-date gang information that is not only inaccurate but also racially skewed.

The city's gang database includes 128,000 names of people police have arrested or stopped on the street, 95 percent of them African-Americans and Hispanics. Some have neither been convicted nor charged with a crime.

The commission's vice president, Andrew Henning, told the Tribune that the book, compiled by a gang investigator with the Cook County sheriff's office, also includes information from a 2016 suburban police department survey, the University of Chicago'sCrime Lab and interviews with gang members.

"We're not trying to demonize individuals but shed light on the worst of the worst, the alleged gang leaders," Henning said. They are the ones, he said, who have committed violent, atrocious acts in their communities.

The commission believes that placing their names and photos in the book helps stamp down violence. I'm not convinced.

Names and photographs in a 400-page book don't make us any safer. They only make us more frightened.

The commission, which has operated since the days of Al Capone, is an effort by the business community to support law enforcement's work to reduce crime. And while no one is questioning its intentions, the book glosses over the underlying issues that contribute to the gang violence. Joblessness is No. 1.

The commission says "The Gang Book" is to be used as a tool to assist law enforcement, educators and community justice partners in combating and understanding gangs. The business community apparently does not understand that it holds the answer.

Imagine the impact if Chicago businesses were to come together and provide job training and entry-level positions for these young men and women. With nearly 60 active gangs operating in the Chicago area, surely there would be no shortage of people willing to trade in their guns for steady work and the prospect of a better future.

Once someone is labeled a gang member, whether it is true or not, there is little recourse for undoing the damage.

A so-called gang member has no explanation that would be suitable to a prospective employer. He is barred from even entering the door.

That doesn't end gang violence. If anything, it promotes it.

dglanton@chicagotribune.com

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