Chicago activists worried as federal officers head their way

Some say dealing with racial injustice, low-performing schools and high unemployment would be a better solution.

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By Safia Samee Ali and Erik Ortiz

CHICAGO — The latest gun violence to pierce the South Side, jolted by a shootout this week outside a funeral home that left 15 people wounded, has shaken city leaders and community members who are begging for an end to the bloodshed.

"Put your guns down," Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said at a news conference after a 3-year-old girl was shot in the head early Wednesday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said: "We all had restless nights last night, me included. But I woke up this morning with even more resolve to do all we can to stop this violence."

The effort to stem the surge in shootings will now include support from the federal government, the Justice Department announced Wednesday afternoon. "Anti-violent crime task forces" will be deployed in Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, cities where the Trump administration believes its federal agents can help with unsolved murders and gang violence.

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The task forces are being rolled out under Operation Legend, named after a 4-year-old boy who was killed in a shooting last month in Kansas City.

But community activists and criminologists in Chicago say they are concerned that the tensions, reinvigorated protests and questionable arrests involving federal agents in Portland, Oregon, in recent days could flare in Chicago, America's third-largest city.

"Sending in federal agents without any real specificity and clarity for their presence is a very slippery slope," said David Stovall, a professor of Black studies and criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "If they are just going to ramp up what is existing, then that could mean more arrests and, in the worst case, more fatalities."

Stovall added that "a crackdown on crime and guns only gets more people arrested and doesn't actually address the core issue behind violence."

The task forces will comprise agents from the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the Department of Homeland Security. More than 200 federal agents have already been sent to Kansas City, with a similar force expected in Chicago and more than 35 officers in Albuquerque.

About $3.5 million in federal funding would also be directed to Chicago to compensate local authorities for overtime, equipment and other expenses that support the federal agents, Attorney General William Barr said.

A Chicago police spokesperson said Wednesday that if federal agents are deployed, "it is critical that they coordinate with the Chicago Police Department and work alongside us to fight violent crime in Chicago."

Lightfoot suggested Tuesday that she would support the possibility of an "actual partnership" with federal agencies that could provide more resources to "help manage and suppress violent crime in our city." She said there are "some things the feds are uniquely qualified to do, and we would welcome that."

But she warned that the "Trump administration is not going to foolishly deploy unnamed agents to the streets of Chicago."

President Donald Trump on Wednesday evening called Lightfoot to confirm his administration's plan to bring agents into the city to supplement violent crime investigations. In a statement, Lightfoot's office offered caution, saying that "the mayor has made clear that if there is any deviation from what has been announced, we will pursue all available legal options to protect Chicagoans."

It remained unclear late Wednesday the exact roles the federal agents would play, making their arrival more unnerving for people in the communities they may interact with.

"I need to understand what their true purpose is and know how it's different from what's currently happening, because what's currently happening isn't working," said Asiaha Butler, a South Side community activist who is executive director of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. "I don't know how you add more to what's not working."

Trump had directed federal officers to Portland following an executive order that punishes the vandalism of federal monuments and government property. But in the case of Chicago and other cities, he said, combating crime is at the top of the agenda.

Chicago has been beset by high levels of gun violence and gang activity, and it has been reeling in recent weeks from a spike over a year ago.

There were 559 shootings over the past 28 days before July 19, up more than 100 percent over the same period in 2019, according to crime statistics analyzed by Christopher Herrmann, a former crime analyst supervisor with the NYPD and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

His analysis also found that murders in Chicago reached 116 over the 28-day period, an almost 200 percent increase from the prior year.

For year-to-date 2020 over the same period in 2019, shooting incidents are up 47 percent and murders are up 51 percent, Chicago crime data show. Reported sexual assaults, robberies and thefts, however, are down.

The rise in shootings and murders isn't relegated to Chicago. Other cities that Herrmann examined, including New York and Atlanta, also showed increases.

Herrmann said across major U.S. cities during the first six months of the year, murders and shootings were down, attributable to people staying indoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

But he told NBC News that as cities have reopened, the combination of these unique circumstances have led to a rise.

"Not only is it summertime violence, but there is COVID-19, police protests and job loss," he said. "All of those factors are going to exacerbate violence, especially in communities that were already vulnerable."

In more recent years, Chicago police have generally credited the addition of more than 1,000 new officers to the streets as well as the use of gunshot-detection technology and predictive analytics for helping to stave off shootings and homicides.

But Brown said Wednesday that conflicts among the more than 117,000 estimated gang members in Chicago and their warring factions are feeding the "cycle of violence."

"Someone gets shot, which prompts someone else to pick up a gun," Brown said. "This same cycle repeats itself, over and over and over again. This cycle is fueled by street gangs, guns and drugs."

But criminal experts say the issue is much deeper.

"As tragic as the shooting is, we have to connect it to what it means to historically live under the conditions of not having quality education, quality health care, living-wage employment and access to nutrition," Stovall said. "The best way to address violence is to be in a relationship with people before the event occurs."

Friends and family attend a vigil for 10-year-old Lena Nunez on June 29, 2020 in Chicago. Nunez was shot and killed by stray bullet while watching television with her brother in her grandmother's Logan Square home.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

Arthur Lurigio, a professor of criminology and psychology at Loyola University Chicago, said that law enforcement should be involved but that it is never the main solution.

"There has to be a programmatic response that involves members of the community and, most importantly, an understanding of why these mostly young men are picking up guns and shooting one another," he said.

Many community activists say beefing up law enforcement or adding more federal agents would be a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

"We've just been clipping at the weeds, but that doesn't stop the weeds from coming up again," said William Calloway, an anti-violence community activist.

Calloway said that he is open to help from different sources, including the federal government, but that he believes the larger issues of poverty and disenfranchisement are being overlooked.

Jahmal Cole, an activist who founded a community organization on the South Side called My Block, My Hood, My City, said violence is largely the result of disinvestment from the communities that are hardest hit by racial injustice, poverty, low-performing schools and high unemployment.

"I don't think adding more officers is the solution," he said. "It's not about more police. It's about more resources and investing, giving us the money we need so we can put it into our communities. If you're not willing to do that, then you can't change violence."

Safia Samee Ali reported from Chicago and Erik Ortiz from New York.