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'Small world of murder': As homicides drop, Chicago police focus on social networks of gangs

CHICAGO — It was an overcast noon, and 12 miles from the city’s sparkling core, Police Commander David McNaughton was ready for murder. His district on the southwest side responded to 39 killings last year, among the highest body counts in the city, which itself recorded 506 murders, the most in the nation. But instead of another bloody year, McNaughton has had to contend with a new surprise:
Chicago Police 8th District Commander David McNaughton at his office in Chicago Lawn.
Chicago Police 8th District Commander David McNaughton at his office in Chicago Lawn.John Brecher / NBC News

CHICAGO — It was an overcast noon, and 12 miles from the city’s sparkling core, Police Commander David McNaughton was ready for murder. His district on the southwest side responded to 39 killings last year, among the highest body counts in the city, which itself recorded 506 murders, the most in the nation. But instead of another bloody year, McNaughton has had to contend with a new surprise: peace and quiet.

“When people say stop and frisk is bad, well, no it’s not,” said the white-haired commander, handpicked to police the rancid, tumble-down stretches around Midway Airport. “We’re going to save their lives by talking to them.”

With days left in 2013, McNaughton would seem to be right: Murders are down this year by almost half in his district and about 20 percent citywide, according to department data. It’s the equivalent of more than 80 lives “saved,” as the commander puts it, and the lowest Chicago murder toll in a half century. But these happy new trend lines come with nettling questions about how they were accomplished, and grave doubts about whether the good times can continue in 2014.

During the course of two days this month, NBC News toured the new Chicago way and the science behind it, encountering an almost buoyant Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, the top cop in America’s reigning “murder capital.” He smiled as he raised the blinds in his fifth floor office on South Michigan Avenue. “I’ve never stood by these windows before,” he said, waiting a beat before explaining why. “It’s too dangerous.”

He was joking, of course. But it’s easy to understand McCarthy’s light-minded mood once you understand the almost-magical promise of his approach.

Policing ‘hot people,’ not ‘hot spots’

The switch was thrown quietly in May 2012, hidden inside a 16-page directive, “Gang Violence Reduction Strategy,” and largely ignored amid a 60 percent rise in murders in the first quarter alone. With less than a year on the job, McCarthy had already disbanded two special task forces, roving teams that muscled neighborhoods into submission. Now he was betting on what he calls “the next phase of community policing in this world”: an emphasis not on the traditional “hot spots” for crime, but on the “hot people” who commit most criminal acts.

Rather than merely responding to crimes or swarming bad neighborhoods, the Chicago Police Department committed to using the new science of social network analysis — the same tools that allow Silicon Valley to predict who you know and what you might like to buy — to detail the city’s “small world of murder,” as one researcher put it, and use that knowledge to stop the next bullet before it's fired.

This is a profound, first-of-its-kind shift in strategy, albeit reliant on old-school intelligence and similar methods for gathering and acting on it. About 80 percent of the shootings in Chicago are gang related, according to police, so the city organized a closed-door, maps-out, all-hands “gang audit.” That identified about 60 active gangs, 600 factions, and the linguini of social and geographic lines that tie and divide them.

But the audit is perpetually refreshed, augmented by new intelligence from each district and flowed back into a master system, which spits out gang bulletins in close to real time. Now when there’s a shooting, police don’t just converge on the crime scene — they get reports that predict the next scene, the next victim, and even the next likely shooter, allowing them to converge on those locations as well.

“We got a pre-crime unit now,” McCarthy told NBC, making a favorite joke of the moment. It’s a nod to the sci-fi of Philip K. Dick, whose agents in “Minority Report” eliminated criminals before they broke bad. As a description of Chicago’s police work in 2013, however, “pre-crime” reduction is less a joke than a reality decades in the making, and now seemingly here.

If the progress continues, it could mean an end to the city’s legacy of gang warfare, and a preview of the future of police work nationwide.

Civil liberties advocates raise concern

But civil libertarians and neighborhood activists are already alarmed. While McCarthy arrived to trumpet blasts about rebuilding community relations, he risks the opposite happening, and for a simple reason: His social network approach is data heavy and dependent on knowing the streets — which means questioning a lot of people, regardless of guilt or innocence.  

“Chicago is the new New York when it comes to stop-and-frisk,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois. He’s the architect of an intensifying ACLU inquiry into the police department’s use of “contact cards,” detailed forms that document police engagement, including names, ages and associates, all of which adds to the department’s reservoir of actionable information.

While contact cards pre-date McCarthy, who for years was in charge of police strategy in New York City, they have nearly doubled since Mayor Rahm Emmanuel appointed him superintendent in mid-2011. This year, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune, McCarthy’s cops are on pace to engage 650,000 residents. The city doesn't track how many of their interactions are voluntary or what portion resulted in frisks.

But if the ratios match McCarthy's alma mater, Chicago will stop about 100,000 more people than New York City did in an average year in the last decade. “We’re alarmed,” said Grossman, who suspects many of these stops failed to meet standards for “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing.  

Adam Collins, a spokesperson for the police department, says the contact cards reflect an increase in "positive" interactions with the community. But McCarthy says that frisks are part of police work. “Everything will improve if we just get out of the cars and put our hands on people,” he boomed at a meeting with a deputy chief last January, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“It’s not a practice that’s randomized and you just walk up to people and start stopping them,” he explained to NBC. “None of this is by accident.”

Stopping a war before it starts

Down the road from McCarthy, in the 8th District, along a stretch of barred and barricaded corner stores, the even more cheerful and unapologetic Commander McNaughton invited a visitor around to his side of the desk to show-off what Chicago’s network-based police work looks like in action. Since he hasn’t had gang murders in his area for months, he called up on his computer an incident from late May, a drive-by shooting that wounded a teenager on the 2700 block of West 64th Street.

Even before the kid was in an ambulance, McNaughton got a flash message from a first responder, a dispatch telling the force that the victim had ties to two gang factions, the Sixth Ward and Lex City. He clicked on the document, his screen blinked, and up popped a report with pictures of four young black faces — “Rockwell Boys/Hit Squad” emblazoned above them.

Without a lick of physical evidence, these four kids, aged 15 to 17, were suspects in the shooting, their pixellated images on every terminal. They were profiled as potential murderers — in other words, known gang members, according to the bulletin, with a reported beef with the victim and a history of settling scores with triggers and clips.

But they were also potential victims. Below their head shots and names the report listed their hangout and noted ominously that “retaliation can be expected” there.

McNaughton dispatched police to this next potential scene. Then he called up another longer intelligence report, showing eight more young black faces, “Sixth Ward/Lex City” emblazoned above them. These kids were profiled as the next potential shooters, a murder squad in waiting, all of them friends and associates of the victim, all of them with known whereabouts. McNaughton dispatched more of his troops to find these kids, and stop a war in the making.

“It’s a cycle that just keeps feeding itself,” he explained, radiating the same optimism as his boss, a glow more often found onstage at TED talks. “We’re not waiting to see a pattern. We’re catching the first one, and taking immediate steps.”

Less than two weeks later, those steps led to the arrest of one of the Rockwell Boys for the shooting. It wasn’t a kid from the original four, but an associate police found through the same network. At the same time, in the days the case was open, McNaughton’s cops were all over the predicted scenes. They made a dozen more arrests than in the same period the year before, catching one of the Rockwell Boys with a gun a block from where they expected the next spree — a shootout that McNaughton says never did happen.

The social world of Chicago gangs

Such predictive work is possible thanks to the research of Chicago-born sociologist Andrew Papachristos, the son of a diner owner from a gang-plagued community on the North Side. Papachristos resolved to go into law enforcement. But he balked at the way police tried to anticipate crime with near-ubiquitous “risk factors” — generic qualities like poverty that turned millions of black or brown people into targets while doing little for public safety. He thought he could do better.

Papachristos, 37, now a professor at Yale, is a pioneer in the application of social network science to shooting patterns. His first peer-reviewed papers on the issue were published only in the last year, but back in 2011, he got the chance to brief McCarthy on the promise of his findings.

Using arrest records, he mapped the social world of Chicago gangs and demonstrated death’s narrow path through this community. People within two handshakes of a murder victim, for example, were 100 times more likely to be involved in a future murder than a stranger.

Most dramatic of all, he showed that people inside this closed circle of violence were about as likely to pull the trigger as they were to take the bullet. They weren’t predators or prey, in other words: They played both roles at once. If police could intervene, he thought, they could save not just one life but also a series of lives.

McCarthy has run with this insight. Oakland and Boston, among other cities, have incorporated social network science into a program called “Operation Ceasefire,” which reaches out to gang members and targets them for social services. Only Chicago, however, has made “two degrees of association,” as the department calls it, the backbone of a comprehensive policing strategy — and a strategy that has in some ways only just begun.

Last year, instead of policing an estimated 100,000 gang members citywide, McCarthy’s department used social mapping to scrutinize the 14,000 or so most likely to fire a bullet or take one. This year McCarthy and his department have refined their focus even more, generating a “heat list” of ranked individuals in every district. The higher the ranking, the greater the risk of the person dying or killing — a risk at least 500 times that of a person not on the list.  

'We will stop you if you make us'

The next step, now underway in two pilot districts, is a “custom notification”: a friendly visit from an officer, bearing a gun, badge and bulletproof vest but also a message of warning, worry, and the potential for reform. The general message, McCarthy says, is “we will help you if you let us, but we will stop you if you make us.”

So far none of the young men visited have accepted city help, he says, but at the same time none committed a violent crime — and, unfortunately, at least one helped proved the apparent precision of the heat list. He was killed in August, shot after leaving a party in an area known as “Terror Town.”  

That kind of accuracy, and the potential for better outcomes, has the superintendent feeling hopeful as he heads into 2014, a crossroads year for the emerging guru of national law enforcement. Another four quarters of downward-trending violence would help prove that the last five were more than a statistical fluke, as some criminologists claim.

But McCarthy’s toughest critics are still in the community, where the drop in murders may fail to translate into feelings of greater safety. None of the more than half dozen people NBC spoke with on 63rd Avenue between murder-plagued Englewood and Chicago Lawn knew of the drop in crime and when told, most spluttered at the idea — along with the future-shock strangeness of McCarthy’s techniques.

Still, as the sun set in Chicago, Superintendent McCarthy remained upbeat about his influence, drawing visitors to a long cabinet crowded with pictures and mementos. Most were from his days in New York. But one item stood out from his time in Chicago, a profile of him in the Tribune, his first big interview after he took the job, pledging to “change the way we do police work in this country.”

Whether crime goes up or down, that’s one promise he’s already made good on.