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Gun violence is dropping in Chicago as police credit new tactics, community investment

(CHICAGO) — Over one recent weekend in Chicago, two children under the age of 10 became victims of the city’s rampant gun violence.

Mateo Zastro, 3, was shot and killed while in the car with his mother and siblings in an apparent road rage incident on Sept. 30. Then 7-year-old Legend Barr was shot and wounded as his family arrived at church on Oct. 2.

ABC News Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas spent a day with Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown for an inside look at the department’s efforts to curb gun violence — incidents affecting many Chicagoans — throughout the city.

“It’s the most complex policing landscape ever in this country’s history. We are making progress, but the complexities make it such that it is so fragile,” Brown told Thomas. “The ebbs and flows of violence are persistent.”

While shootings like those that killed Zastro and wounded Barr continue, the violence does seem to be ebbing: An ABC News/Gun Violence Archives analysis of the nation’s 50 largest cities shows homicides are down nearly 5% from last year after two years of pandemic-era increases.

In Chicago, shootings are down 20% through the end of summer and homicides have fallen 16%. That means 101 fewer people were shot this year than last.

What’s behind the small but encouraging decline? The Chicago police credit both community engagement as well as a new, more surgical deployment of officers to crime scenes after an analysis by the department showed half of all shootings and homicides occurred on 55 “beats,” or areas that are roughly the size of a block.

According to Brown, police have also been taking an average of 12,000 guns off Chicago’s streets every year — including “ghost guns,” which are unregistered firearms that can be assembled from at-home kits.

But Brown told Thomas that’s likely only 10% of the illegal firearms out there. “I don’t think we’re even chipping away,” Brown said.

Police say they have another powerful tool in their investigations, however: The department uses a system called “ShotSpotter,” where sound sensors are placed throughout Chicago to detect and locate gunfire.

“It’s like the intelligence network for how we respond to crime, how we solve crime,” Brown said. “I think more importantly, this is one of our major linchpins for how we prevent crime.”

Thomas had rare access inside the department’s technology center, where officers comb through surveillance camera footage from businesses and homes near crime scenes to identify and track down suspects. Brown said using such footage also protects witnesses who are “fearful to come forward,” while still helping solve cases.

In 2021, the department said it had cleared about half of its homicide cases, a nearly 20-year high, though a quarter of those did not result in prosecutors bringing charges, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.

Brown stressed to Thomas that gun violence was a multi-pronged issue.

“We’re talking about policing, but this is about economic development,” he said. “This is about poverty. This is about, in many instances, race.”

Community investment and engagement

Brown touted Chicago’s $1.4 billion investment to revitalize South and West side communities, which are disproportionately affected by crime.

“Our impoverished communities in Chicago here, we just did not have the commitment,” he said.

Brown explained his belief in economic development as a crime-fighting tactic by comparing his city to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.

“You look at Harlem in New York today versus Harlem in New York 30 years ago, where you see actually some gentrification, but you see, really, a commitment to economic development. And you see Harlem much safer than it was 30 years ago,” Brown said.

“You did not have that here in Chicago,” he continued. “We’re starting to see that commitment now. So that we can have that sustained decline, because we are investing in affordable housing. We’re investing in jobs, we’re investing in mental health services and other drug treatments, social services.”

Brown showed Thomas what he says is an example of how that support has made an impact, visiting an area once known for being a crime hotspot that’s now been turned into a basketball court and green space for the community.

“Instead of it being an attraction to hand-to-hand drug transactions, it’s an attraction to community engagement with each other and with police,” Brown said.

With decreased crime and increased investment, the area can foster something more important, the superintendent said.

“Hope, hope, people have hope. People who have hope can have dreams of a better life. People who have dreams of a better life are not attracted to violence,” Brown said. “That’s what economic development does — different than what policing does.”

Working to build trust

Community engagement is another strategy Chicago police have been employing, one Brown told Thomas is key to gaining trust in communities of color, especially in light of high-profile police killings like George Floyd’s murder by an officer in Minneapolis.

“How difficult has it been?” Thomas asked of forging bonds between police and those they are assigned to protect.

“[It] made it more difficult to even be heard,” Brown said.

He also acknowledged the role race plays in perspectives on crime and policing.

“The demographics are what they are, in terms of people who look like you and me, who are shooters and are victims,” Thomas said. “How, as a Black man and as a law enforcement executive, do you balance how you feel about that?”

Brown said: “I think the first step for me personally is to never forget where I’ve come from.”

ABC News’ Jack Date, Quinn Owen and John Parkinson contributed to this report.

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