Gun Violence and Police Encounters: Reducing Lethal Outcomes
Full video and edited transcript; "Gun Violence Through a Public Health Lens"; February 11, 2017.
Bruce Shapiro: Now we're going to continue our conversation in which we're thinking about the story and fresh ways of covering gun violence as journalists, ways of getting into this story that we may not have thought of, issues we may have missed and just ways of thinking that can help us engage as reporters with a story that is challenging because everybody thinks they already know it. Yet we are out there reporting, trying to figure out how to get people's attention, how to change public thinking a little bit.
We are really fortunate to be joined today by Ellis Cose and Eddie Bocanegra. I can't imagine two better guides both to Chicago – they are both sons of this wonderful city – and to the issue of violence, guns, and neighborhoods. Ellis Cose is Writer in Residence at the American Civil Liberties Union. He's the author of a dozen books on issues of national and international concern, including “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” “Color-Blind,” and “The Envy of the World.
A Chicago native, Cose began his career at the age of 19 with the Sun-Times, where he was a columnist, editor and national correspondent. He's been a contributor and press critic for Time Magazine, president and CEO of the Institute for Journalism Education, chief writer on management and workplace issues for USA Today where he's now a columnist, member of the Board of Contributors and a member of the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press. I could go on with his long list of publications and affiliations. I'll just say that we are really lucky to have him here. He's been thinking about these issues for a long time and now in some new ways involving some reporting with the NYPD, which he'll probably talk about.
Eddie Bocanegra and I first met about eight years ago when he was one of the stars of the documentary, “The Interrupters.” Eddie had committed a murder as a teenage gang member in Chicago and then came back to do neighborhood violence prevention intervention. His work was featured in that terrific documentary, which if you haven't seen it, just go out and rent it tonight. These days I'm going to get his biography officially from the YMCA.
Besides being the father of a very large number of very small children, he's the executive director of the YMCA of Metro Chicago's Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Initiative. He has pioneered many community-based programs to address trauma and build resiliency among those most impacted by violence, including LuchARTE, Grupo Consuelo, and the Y's Urban Warriors. Prior to joining the Y, Eddie served as a congregational organizer for Community Renewal Society where he led FORCE, Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality, a coalition that advocates for increased opportunities for ex-offenders. He worked as a violence interrupter for Chicago's CeaseFire or Cure Violence, which we also heard something about earlier. Eddie currently serves on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Commission for a Safer Chicago and on My Brother's Keeper Cabinet. He's spoken at the United Nations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, and many universities around the U.S. on the topic of trauma and its relationship to community violence. He has a B.A. in social work from Northeastern University and an M.A. in social work from the University of Chicago.
I'm going to now move over here so we just have a conversation. We'll start out kicking the ball down the road, see where it goes, and then we'll open it up to the room. Since we've been talking shop as reporters, why don't you start out and talk a little bit about the work you're now doing with the NYPD and where that's leading your thinking about this stuff.
Ellis Cose: Sure, I'll be happy to talk about that, but since, I guess, part of the ritual in this meeting is establishing Chicago credential, let me just talk a little bit about my Chicago experience before I get into that. As Bruce said, I started with the Chicago Sun-Times when I was 19, but I was born in Chicago. I was raised in the Henry Horner housing projects, which were the same housing projects that Alex Kotlowitz writes about in “There Were No Children Here.”
My first experience thinking about cops was learning about a guy named Gloves Davis, who was notorious because he was this big black guy who would put on gloves and beat the shit out of people. That was my first impression of what cops were and what cops did. Probably my second impression was as a kid growing up during the time of the riots in Chicago. During the '66 riot I was living in the housing projects and there were basically bullets flying back and forth with cops shooting into the projects. That was probably my second real impression of what cops did – they shot into housing projects.
One of my first big stories in Chicago, actually the first one I won any awards for, I was very young, maybe 19, 20 at the time. I did an undercover look at drug trafficking in Chicago, so I spent several weeks on the streets of Chicago on the South Side buying heroin and other drugs and later wrote about that with a big four or five part series. As part of my early work I got to know a lot of cops, particularly the vice squad, quite well and was disabused of any notion that these guys were innocents or that they were pure. There were all kinds of stories I could tell you about cops, but I won't. Anyway, that just is to say that I'm a Chicago kid, at least I used to be a Chicago kid.
Now in New York they do a lot of different things there. About a year or so ago I was contacted by the Council for the NYPD, and this was in the wake of the Eric Garner choke hold death. There was a lot of publicity, a lot of stuff going on, and they said, "We really think we need to have a way to have some dialogue with the communities, and we need to sort of figure this thing out." I said, "Well, what are you thinking about?" They said, "Well, what we'd like to do is maybe start with a group of black and Latino thought leaders in New York. Could you help us think about that?" I said, "Sure, I can help you think about that." "What do you want? You need a list of names or what?" They said, "Yeah, that'll be good," so I gave them a list of names, and they said, "Well, okay, this is great. Can you invite these people to a meeting?" I said, "Okay, sure." About 20, 25 people, we invited them to a meeting. Then they said, "Well, this is good, and we'll have a meeting with the police commissioner; Brad Lewis and the police commissioner and a bunch of the brass, and we'll have a no holds barred discussion for a few hours about how various people in the community see what's going on, what needs to happen, but we don't have anybody to moderate this. Would you mind moderating this thing?"
Anyway, I did, and it was a very frank discussion with lots of views expressed from the community's perspective about what they thought needed to be done and the police basically expressing agreement on some points, and at other points trying to defend themselves. That's grown into a bit of an ongoing project where we've had other sessions with black leaders, with Latino leaders, with various community groups. We were actually putting together one recently for young people, teenagers, and people in their 20s, but it got moved aside temporarily because Trump decided he was going to go after sanctuary cities, so the police commissioner got called into a press conference with the mayor. Anyway, that ended up interceding in that.
Let me just say one thing, because I think there's a lot going on obviously, and I think there's going to be a lot more going on as we deal with this idiot in the White House, who is trying to-
BS: Why don't you tell us what you really think, okay.
EC: ... who totally misunderstands criminal justice, who starts out wanting to re-imprison the young men who were exonerated for their non-role in the rape in Central Park and thinks they ought to be put in prison again even though they're innocent. This person who wants to restart stop-and-frisk policies across the country, which have been one of the most not only ineffective but most racially discriminatory practices that we can think of.
I can go back to stop-and-frisk. Let me just cite a statistic because I think it's interesting. In 2011, which was sort of the height of the stop-and-frisk era in New York City, there were close to 700,000 stops. Over 90% of these were black and Latino young men. More recently we're looking at 14-, 12,000 stops, a huge, huge drop and that came about for lots of reasons, including lawsuits and being found unconstitutional, including a change in police commissioners to a police commissioner who believed very much in stop-and-frisk to one who really doesn't believe very much in the way stop-and-frisk was conducted.
The interesting thing, and despite our current president's insistence that stop-and-frisk was effective, is that it's had basically no impact on the statistics in terms of crime. You go from hassling 700,000 people a year to stopping something like 12 or 10,000, depending upon what numbers we're talking about. This year I'm not quite sure, but it's probably going to be less than 10,000. Just think about that for a second. What you've had is, and firstly, none of these people or a very small percentage were found with weapons or found with anything. They're just young black men and young Latino men who were stopped because they happened to be young and black and Latino. Even in white neighborhoods these people were stopped, but disproportionately. They were clearly racially selected and ethnically selected. Then that's exactly why a judge found this was in violation of the Constitution, and happily the current mayor decided not to fight that. That's one statistic I'll throw out.
Another one, which I find equally fascinating, is if you go back to 1971 and look at how many police killings of civilians there were in New York City, the number's 93. If you go forward to 2015, the number's 8. They've decreased. That's still eight too many, but they have tremendously decreased the number of young men who are being shot by cops, at least in New York. There are more shot in Chicago than there are in New York, even though Chicago is less than the half the size of New York and even though Chicago has a police force that's roughly one-third the size of New York's police force, a very interesting statistic. I think there are lots of reasons why that happened, part of it having to do with the general decrease in crime, but a lot of it has to do with changes in police policy that have been implemented and that the policemen had no alternative but to follow. I'll just leave it right there.
BS: All right. Yeah, thank you. Eddie, you're also a neighborhood kid, and we can talk about that, but the other day you had an interesting experience with a media discussion of Chicago gun violence. We've been avoiding, for the last two days, I think, not said the T-word once until Ellis, you brought it into the room.
EC: Sorry, I don't want to violate protocol.
BS: But the reality is that of course we are perceiving gun violence in this city and in the region through a lens colored by what our president says but also what national media says that relates to what he says or what people think, what the myths are and so on. There was this MSNBC town hall the other day, and you were part of it. What happened, and how did that lead you to think about the framing of the gun violence issue for Chicago?
Eddie Bocanegra: Sure. Because of my background, as you pointed out, Bruce, the fact that I sit here as a person who served over 14 years in prison for a first-degree gang-related murder, someone who grew up in Little Village, Southwest Side of Chicago, which for half of my life my landscape consisted of the Cook County Jail, which is one of the largest jails in the United States, and even with regards to the bio that the YMCA has, which is my academic achievements, family, programs and all that, often if I lead with that and then I mention that I did time in prison for what I went to prison for, it's almost as if the audience are always shocked. I always see the jaws dropped. Because the narrative that many people have about people with records is maybe full of tattoos, maybe crazy looking, maybe a person of color, a person who doesn't necessarily articulate or convey an experience that gives a voice and resonates with others.
There's this whole notion that I've learned, and I've learned this the hard way, about what does it look like to be tokenized. Often I get invited to certain settings, and I look around and I'm like, man, I'm the only Latino here, or I'm the only person with a record here. Even when media is covering a story, and I stopped doing this with many people, headline news, ex-offender, ex-murderer, ex-convict, ex-gang member. I could understand why that's the headline in bold print because it attracts the reader, but what I would like to share is what does that really mean to me; what does that really mean to my family; what does it really mean to the kids that I serve in my program within the Y; what does it mean to my staff who mirror very similar backgrounds than I do, and what does it mean to my community?
I think those are the things that sometimes I try to press upon when I meet someone who's doing a story. In the audience, Nissa, if you don't mind raising your hand, beautiful person who's done a couple stories through different venues, through the University of Chicago but also with the Christian Science Monitor as well. It's about how she shares a story and also if my background is being shared. Because I understand how in professional journalism you have to disclose information, but the way that its done, that's extremely important because I really believe that the key to change begins with the stories that we tell. I strongly believe that.
Going to what you pointed out, Bruce, this CNBC story, for two weeks I get asked to participate in this community event, community meeting. I'm asking, who's going to be in the meeting, because that tells me a lot. I'm getting the runaround. Luckily, I have a colleague on my team who manages our public relations and our media, and she has really clear instructions. Whatever the reporter's talking about, if they're sensationalizing stories, which I would say a lot of Hispanic media does, which is why I refuse to do a lot of interviews with Spanish media; there are certain people on our list that it's like, nope. Eileen, my colleague, she understands and buffers and does a good job to not waste my time, to be quite honest with you. In this case we're getting the runaround, and there's no commitments from the panelists and so on. Sure enough, they cancel. It was supposed to be one week, which was last week, and it got canceled. They said, "Okay, we're going to do it this week, and are you still available, Eddie?" I said, "Sure, I'll do it," because it's a national story. It's good press for the Y, and it's about a topic that I think I can contribute something to. Of course I show up there and there's like a line of people and 16 panelists. I'm like, how the hell are you going to have 16 panelists. I'm like, wow, that's not what I was told.
Then last minute they changed some things, and there are four people up there. The four people up there, there are two city officials; there's the superintendent of the police department, and there's the deputy mayor there. There's another person who's working around police issues, Lightfoot, and then you have a community person, Ameena Matthews, who is again someone who was featured also in Interrupters. Here's what I see as a person from the outside. I see four African-American people on this panel, and I see two individuals who are strongly representing the mayor's office.
I asked myself just the day before, the current president talks about how in Chicago much of the violence is being driven by people who are undocumented. I'm like, this motherfucker went there. I think to myself, first of all, I'm not undocumented, and again, I am a convicted felon, but I'm not undocumented. My experience with people who've been in prison, many of them are not undocumented. I was trying to look for the numbers just so I could be able to make a point. Because you know what that tells me is how uneducated or uninformed people are, our president particularly, and how he's sharing these stats, this information, it's coming out of his ass. I apologize for my language, but I'm sitting here and I'm listening to him like, where does he come up with these numbers, man? Again, there's so many people outside of our city, they probably believe that, who are misinformed. As a result of that, policies are created. Anyways, don't want to go on a tangent there.
I'm at this CNBC thing. I was instructed that I would probably have a minute or two to say something. I was like, "Okay, great." At the end I don't get the chance to say anything, but here were my observations: who were the people that were being interviewed, at least the ones that were prepared? My hypothesis is that many of them had strong relations with the mayor's office. I think to myself, violence is not just an African-American issue, it's a Hispanic issue, so I was kind of hoping to speak on that part, again, given what the president just mentioned. Also how things are framed. That is what I hope I could contribute to today's discourse or conversation about how we write these stories and are we being inclusive in terms of how we share these stories? Are we also providing some alternatives to resolving some of these issues? Are we giving people from the community a voice as well? Are we giving the people who are the closest to the problem a voice, the victims and the people who are doing the work? Because again, our current president feels and believes that there's nobody in Chicago who's actually doing anything about it, and I would strongly argue against that. That's the one good thing that the CNBC story actually did, that it brought all these great people together to have this conversation.
BS: Let me take advantage of the fact that you both have long memories. Think back to your own lives growing up in Chicago neighborhoods and when you were teenagers, think about guns, who had them, where they got them, how they were used, how they were talked about by your peers. What is different now? What is the same? When you put it in that frame, how does today's situation look? Ellis, do you want to ...
EC: Sure, I guess I'll start. For one thing, I mean, I'm a bit older than Eddie. The point where I came up, there was a lot of violence, but there weren't as many guns. There weren't nearly as many guns as there are now. At one point I had buddies who carried brass knuckles, I had buddies who carried some of everything. Only occasionally did I have a buddy who carried a gun. It was just not a thing. It later became a much bigger thing. I think I was quite fortunate to come along in the era when it wasn't a big thing.
My first experience with gun violence was when I was three or four years old and someone shot a bullet through the front door of the apartment I was then living in, and it damaged the refrigerator. So I was certainly aware of guns, was aware that people had them, but I think that what happened subsequently was that a lot of people started arming themselves, particularly gangs, but a lot of people started arming themselves. We went, in terms of at least the communities that I come up in, from being a sort of violent culture to being a violent gun culture, and that made a huge difference.
BS: When do you think that happened from your perspective, Ellis? When would've been the key swing?
EC: I think a lot of it coincided with the upswing in crack and with the early and mid-80s.
EB: On my end to give you a little bit of color and context, I was about 13 years old or so when I was walking towards a local park called Piotrowski Park. Up to that point my exposure to violence was actually domestic violence at home. Then my second exposure to violence was in school. 4:30 in the afternoon as I was walking towards the park, I'm crossing this imaginary borderline called Lawndale. Lawndale Avenue divides two major factions, gangs that historically have been fighting each other since the mid-70s or so. I saw this young man being shot. This young man was probably between 16 and 19, and he died. I saw who shot him. I didn't see his face, but I saw who shot him. It was just a few yards away from me.
The following year or so I got involved in a street gang. Ironically, there are two reasons why I got involved. One was identity. If you think about identity formation around that time, I was trying to really figure out who am I, what's my calling in this world. I would see TV sitcoms like Seventh Heaven and The Cosby Show, and I would always ask myself, why isn't my family like them? Why isn't our home as big as that home? Why is it that I don't see them struggling with getting their lights cut off or having to eat almost every other night noodles and chicken?
I started asking these questions about myself, and then I also started realizing who my neighbors really were and what kind of professions they actually had. They were landscapers. They were working in factories and restaurants and hotels. I got involved in a street gang the following year. The second reason was because of safety; believe it or not, the irony, safety. I was the oldest of five, and I wanted to protect my siblings. The gangs provide you a voice. They provide you place. They provide you autonomy. I felt that as a gang member I had a voice in my own community, and therefore I could protect my brothers and sisters and my parents’ property.
When I was 19, I was in Menard Correctional Center already sentenced to 29 years, and I met the guy who actually killed this young man just years prior. There's a lot of ways that we could deconstruct this story, but here's the thing that when I caught my case was in the early 1990s. It was in '94 when Chicago was seeing homicides of up to 1,000. I grew up during an era where yes, 750-plus homicides we had last year is unacceptable, but I also grew up in an era where we were still seeing much more shootings and homicides back then, and guns were still accessible.
What I've learned today with our kids is that it seems like guns are even more accessible now. They're often being used as trade. There were amazing reports and some stats that were given just a little while ago, but something hasn't changed, and that is safety. If you look at Elijah Anderson, who's a sociologist at Yale University, he wrote a book called “Code of the Streets,” and one of the things he points out is that we all have some form of social capital. We have people. We have family that are in professions, blue collar professions, but young people from these neighborhoods – and it's very centralized in many ways in terms of where these shootings and homicides are taking place – their social capital, or their capital, as Elijah Anderson points out, is reputation.
Nowadays social media contributes a lot to it. It's much faster to react to something. Somebody makes a Facebook post, and they're disrespecting or dissing somebody. Then their peers who are friends on Facebook are now kind of taunting and saying like, so what are you going to do about this? Now your identity, your manhood or womanhood is being questioned. That's one way. There's a lot of research that a professor at Columbia University, Desmond Patton, has actually been studying, what does that really mean; how does social media actually lead or is a driver or tool with regards to violence.
EC: I'm glad you mentioned Elijah Anderson, who happens to be a friend of mine. I think his work is very important because what he emphasizes, among other things, is the importance of respect in neighborhood culture. A lot of this gun violence that we're seeing, perhaps most of it, comes out of demanding respect. The question really becomes, how do young people in these areas get to a place where they feel respected?
BS: That's central. Eddie, in your work in the community first as an interrupter and now, you think a lot about alternative pathways to the gun for someone seeking respect. How do you think about that one?
EB: We as a country tend to be more sympathetic to certain marginalized groups than others. I'll give you two examples of what we do at the Y, and I'll try to be as brief as possible. One example is the Urban Warriors program that brings together post-9/11 veterans, particularly those who have been exposed to combat, and we bring them together with those we identify to be the highest risk youth in our program.
Any kid in my program has chronic exposure to violence, so this is not an after school program. These are kids that typically are on probation, gang-involved, who lost someone in their family to violence or themselves have been a victim or perpetrator of violence. The most important part is that they've all been exposed to chronic violence, and that's the narrative. It's like, forget about the gang membership stuff, because too often we put people in buckets. The idea with Urban Warriors is that we spend billions of dollars training our veterans. We have to also think about creative ways to support veterans when they come back home because for many of them, as we learned through our program, the mission continues. They want to continue to serve their country, so they're trying to find meaningful ways to do so. For other veterans it's about career paths. Then you have another group of veterans that being able to do this has been very cathartic for them in terms of what they've gone through, what they've done overseas. There's a lot of language to illustrate that as well.
Bringing them together for 16 sessions to explore topics such as identity and manhood and womanhood, and for the first time we actually have a woman's Urban Warriors program now as well that we kicked off this past fall. We explore these topics to better understand the symptoms of trauma. Because we have a done a better job of understanding PTSD with our vets, and while we still have a long way to go to support our veterans, and I say this as a person who has three siblings who served in the armed forces. My two brothers were deployed in 2003 when the war in Iraq first started.
How do we leverage that, that empathy and sympathy that our country tends to have towards veterans, and excluding the war, because we all have different opinions about that, but veterans themselves. How do we leverage that, that information, that research that we have around PTSD, and connect it with our kids. Because the truth is that many of our kids have one or more symptoms of PTSD, but we don't call it post-traumatic stress disorder, and first of all, because there's no such thing as post. It's ongoing for them because it's in their neighborhood, it’s at home, it’s in school. How do we do a better job to also amplify that story, the need to better understand that? That's one thing.
The second program is called Story Squad. Our kids came up with these names. With Story Squad, the idea is that kids want a place to belong. They want to be a part of a crew or a gang or whatever, so Urban Warriors gives an identity, Story Squad gives that identity. The beauty, and I'm sure many of you will relate to this story, is that Story Squad is an audio production program that we do coupled with narrative therapy. The kids don't even know that. They don't know this is therapeutic for them.
We teach them a trade, we teach them a skill, very basic, how to record a story, how to write your story, how to record it. The beauty about this is that we are empowering them as the experts of their community, and these stories are their voices. They edit them. They create these narratives, not someone else. Therefore, they have autonomy around this. Then we explore these conversations about traumatic experiences that they've had with the idea to process what they've also gone through. At the end -- 16 sessions later -- we have a community event where they're able to showcase these stories. They're empowered, and now the civic engagement begins. Because that is the other thing that we don't talk about, how these marginalized groups and community, how do we provide opportunities or empower them to be civic-engaged in these topics. Because you could incarcerate all the people from a community like Austin or Englewood, but you do a disservice by leaving a void, and so how do you empower these communities as well.
BS: It strikes me that there's a natural journalism link to that kind of work too. It makes me think immediately there may be some parallel projects that people could get going. Ellis, let me ask you one thing, and then we can go to the room, and you too, Eddie, if you have thoughts on this. We've been talking for the last 24 hours about gun violence and the impact of guns in the community. The law enforcement piece of this is complicated because on the one hand people want law enforcement to keep shooters away from them and to get guns off the street, and on the other hand there isn't trust in law enforcement because of violence and abuse, particularly in this city, but in Milwaukee, in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, in other communities that are represented in this room it's the same story. We've spent the last year looking at videos of horrific police shootings and abuse, and at the same time we're discussing, Eddie, your word, safety. We're trying to figure out what is a safe city, a safe neighborhood, a safe society. How are you thinking about that with all of the complications of race and policing and the presence of guns and everything else?
EC: No, I mean, it's very, very complicated. I led a discussion maybe three or four months ago at the NYPD with a group of Latino so-called thought leaders. One of the fellows who was participating made the point very vividly. He said, "You know, when I call a cop, I don't want a social worker. When I call a cop, I want somebody who's going to protect me. I don't want somebody, you know ... "
I think that for policemen it's a very difficult time because they have to figure out how to perform their job as protectors and guardians but also how not to alienate the community and not to alienate people when they do what they do. I don't de-emphasize the importance of that, and I think what we all need to recognize is that this is not just a police matter. If you look at virtually any cop shooting where they've shot somebody wrongly, which is to say somebody who didn't have a weapon or whatnot, and particularly when they're shooting people of color, the cop of course has to defend themself by saying that he or she felt that their life was in danger. If you go beyond that, if you're talking about Rodney King or if you're talking about Michael Brown in Ferguson, the image that they come up with is there was this hulking black giant of superhuman strength, and I shot him once and that wasn't enough. He kept coming, and I had to shoot him twice and he kept coming. You get this idea, this Mandingo idea straight out of American history. The point being that the attitudes that cops have mirror the attitudes that the society has, and to the extent we have all of these stereotypes floating around in society, to the extent we have this deep segregation and division in society, cops are going to act out of that. It doesn't really matter that much whether the cop is a person of color, they're also going to act out of that.
It's very complicated. I think that the way you begin to think about it is probably what the NYPD has done reasonably well in the last, I would say, four to five years, which is to say okay, I mean, they do have a three-day training where they retrain everybody. I don't think you can really change people that much in three days, but okay, take them for three days and make them more sensitive or whatever the heck they're doing with them.
I think what you can do is you can change procedures. Now if there is a police shooting, there is an incident report and there's a whole set of policies that get followed and that get looked at. Whether somebody was fatally shot or not, when there is police violence, again, there's a report that has to be filled out. They even get hassled about it. It's very difficult to get someone indicted and even harder to get someone convicted, but there is a process now. I think when you look at those numbers, with a 90% drop over the last 40 years in the number of civilians who are getting shot by cops, at least part of it has to do not with changing their minds and hearts but with changing police procedures. I think that's something that clearly is a big part of this thing.
The other thing I just want to say, because not that it's necessarily responsive to your question, but it is responsive to sort of-
BS: You just want to say it.
EC: I just want to say it. The other thing is that I think there was this moment, and I think it may have passed now. There was this moment where there was a reasonable expectation that nationally we would begin to put into place some rational criminal justice policies. I think that moment has probably passed because we have the idiot in the White House who doesn't understand the relationship between actions and reactions and who wants to drag us back to all the failed policies of the 1970s and moving forward. I think journalistically, though, that creates an opportunity. It creates an opportunity to look at countervailing narratives, to look at things that are happening, which basically refute a lot of received wisdom about being tough on crime.
One thing that I think is very interesting is that intelligent policing organizations, and I'll say it that way as opposed to just police departments because I'm talking about prisons as well, they've recognized something very important. I think this is a story that really has not been told enough. What they have recognized is that their job becomes a lot easier if they try to deescalate situations as opposed to escalate them. I think what often happens is we have a clash of cultures. Police culture is about escalation usually. It's about you fuck with me, I'm going to fuck you up. The community culture is often the same thing. Those feed on one another, and you get these violent episodes. Somebody has to start deescalating. I was in Germany a year ago looking at prisons there. The head of the prison system and I were talking. He said, "What we do is we train our people to deescalate." They've started doing that in Rikers Island in New York, and I think that's a big thing.
BS: For those who are from other towns other than this, I mean, here Eddie and others are doing deescalation through Cure Violence and through your program and others in many ways; it might be interesting to look at deescalation in other communities in the region, or indeed if it's not happening, why not? Actually, Eddie, from your experience, what are the markers of an effective deescalation strategy? I don't want to say program because sometimes it's a program, sometimes it's an ethic. If reporters are looking and trying to decide if whatever it is their police department or their social work agency or their community has going is effective, what should we be looking at?
EB: That's a very difficult question to answer, to be quite honest. I'll give you my two cents around that. Actually, before I answer that question, there's just one comment that I want to make before it escapes me. For several years at the Y, maybe about three years already, we've been doing this program called Bridging the Divide. The idea is to bring law enforcement and young people in our programs who have had negative experiences with police and bringing them together. A very short synopsis of it is pretty much this, how do we humanize each other?
What we've learned is that when you create intentional space, safe space, and you level the playing field that the police are not the authority but they're just as equal as those youth, then you could have these robust conversations about each other's experience, about how police, why they react a certain way towards young people, the idea of them wanting to come home every single day to their families. We realized that it's no different with a lot of our kids. Whether our kids are in gangs or not, they also want to come home. They also want to live. They are able to express their challenges or their mistrust of police as well based on some experiences that they have felt, have seen. You would think given what I disclosed earlier with my time in prison and as a kid I didn't always have the best experiences with law enforcement, and there's so many stories that I could share around that, but here's the truth – when I was a kid and there was domestic violence in my home, who do you think I would call? The police. I think sometimes the police find themselves in a very precarious situation because they're there to enforce the law, but often our communities, particularly communities who are marginalized, communities of color, communities that they're just like ravished with lack of economic opportunity, we expect law enforcement to play another role, to be the social worker in some cases.
There might be some exceptions. I would say that too, because a lot of people don't want to get law enforcement involved when things happen. Then you have others that are like, why get the law enforcement involved when we could just try to resolve this ourselves. There's this whole movement right now that we're seeing more and more around the restorative justice approach to things, about being able to mediate some of these conflicts internally within the community context using the churches and other institutions to be able to do so.
I guess to your original question with regards to deescalation, I'm curious, how many of us have kids in this room? About half. I have four little girls under the age of four, and there are moments that I want to choke them. Because they wake me up crying, and I'm like, they'll be quiet. I'm going to just like wait it out. Two, three minutes, they'll just shut up. Twenty minutes later they're still crying. I'm exaggerating, not 20 minutes. I'll get up after five minutes. I'll go to their room, and I'm like, damn it, I'm so tired. My immediate reaction is like, hey, shut up, I need to go to sleep. When my four-year-old is having tantrums because she's Missus Little Diva in the store, I'm like, "What the hell, you're making me look bad right now," but there's so much research that shows that spanking your child does not produce positive outcomes, on the contrary. There's research that shows that, so why not leverage that on my end. I've learned that if I want to deescalate things with my kids, it's like I have to ground myself. I have to sometimes go on the floor where they're at as well, and just say, "Mama, you know, it's okay. I'm sorry, you know, you can't do this right now." It might take five or 10 minutes, but slowly it's deescalated.
The same is done with our kids in our program, and the same is done when we have family feuds as well. It's about how do we approach this in a very humble manner. Put your pride, put that in your backyard and bury that. I tell my staff that because there are things that are going to re-trigger some things for you. There's some times when you're going to want to choke one of our kids because they disrespect you or disrespect another person or because you've just been pouring into them and nothing's happening, but it's about being patient. It's about recognizing their traumas. It's about recognizing that not every kid and every person is as resilient as you and that sometimes common sense for one person isn't common sense for the other.
With that in mind, it's like if a person understands that and could really understand that concept, then deescalation is more likely to occur. You could think about different strategies based on different situations that take place. Of course a longer conversation, but that's my two cents.
BS: Let's go to the room.
Audience: Thank you guys both. This has been great. I wanted to ask you about the role of the criminal justice system as a whole, not just law enforcement but the courts and jails and prisons. Because I think that there's this narrative, especially here in Chicago the police and the mayor are often saying we need longer sentences for people arrested with guns. I see you laughing already. As someone who's been in that system, I would love your thoughts on that in particular, and if that's not the solution, is there a role for the courts and the criminal justice system to play in stopping gun violence?
EB: Sure. I'm going to be really quick with my answer because I want to give others a chance to also maybe answer that too. I laugh because it's not true, man. There's so much research out there. Harvard has done research. The University of Atlanta has done research around this. There's not conclusive evidence to actually demonstrate that, first of all. Chicago does have some of the toughest, if not the toughest, gun policies in the United States. I don't see that being a deterrent, first of all.
Even if it was true, last year, and I'm going to quote Alex Kotlowitz in a story that he did a few months ago, right now it's a little bit over 25% of homicides have been solved. A little bit over 10% of shootings out of the 4,000-plus shootings were solved. What does that really tell you? What it tells me is that, well shoot, of the shootings, 10% of the people were caught. That's only 10% of the people going to prison ideally, but you still have 90% of the people out there driving most of the violence.
According to CPD, it seems like there's a list of 4,000 people they believe are the ones that are in the midst of all that. I would say, why not focus your resources and your money on those 4,000 people and deter that as opposed to hiring another 1,000 officers into these communities. Maybe you could do both. I don't know. I'm just saying, to me that's one thing. The second thing I would say, so my wife, Catherine, she's getting her PhD at the University of Chicago right now. What she is studying is this, and I think it's very fascinating, is that in the past few years when you think about Michelle Alexander and so many other advocates like Bryan Stevenson, who wrote “Just Mercy”, there's this push around de-incarceration in our justice system. We are seeing a reduction of people going to prison, but you know what we're also seeing is an increase of people on probation. To me that's kind of intuitive. I believe that we should continue to study and explore what that really looks like five, 10 years from now when we have people who are going to continue to have felony convictions. Yes, we might reduce, and still I believe we have about 44, 45,000 people who are incarcerated right now in Department of Corrections, about 8,000 in Cook County Jail, but we have over 150,000 people currently on probation. I think it's something for us to think about as well.
BS: Ellis, I believe your views were solicited.
EC: Sure. We were warned earlier about making cross-cultural comparisons. Those can only go so far, but let me just say this. I was in Norway two months ago spending time in their prisons and talking to their prison officials. One thing that has become basically government policy now is that they accept the reality that their job is to prepare people to reenter society. Everything they do has to be aimed at that objective. As they see it, the purpose of prison is not to punish them further. The very fact that they are in prison is punishment. The job of prison is prepare them for society.
Norwegian prisons are nothing like prisons here in the United States. They're much nicer. They also, though, they offer opportunities that typically you don't find that often here. They even had a recording studio. They've got a recording studio in one that I visited, and you had guys making albums that they were planning to release. It's a very different philosophy, but their recidivism rate is much lower than our rate. I don't believe that people who are killing people ought to be allowed to kill people. That's just common sense, and you've got to do something with them. If you want to put them in prison, sure, put them in prison, but make that time useful. Don't make them worse, try to make them better. That to me, again, is just common sense. I think that we have examples of societies that are trying that, and it seems to be working a hell of a lot better than what we're doing.
Audience: Again, thank you both for being here for this conversation. I think it's really been very productive and instructive for us. I had a question for Eddie too. I was picturing 13-year-old you witnessing that shooting, and I think a lot about the toll of the crime/violence that young people live under too. I'm also wondering about not just for children but people who are born with and continue to be in adulthood under that and what the toll of that is over people's lives.
I'm assuming that you're not still in the same neighborhood that you grew up in, but obviously you're working with young people, know their families and are seeing the families that are living with this kind of violence. What is it that we are not reporting about that to really compel people who are not living under those conditions to pay attention and to care about that?
EB: I think it's an excellent question, and this is what I try to advocate the most. I give the example of Urban Warriors because to me it's providing a service for a kid and a veteran ideally, but it's about reshaping the narrative for our kids. To your question, violence does not operate in a vacuum. It doesn't operate in isolation. It has a ripple effect. It has a long-term ripple effect not only for the individual and the victim but families and the community as well. What's the cost of that, I would say. We spend so much money in the justice system to incarcerate and punish people, but we don't invest in the rehabilitation, as Ellis pointed out, and finding opportunities.
Within my work, my experience coupled by my education has allowed me to enter violence with an approach that it's not the silver bullet, but I think violence is very complex. We talk about guns. We talk about trauma. We talk about employment and so on and so on and so many things, so many layers that go into it. My approach based on my experience has been how do we work with young people who've been victims and perpetrators of violence to understand their story, their narrative. Where did it start, in other words. Where did perpetration begin?
Because ICJIA, and it's I-C-J-I-A, a branch of the state of Illinois, they've done research recently that they looked at about 600-plus inmates, and what they saw was that there really isn't a difference between victims of violence and perpetrators. They're often the same people, and we keep putting them in different buckets. When we see the Frontline news about a 15-year-old kid who shot another young person, first of all, we say thugs or a gang member or reported gang member. It's like right away there are these negative kind of comments about this kid. It's not to excuse the behavior, but I wonder, what does it look like to understand why this 15-year-old kid did this. What was his or her story? What was that story? That, I think, is often the story that is not being told.
EC: That was also the problem with labeling people child predators. We demonized them as opposed to understood why they were where they are.
BS: This leads me to ask the two of you to play a game, and the game is editor for a day. If you're editor for a day and you've got reporters in this room from Minneapolis, from Milwaukee, from Joliet, from Pittsburgh, many other communities, and you could assign them to do one story, one investigation, one series connected to everything we're talking about, reducing lethal outcomes, which was the title of this panel, but everything we're talking about, there's one story that you would like to see done at that local and regional level, whether it's in Chicago or other places, what would it be, Ellis?
EC: What I find fascinating actually, I mean, partly probably because I've been talking to a lot of people lately about Rikers Island in New York, which is not a prison, it's a jail, and most people are there for a fairly short term, but a lot of folks who I've been talking with talk about what their experience of going into Rikers was like and how it changed them. I think it'd be fascinating to have some reporter follow a lot of young people who have not been in jail before going through going to jail for the first time, what they're exposed to, how it changes their perspective on their life and what they see, and how the fact that they've been there affects their life going forward. I think if I had to assign one story, it would probably be that.
EB: I'm not an editor. I have no idea about how media works, but if I had the power to be able to do that, what I would encourage is to look at someone who's in prison who's maybe to be released in six months or a year, someone who's maybe done several years, maybe four or five years or an extensive period of time, and think about their story, about what led them there, but focus on the challenges that person's going to have upon release. For example, what are the dynamics at home; if there is a home, who's going to receive them?
Audience: What if they haven't got a home?
EB: Yes. What are they coming home to? Because in many cases even with our kids, when we are doing court advocacy and the judge says, "Okay, we're going to release you today or tomorrow," whatever the case is, sometimes the parent is like, "I don't want this little bastard with me because he's the reason why my other kids are jacked up." This is a kid we're talking about.
Imagine the adults when you have someone who did, say, 10 years, gets released from prison. They're going to be paroling at their sister's house because their mom might've passed away while they were locked up. Their sister's barely making ends meet and has about four or five kids herself, single parent. Now you're pretty much forced to feed another person, so it's a burden, exactly. What's the story there in terms of like what is the likelihood of this person going back to prison; what are the systems that are in place that are preventing this person from having an opportunity, and what kind of support system does this person have? Does he have a mentor?
In my case, I feel extremely blessed to be where I'm at, but I had family support, first and foremost. Secondly, I had really good friends to help me through this journey. I continue to struggle with my own traumas. I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night with nightmares and I'm crying. Things that I felt, I suppressed and I forgot, and they come up. My wife, luckily she's a therapist, so I'm able to talk to her about some of these things, but I think about the opportunities that I've had versus those who I see coming home and not having not even remotely the same kind of opportunities that I've had.
I think there's a story there because these individuals are coming home sometimes to the same communities and these communities continue to be grappling with the same things. Austin, Englewood, I mean, that shit, it's been 40, 50 years, 60 years since this stuff ... It's historical context. I apologize for not being able to articulate this much further, but I just feel that there's a story there that's not being told in a way that could educate and inform others about these issues. That would be my two cents.
BS: That, I think, is as good a place as any to end. Thank you both.