By The Editorial Board Chicago Tribune

So many times after a young life is felled by a bullet, Chicago weeps and agonizes — and then returns to the slumber of inaction.

Will the deaths of two 15-year-old Simeon Career Academy High School students, gunned down Tuesday within a span of four hours, finally rouse this violence-numbed city into tackling the scourge of gun crime? Can we find, at this desperate hour, the collective resolve?ADVERTISING

Jamari Williams was standing outside a bank at a strip mall in the South Side’s West Chatham neighborhood when two people fired at him, then stood over him and continued firing bullets into his body, the Tribune reported Wednesday. Kentrell McNeal was in a car in the Hyde Park neighborhood when gunmen fired at the vehicle, shooting Kentrell in the head. A 14-year-old boy in the car was also shot and wounded.

Kentrell belonged to an anti-violence group and was “a role model to the other boys,” said the group’s director. Jamari dreamed of playing football and “really planned on that leading to bigger and better things,” said the Rev. Donovan Price, a community activist who accompanied Jamari’s family to the hospital. “Dreams, you know, that kids have.”

There are two lenses with which to view these horrible, senseless killings — first, through the prevalence of guns in the hands of young men who kill, and second, through the lives and actions of the shooters themselves.

In a two-part series this week, the Tribune showed how guns that make their way across state lines become the means to destroy lives and escalate the ceaseless toll of street violence that ravages Chicago day after day. Reporters Jeremy Gorner, Annie Sweeney and Rosemary Sobol examined how guns stolen during a break-in at a firearms shop in northern Wisconsin ended up in Chicago, and were traced to at least 35 shootings, three of them homicides. One of the firearms, a 9 mm Glock handgun, was linked to 27 shootings. That number of violent acts flowing from just one weapon beggars all belief.

Clamping down on the stream of guns coming into the city from other states, whether through gun thefts or straw purchases, must become a top priority for Chicago and other major American cities besieged by gun violence. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has sounded that alarm repeatedly, and in announcing his approach to combat gun crime in June, President Joe Biden committed to launching strike forces to help shut down trafficking corridors that feed illegal guns into Chicago and other large U.S. cities. Still, government at every level cannot let up. Cutting off the supply of guns into the city is crucial to turning back the tide of gun violence.

If choking off the supply of illegal guns is vital, so is eroding demand for those guns. That is arguably even trickier, given the environment youth on the South and West sides grow up in — a streetscape defined by joblessness, marginalization, disinvestment and hopelessness. The young men prone to gun violence in Roseland, Austin, Englewood, Little Village and so many other crime-ridden neighborhoods need a lifeline, a true path out of the world of gangs and retaliatory drive-bys that, to them, demarcates the boundaries of everyday life.

We have said in the past that these young men need connection with interveners they can trust, who know what they’ve been through and how they think. Chicago’s street outreach movement has notched measurable success in making those connections, and in chipping away at the rising tide of gun violence. It works because the outreach workers who hit the streets and speak with young men at risk have been there themselves. They succumbed to gang culture earlier in their lives. At times, they’ve been perpetrators of violence.

There’s more to street outreach than just former gang members lending an ear. The programs mentor and counsel, and often offer a path to a job, a high school diploma the young men never acquired, or both. It’s clear that the programs work. Research on one outreach group, READI Chicago, showed that young men who join the program have 79% fewer arrests for shootings and homicides compared with a randomized control group with similar backgrounds who did not enroll in READI. A study on another program, Chicago CRED, looked at what happened with participants 18 months after they joined, and found a 50% drop in fatal and nonfatal gunshot injuries among those men, and a 48% drop in arrests for violent crimes.

What’s holding back street outreach from making an even larger dent in gun violence? Scale. The programs need to get much bigger, and require a far heftier investment from City Hall than what these programs are getting. Most of the funding for Chicago street outreach programs comes from private, not public sources. That must change. Now.

Earlier this week, the Tribune Editorial Board spoke with Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s former education secretary and a co-founder of the street outreach group Chicago CRED, Eddie Bocanegra, who heads up READI Chicago, and researchers who study street outreach. The message from Duncan and others? Several years of data on street outreach in Chicago cements its value as a proven, needed component in the city’s anti-violence strategy. It’s time to dramatically ramp up the breadth and reach of these programs, and time for Lightfoot and City Hall to back up street outreach with the public investment it needs.

“I think we don’t take this seriously as a city,” Duncan told us. “Our communities are literal war zones. We haven’t devoted the resources, we haven’t been honest enough. We haven’t declared a war on this, a war on the war. … This has to be built into the DNA of what we do.”

We wholeheartedly agree. Street outreach must become integral to the city’s anti-violence approach. And City Hall must put up the money to make it happen. But by no means is it the end-all solution. Entrenched violence on the scale Chicago grapples with requires an all-out, multi-front approach. Duncan and his colleagues emphasized the crucial role that police officers must play in these embattled communities, and the current determination of many dedicated officers to be part of a solution, not a manifestation of the problem.

That means the city must do a better job implementing police reforms mandated by the federal consent decree, reforms aimed at forging stronger, lasting trust between police and communities, especially Black and Latino neighborhoods. Mental health services that have been lacking in those communities for so long need to be restored — and broadened. Strategies to return jobs and investment to the South and West sides need to become more than just blueprints. They need to be realized.

And at every government level — federal, state and city — law enforcement must double efforts to interdict the stream of guns flowing from Wisconsin, Indiana and other states and into the hands of young men ready to settle a grievance, a perceived slight, with a bullet.

Street outreach, which aims to curb the desperate, self-destructive folly of seeking violent revenge, deserves a much more robust place in the city’s mission to reverse the toll of violence that has defined life in many Chicago neighborhoods for far too long. It shouldn’t take another slaying of a young teen or a child caught in gang crossfire to make that happen.

Original article: chicagotribune.com

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