Reporter's Notebook: Chicago gang database intends to predict and prevent further violence

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Traveling with Chicago police in the gang-infested 7th District, we didn’t have to wait long before an alert came over the radio: “There’s a guy lying in the middle of the street, looks like he’s been shot.”

By the time we arrived on Hermitage St., he was on the sidewalk. Bullets had gone through both ankles and shattered the bones. The wounds looked terribly painful as the young man on the ground groaned and squeezed his shaking hand into a fist.

He is one in a neverending line of people shot on Chicago’s South and West sides. This weekend alone, four people were killed and another 17 shot. For the year, more than 1,200 people have been shot in gang-related turf wars, drug disputes, matters of pride and vendettas. Homicides in Chicago are up 39 percent compared to New York City, where murders are down 17 percent.

The problem would be bad enough if it was limited to gang members killing each other, but it isn’t. With complete disregard for human life, gang members spray bullets in the general direction of the person they intend to kill. Heaven Sutton, just 7 years old, was selling candy in front of her house when she was caught by a stray bullet. That got the attention of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Stay away from the kids,” he scolded no one in particular at a press conference. “Near a child, how dare you!”

The difficulty is mapping a strategy to combat people who don’t seem to have anything more important in their lives than the neverending series of vendettas. The mayor announced a new initiative to close liquor stores and abandoned buildings where gang members and drug dealers hang out. "We refuse to give those gangs a refuge. That liquor store is not a refuge. That abandoned building is not a refuge," said Emanuel.

That only scratches the surface of the gang issues in a city with 625 street gangs and factions of street gangs that often conflict with each other. There are 223 known ongoing disputes that can range from matters of pride to drug deals and turf battles, but the dominant motivator for the shootings is revenge. One shooting sets the next shooting in motion.

In an attempt to predict the next violent act, Chicago police are turning to technology. They have established a database that includes information on more than 100,000 known gang members. Even the lowest members of the gangs are entered as soon as police become aware of them. Their arrest records and affiliations are all entered and cross-referenced and available to the cop on the street. This is the kind of information a good beat cop would keep in his head; now it's available to every cop on every beat. Sgt. Tom Ryan is in the gang unit on the South Side. “This is just a great way that we can look at all the information gathered because it is hard for the detectives to talk to all the different units. This is a good way of filtering down data through the departments to each other.

Probably of greatest use to the officers, when a guy gets shot, police see who his buddies are. "We can make predictions about where retaliations might be likely to happen,” says Commander Jonathan Lewin.

Applying this to the shooting on Hermitage St., there are bullet casings on the ground from two different caliber weapons. That tells you there were two guns, likely a shootout on the street. (There is no weapon on the scene. Police suspect the victim’s gun was snatched up before they arrived on scene.) The guy lying on the sidewalk is a member of the Mickey Cobras street gang. Therefore, he has a group of buddies who are now compelled to go get even with the rival gunman.

The victim’s name gets entered into the computer and the names of his friends, family, and anyone with whom he has been arrested all pop up. “If they are gang-related, it’s going to pop. If they’ve ever been arrested or associated with gangs, we’re going to have that information now,” aays Commander Leo Schmitz of the 7th District. “If we think there is going to be retaliation, that’s when we are going to make our move.”