For the past several years Chicago police have repeated the phrase “guns, drugs, gangs” like a mantra. The phrase reflects the philosophy of numerous law enforcement officials, including Chicago Police Superintendent Phil Cline. Cline insists every chance he gets that the biggest threat to public peace and safety is the triumvirate of street gangs, the drugs they sell, and the guns that allow them to control their turf and terrorize neighborhoods.

In recent years police have begun attacking that malignant trio with a combination of tactics, including focused investigations and prosecutions of street corner drug operations, and the utilization of federal prosecution of gang members caught using firearms. Statistics back up that contention, as more than 80 percent of the city’s murders are committed with guns.

A key program in that effort, the federal anti-gun program Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), was initiated in 2002 in Austin’s 15th District and the 11th District Harrison area just south of the Eisenhower Expressway. PSN is a partnership between various federal and local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and parole and probation officials to reduce handgun violence.

The evidence indicates that it’s working. In the intervening 3-year period, the two districts have seen a significantly steeper decline in homicides and other violent crime than any other police district in the city of Chicago. When PSN began in May, 2002, they say, there were 85 murders per 100,000 residents in the 11th District, and 62 murders per 100,000 in the 15th. Since then, the 11th District rate fell by two-thirds, to 30, and the 15th District by more than half, to 29 per 100,000.

Last week, a group of city, state and federal officials that included Mayor Daley, U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald, Supt. Cline, and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine announced the expansion of Project Safe Neighborhoods. Widely hailed as a genuinely effective approach to dealing with gang violence that has plagued inner city neighborhoods for decades now, the program has now expanded to a fifth Chicago police district, the 10th, or Marquette, on the near southwest side.

The program uses both a “kids’ glove” and an “iron fist.” As part of the overall program, officials will also bring a kids’ handgun awareness program called “Hands Without Guns” to the 10th District. The program partners with Chicago Public Schools, Uhlich Children’s Homes and the Schwab Rehabilitation Center to provide an 8-week program for junior high school and high school students to dissuade them from possessing handguns. The program also provides for a modified “Hands Without Guns” program to be presented to first-time juvenile offenders and those on parole.

The program also addresses more hardened criminals. Twice a month some 30 individuals with prior gun convictions being paroled from state prisons are required to meet with representatives of both law enforcement and the local community.

The message, according to Fitzgerald, is blunt.

“Our message is simple,” said Fitzgerald. “If you pick up a gun, you are facing serious federal prison time.” That prison time, he said, will be long, and, unlike state prison time, often served in prisons far from Chicago.

According to the federal government, that message may be getting through. A study by university researchers Andrew Papachristos and Tracey Meares of the Center for Crime, Community and Law at the Columbia University Law School indicates that parolees who attend such forums are far less likely to commit new gun crime than parolees who do not attend the forums. Of more than 700 parolees who attended a forum in the 11th and 15th districts, they say, only seven?”less than one percent?”were later convicted of a gun crime.

The Project Safe Neighborhood partners say they are also inviting businesses to help out with their efforts. Individuals or companies willing and able to provide employment opportunities for ex-offenders are encouraged to contact Donna Gerber at the Safer Foundation, 312/913-5440, or e-mail donna.gerber