During the weekend of April 11-13, 36 people were shot in the city of Chicago with nine of them dead. That grim tally, along with the number of youth killed this school year, has struck a nerve in communities such as Austin-and people are scared.
In response to the shootings and deaths, the Chicago Police Department has announced that it will deploy more SWAT teams on the street.
But what the police see as an effective way to keep people safe, community members feel it could increase harassment of innocent people.
“Sending SWAT teams into the community is doing nothing but suppressing the community,” said Tio Hardiman, director of gang mediation services for violence-prevention group CeaseFire. “Police are doing the best they can, but all sides need to be active.”
Alphonso Prater, who works for CeaseFire, put it more bluntly: “SWAT is for what? To hit people.”
Chicago police spokesperson Antoinette Ursitti explained that the SWAT deployment will give people a visual reminder that police are working to stop the violence.
“The response is only a statement of our continued commitment to keeping the streets safe,” she said. “There’s going to be additional members deployed throughout the city, and that visual presence will communicate a message.”
But some residents don’t see it that way. They counter that the SWAT deployment underscores a fundamental rift between the police and the communities they serve.
The police assess their success largely with numbers and the tracking of arrests and murder rates.
But citizens focus on much different numbers, community activists point out, such as how many of their neighbors have been shot or have died, as well as and how many innocent people are hassled by police.
“What black man hasn’t been harassed by the police?” said Mike Smith, 35, of North Lawndale. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that.”
The SWAT deployment could help prevent killings, Smith admits, but only if those units leave non-offenders alone and get to know the residents they’re serving.
Others don’t see that happening.
“There will be even more damage [with SWAT deployment] because the police out here are doing what they want to do,” said Jackie Walkie, also of North Lawndale. “People will be sitting on the front porch of their house, talking with their family, and they [police] just get out and bash you.”
The perception of police is especially negative among younger residents.
“When the police come, kids see danger,” said Richard Wilkens, a CeaseFire volunteer.
According to Wilkens, stopping the violence requires a commitment to building relationships with community youth. Young people, he said, must learn to trust police enough to call them when problems arise.
CeaseFire recently announced hosting a series of late-night anti-violence rallies and pledged itself to continue mediating against violence.
“Homicide is the easiest crime,” said Hardiman. “It only takes five or six seconds to blow someone’s brains out. When you see 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds being shot like this, they’re calling for attention. There needs to be a healing process.”