Chicago police during National Night Out in Austin in 2015. | File

During a meeting for the Chicago City Council’s Public Safety and Health committees held May 4, city officials and community leaders brainstormed ways to prevent a surge of violence this summer. 

The city is touting job and recreational opportunities for the young people and the Chicago Police Department is focusing on more community outreach opportunities. 

Local activists and mental health professionals, however, said that the roots of violence are in disinvestment and a lack of services in education and mental health on the South and West sides. 

During the hearing, Amrit Mehra, ‎senior advisor to the mayor’s office on education and human services issues, touted the city’s My Chi, My Future initiative, which connects youth to jobs and community-based classes and art programs. 

He said that the city is working with the Chicago Public Schools district, the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Public Library system to host the programs and help get the word out about what’s available.

Alenzo Williams, the chief program officer at the Chicago Park District, said that the park district will be organizing sports teams, video game tournaments and summer camps. The park district also has hundreds of summer jobs open to teens, including lifeguards and junior leaders. Williams said that the pay will be between $15 to $25 an hour.

Angel Novalez, the commander of CPD’s Office of Community Policing, said that his department will continue hosting youth basketball and baseball tournaments. He also touted the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative, which restructured assignments to give police officers more opportunities to interact with residents and created District Coordination Officers to connect residents with resources where police work alone may not address the problem. The initiative currently includes all the West Side police districts. 

“The best way to deter crime is to keep it from happening in the first place,” Novalez said. “We need to build partnerships in the community and make sure they’re regularly maintained. Officers should know residents that live on the blocks in their beats.” 

Jitu Brown, an Austin resident and the director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, a coalition of organizations fighting for equity in education, argued that violence can’t be stopped unless the city addresses disparities in resources.

“These children who are carjacking now are children of privatization, they’re the children of school closings,” Brown said. 

He said that his organization would like CPS to get police officers out of schools, hire more guidance counselors and therapists, and give residents input on the curriculum.

Arturo Carrillo, director of health and violence prevention for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said that access to mental health care is also an issue. Residents are more likely to get mental health services if they don’t have to travel outside their community to access them. The problem, Carrillo said, is that mental health professionals are more likely to set up private practices in more well-off North Side neighborhoods, where they can make more money. 

The city-run health centers used to address that, he said, by offering them decently paid positions in communities all over the city, but the city’s decision under former mayor Rahm Emanuel to close half of the city-run mental health centers undercut that. 

While the city has tried to make up for it by giving grants to mental health providers such as the North Lawndale-based I Am Able Center for the Family, 3410 W. Roosevelt Rd., Carrillo argued that it isn’t enough.

Rick Estrada is a CEO of Metropolitan Family Services, a nonprofit organization that has been distributing city grants to violence prevention and community service organizations. He said that the issue of violence is hardly new, considering the kind of disparities Brown and Carrillo pointed out, and the pandemic only made things worse. He said he hopes more federal funding will give the city a unique opportunity to tackle the disparities.

“We have increased suicide rates not only for young people in Black and Brown communities, but also for our first-responders, including Chicago police,” Estrada said. “Just as that was a very negative result of this confluence of events, we’re also at a point now where we have the opportunity to make a generational change, with resources coming to the city of Chicago and Cook County.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) argued that the discussion was missing one important piece.

“What program is out here to help mothers who are traumatized — from their children or their family members being shot?” Mitts said. “I’d like to know what we’re going to do to help out those mothers who have lost their children, who are not getting the results they need from detectives to get closure for their loved ones.”

“We want to see investment in follow-up care,” Carrillo responded. “Alderman Mitts brought up an excellent point and I could not agree with her more. The families who lost loved ones to violence are suffering.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...