Chicago Police respond to gunfire in the 5100 West block of Madison Street in the Austin neighborhood on Nov. 12, 2021. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

A West Side police district has seen more homicides and carjackings than any other during the two-year pandemic surge in violence — but area leaders say they are working to stop beefs before they erupt and chart a path to peace in the long term.

The 11th Police District — which includes parts of Austin, Lawndale and East and West Garfield Park — had 105 homicides in 2021, up from 103 in 2020 and 74 in the year prior, according to police data.

While Chicago experienced a citywide surge in violent crime in 2021, West Side neighborhoods in the 11th District have long struggled with shootings and homicides. While the district has had the most murders of any district citywide for at least a decade, there has been a significant increase — in 2011, the district had 44 homicides, less than half the number last year.

Carjackings in the 11th District have risen sharply since the pandemic began. In 2019 when there were 79, in 2020 there were 185 and in 2021 there were 192, according to police data.

Violence prevention outreach workers with Breakthrough and the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago said the problems that lead to violence on the West Side, like tensions between street groups, poverty and online beefs, have grown in recent years. But so too have the tools at their disposal to intervene before an issue escalates into violence.

Recently they’ve been seeing social media driving conflicts, said Frederick Seaton, outreach supervisor for the Institute of Nonviolence Chicago’s West Garfield Park outpost.

“Somebody could have a simple misunderstanding … and somebody can misinterpret it into something more than it is and escalate it into a violent situation,” Seaton said.

Feuds on social media can reawaken years-old beefs. Those online disputes sometimes turn into anniversary shootings seeking revenge for a murder that happened years ago.

In response, nonviolence experts are monitoring social media to diffuse potentially explosive situations.

“Our team has really been focused on social media and trying to mediate any conflicts that may arise from that,” said Damien Morris, director of violence prevention at Breakthrough Urban Ministries. “We have seen an increase in homicides and non-fatal shootings. But just think about, if we were not there, what would those numbers look like?”

Many shootings in the past year erupted from historical tensions between rivals, Morris said, adding that when young people can’t get help to move past trauma, their wounds don’t heal — they fester. One violent conflict flaring up from past issues can send ripples of violence through several communities, Morris said.

Breakthrough’s violence prevention teams plan events like cookouts and basketball games in the summer to connect with youth and help keep the peace. | Provided

“When something happens, whether it’s historical or over the death anniversary of somebody, it’s very easy for the violence to really spike. Within a week, you can see a neighborhood go from zero incidents to about 14 incidents,” Morris said.

Street outreach is an essential strategy for preventing violence emerging from online beefs and friction between rival groups, Morris said. Outreach workers are from the neighborhood, so they have long-term relationships with people most likely to be involved in those conflicts and are familiar with the histories of the street organizations that may be feuding, Morris said.

Intervening to heal wounds

That expertise means outreach workers can see when tensions are flaring and coordinate the right type of interventions needed to heal those old wounds, Morris said.

“They know the community like the back of their hands. Those are the same people who will be able to get into the homes, or go on the block, and find out the root cause. Whether it’s historical or domestic, we can find out,” Morris said.

Last summer, violence prevention groups negotiated dozens of nonviolence agreements and truces between street organizations on the West Side. When shootings did happen, the group members worked around the clock to support victims and stop retaliation, Seaton said.

“By being from the community, you have people who can tell you something’s going wrong … you’ll be able to get the whispers. Then you can put a strategy down to make sure it don’t blow up and escalate into something bigger,” Seaton said.

After 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams was murdered last spring in a McDonald’s drive-thru in North Lawndale, the Firehouse Community Arts Center worked with churches, residents and local groups to take the neighborhood back from gangs.

The Project Presence initiative organizes pop-up events like sports games and cookouts on troubled blocks to keep young people busy and push out negative activity, said Phil Jackson, the art center’s founder.

Jackson aims to expand Project Presence by doing more outreach within schools and bring more local churches, businesses, and large companies in as partners to bring resources to the hotspots that need them.

“The more contact we can have, the more impact we can engage in,” Jackson said.

The pandemic’s effect

The pandemic has also been a major factor in violence increasing, worsening the unemployment and poverty that local youth have long struggled with, anti-violence advocates said.

“You’re thinking, ‘How are you going to survive?’ … Most people, they’re trying to survive by any means necessary. Therefore, you see a spike in armed robbery. You see a spike in carjackings,” Morris said.

Problems from the pandemic are building upon generations of disinvestment in the West Side and social issues, like housing insecurity, food scarcity and inadequate mental health services, Seaton said. Those long-term issues must be addressed to fix the conditions that fuel violence on the West Side, he said.

“It didn’t start overnight. It’s been going on for years. The disinvestment, the guys feeling hopeless, the trauma. That’s why we have the guys working with them every day, trying to instill some hope in them,” Seaton said.

The role of police

About 490 Chicago police officers are assigned to the 11th District, more than any other district in the city, according to 2020 officer assignment data acquired by the Invisible Institute. But some residents complain the significant police presence has done little to stop the violence.

During the public health emergency lockdowns in 2020, the 11th District had the highest number of stay-at-home enforcement actions from police, WTTW reported.

Officers in the 11th District conducted 41,736 traffic stops in 2020, more than any other part of the city by far, police data shows.  A 2018 analysis of ProPublica data also showed West Side wards had among the highest numbers of parking tickets issued by police rather than parking enforcement officials.

But despite the disproportionate level of policing and enforcement on issues like traffic and parking in the area, some residents said they feel they can’t rely on police to keep the street safe and intervene when life-threatening emergencies occur.

“Having the police there should make people feel more comfortable and safe. But that’s not the feeling people get,” Norman said.

The Central Austin Neighborhood Association sued the city in 2011 after repeated incidents where residents would call 911 to report shootings, gang activity, drug markets and robberies, but officers never showed up to help.

“Yes, they’re writing tickets. But they’re not coming in these life-threatening situations,” said Cassandra Norman, co-founder of the neighborhood group.

The city settled a 10-year lawsuit with the neighborhood group last year regarding 911 response times. Under the agreement, the city must start collecting and publishing data on 911 response times, information advocates say will help them track how police respond to emergencies, especially in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

West Side Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police sergeant and chair of City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said to have an impact on crime “we have to look at social factors as well as enforcement factors.”

“I agree with residents who say over-policing is too much without consideration of other avenues of trying to reduce crime,” Taliaferro said. “More parking citations … isn’t going to solve or prevent more crimes.”

The West Side needs resources to improve issues like joblessness and mental health challenges. But a shortage of officers and lack of enforcement “provides more opportunity for criminals to carry out those crimes,” he said.

Though parts of the West Side have more officers and enforcement actions than anywhere else, “having the most could still be inadequate,” Taliaferro said.

“I would argue, why is their crime still increasing if they have an adequate number of officers?” Taliaferro said.

Systemic problems, systemic solutions

Local groups have invested significantly in fixing quality-of-life issues to make a difference in the long run. The Institute for Nonviolence Chicago has expanded its paid career readiness opportunities, like its 16-week workforce development programs and its Re-Entry 2.0 program that creates economic opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.

The Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative has partnered with many local groups to renew the historical Madison and Pulaski commercial corridors in West Garfield. After the October closure of Aldi, one of the neighborhood’s only grocery stores, the collaborative offered emergency food distributions for weeks and began working with the city to bring in a more community-rooted grocer as a long-term fix.

There was also more investment in anti-violence programs and street outreach in 2021. The city dedicated $36 million to violence prevention groups last year, up from just $1 million in previous years. Private organizations committed tens of millions to anti-violence programs, as well.

The state also pivoted toward a public health approach for violence prevention and committed $250 million over three years to community programs throughout Illinois that address social factors that lead to violence.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West campaign has also brought unprecedented levels of public and private investment to the West Side, leading to the opening of a roller rink and community plaza at Madison and Pulaski.

“There has been greater investment and more latitude for the types of programs that are needed. I still think we need to do more at the root cause level,” said TJ Crawford, director of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative.

There is no single policy that can end the violence overnight, and “since these are systemic problems, they need systemic solutions,” Crawford said. Those solutions must start by unraveling the legacy of “prejudicial and racist policies” that limit Black communities’ access to education, workforce opportunities, food access and banking, he said.

“Trauma can be witnessing or being a victim of abuse, being overpoliced, being in an overcrowded school system, eating foods that cause depression,” Crawford said. “That impacts how our brain functions and how we perceive threats. That leads to being aggressive or vengeful or distrustful.”

Residents must also prioritize civic engagement so they can push for a system of governance that can serve their interests and follow through with the policies and investments communities need to move forward, Crawford said.

“If government is a tool, and I don’t have my hands on the tool … then I am complicit in what’s going on,” Crawford said. “We need to be more civically engaged because these institutional problems need to be addressed at an institutional level.”

The problem must also be dealt with internally by redefining community culture so it uplifts values of health, self-determination, ownership and wellbeing, Crawford said.

To do that, the Rite to Wellness Campaign is working on several initiatives, including efforts to create a neighborhood wellness center, a healthy eating and fitness campaign, and an urban planning effort focused on West Garfield Park’s economic corridors. Those efforts are aimed at creating an environment that encourages people to “behave in a long-term healthy way rather than short-term pleasurable ways,” Crawford said.

“We have to really build the culture of community and engage people in owning and practicing the culture that values us,” Crawford said. “Culturally informed community development is one of the main ingredients in building healthy communities.”