After children killed, leaders debate police defunding

Both sides say there must be more funding for jobs, schools and mental health in disinvested neighborhoods to stop violence

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Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

As the national debate about policing continues, family and neighbors mourned two children fatally shot on the West Side on June 22 — while local leaders sought explanations for one of the bloodiest weekends in recent history.

More than 100 people were shot over Father's Day weekend, according to police figures. Eleven people were killed, including a toddler and four teenagers.

The wave of violence fell especially hard on the West Side, where 3-year-old Mekhi James was shot in his back and killed in South Austin while riding in the car with his father last Saturday evening.

Two hours later and less than 2 miles away, three teens were shot in the 1000 block of North Leclaire Avenue. Two survived while Amaria Jones, 13, was hit in her neck inside her home and died.

The violence was staggering, even for a city accustomed to seeing spikes in shootings during the summer months. Debates over what went wrong this weekend are taking place amid massive demonstrations demanding cities overhaul, abolish or reduce funding for police departments.

Aisha Oliver of Root2fruit Youth Foundation, who helped coordinate a Central Avenue vigil Monday in honor of Mekhi and Amaria, urged residents not to lose sight of the circumstances that birthed the violence and trauma that so often falls upon Black neighborhoods on the West Side.

"This community has been drained of resources for almost 50 years now," Oliver said. "If you pull everything from people and give them nothing and then this is all we're left with, then people will start to do things that are desperate."

State Rep. La Shawn Ford is among those who support reducing police funding. He also attributed the rise in gun violence on the West Side to the increase in poverty across the city, which has been exasperated by the coronavirus pandemic.

A lack of mental health resources, quality education, employment and longstanding community trauma is at the root of most violent behavior in the area, Ford said.

Policing can't be the only answer to violence, Ford said, noting police clearance rates for homicides are low in many communities. According to a 2019 analysis by WBEZ, less than 22 percent of murders are solved by CPD for Black victims, compared to 47 percent for white victims.

Instead of putting more money into police systems, Ford said the government needs to invest in helping communities heal and break the cycles of violence and trauma.

"The government is ignoring the needs of the people and forcing a cycle of violence," Ford said. "We can redirect resources to help deal with the unemployment rate on the West Side, with the mental health crisis on the West Side, deal with the substance use disorder on the West Side."

Other local leaders see it differently.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has rebuffed demands to reduce police funding. Last week, Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) introduced an ordinance that would lock in Chicago Police's $1.8 billion budget save for a binding referendum from voters.

Police Supt. David Brown offered a common refrain last Monday, saying a key to reducing violent crime is keeping people charged with violent felonies incarcerated.

Brown said the issue is not police, who he said are "working hard," but violent offenders who are not jailed or are put on electronic monitoring — "which no one is really monitoring."

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Brown also said this weekend's spike in violence was likely related to gangs and drugs.

"That's unfathomable," said Taliaferro, who represents Austin. "And it's unconscionable that we're not doing better."

The alderman said more city funding must be directed to social services and violence prevention programs to stop shootings from happening.

But Taliaferro also said efforts to defund the police are misguided and the city should invest in a multifaceted approach that ensures officers are fully equipped while investing in community resources.

"This can be done without taking way resources from our Police Department," Taliaferro said. "I believe that we do need our police and we need our police to be properly resourced. Taking away resources from our Police Department at a time like this would be a mistake."

On a rainy Monday evening, residents gathered on Central Avenue near where Mekhi was shot to offer support to his and Amaria's families.

"Ain't no money, ain't nothing gonna bring my baby back," Mekhi's mother said. "Make it matter. Because he mattered."

Many at the vigil said the systemic issues the city attempts to address with police and incarceration are the same problems that create gangs, gun violence and loss of life on the West Side.

Oliver, of Root2fruit, said the weekend's murders are not separate from the lack of affordable food in the area, the floundering business corridors and the many closed schools.

"The symptoms are attached to the same root cause that leads to police violence," said Anthony Clark, another organizer who spoke at the vigil. "This is what disinvestment looks like. … When we say defund police, understand where we want these funds to go."

Clark said as police violence is being addressed, the community must also take the lead in developing systems of accountability that can create peace and justice in their neighborhoods.

"If we gonna hold the cops accountable, we gonna hold each other accountable. If you pull the trigger on one of us, you against all of us," Clark said.

Many who spoke at the vigil pleaded with residents to break the longstanding code of silence that persists through Black communities that grapple with gang violence. Too often, fear of retaliation and mistrust of law enforcement stops people from stepping forward even when they know who was behind an act of violence, they said.

"One thing we gotta do as Black people is stop that mantra of 'snitches get stitches,'" one man said.

Community members and local organizations raised $10,000 as a reward for information that leads to the arrest of the shooter who killed Mekhi. Anybody with information can call 312-746-8251 to speak with detectives.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago. Read more of his coverage at blockclubchicago.org.

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