Law in Contemporary Society

Reducing Violence in Chicago

-- By ChrisMendez - 13 Mar 2015

I. Rethinking Approaches to Social Control

Donald Black argues that law is one form of social control. He suggests that there exists an inverse relationship between law and other types of social control. The presence of elevated levels of violence in many underprivileged neighborhoods in Chicago seems to indicate a lack of social control. Such a view overlooks the complexities stemming from the heavy gang presence in these areas. The forms of social control exercised by gangs oftentimes include particular rules related to permissible attire, regulating access to particular blocks and alleys, and territorial markers via graffiti. Gang social control is typically enforced through violence or the threat of violence.

This is not to suggest that the law is nonexistent in communities with a large gang presence. The Chicago Police Department has invested in surveillance technology to monitor gang activity and drug trafficking. Beginning in 2003, Chicago began installing “Police Observation Devices” (PODs) in intersections experiencing high rates of violence. These devices seem to exemplify the introduction of more law in underprivileged communities because they allow the police to monitor particular areas twenty-four hours a day. Gangs react by conducting illicit activities, which are oftentimes linked to violence, in a more clandestine matter in areas outside the cameras’ reach.

Around the same time, a large number of Chicago gang leaders were prosecuted and sentenced to long prison terms. As the hierarchy was incarcerated, many large gangs split into smaller factions. As a result, the social control that gangs exercised over communities fundamentally changed. While crime rates dramatically decreased in some neighborhoods as they gentrified, the rates of violence in other communities has increased. Due to displacement stemming from policies of urban renewal and tearing down high-rise project complexes, many members of decentralized gangs moved to different neighborhoods in Chicago where there was already a gang presence. This helps explain why violent crime rates have worsened in parts of the South Side, West Side, and Northwest Side as overall crime rates have remained relatively stagnant in Chicago for the past decade.

A continued focus on surveillance technology investment and incarcerating Chicago gang leaders is not an effective solution. A better approach to reduce violence is to redirect some of these resources to community organizations that are dedicated to combating street violence. These groups tend to have programs aimed at-risk youth, a nuanced understanding geography of gangs in their neighborhoods, and substantial links to community leaders. The lack of funding oftentimes limits the effectiveness of such groups. Through modest reinvestment of existing resources, Chicago will empower community leaders and strengthen organizations dedicated to combating violence.

II. The Gun Issue

The fracture of formerly centralized gangs is especially worrisome given how easily gang members are able to access guns. Even though Chicago has very restrictive gun laws, they are nonetheless abundant in the city due to its close proximity to areas that have much more lax gun laws. For instance, more than 1,300 guns confiscated in Chicago between 2008 and 2013 were traced to Chuck’s Gun Shop, which is located only a few miles south of the city limits. Like many other cities, Chicago has stringent gun laws yet guns are far too common as they are easily accessible in surrounding areas.

One approach address the link between the proliferation of guns and street violence is to advocate for uniform gun laws across the nation that would limit the flow of guns into Chicago from its surrounding areas. Another possibility is to continue with the current patchwork of laws which led to the situation in Chicago. The third potential approach is loosening gun control laws in Chicago to make it easier for city residents to legally obtain firearms. To a certain degree, the latter two approaches entail letting gun violence play out. Moreover, they overlook the fact that acts of violence are oftentimes manifestations of underlying societal issues played out through the use of guns.

The first approach is the most attractive. Even though it does not address the fact that gang members already possess far too many guns, strong national gun laws could limit the continued flow of guns into city. Unfortunately, given the current political climate regarding gun laws, this does not seem to be a realistic option at the moment. Focusing on advocacy to shift the current political climate might be the most practical approach to guns because taking a good portion of them off the streets requires significant resources that the currently city does not have.

III. Looking Forward

Overall, the ideal method to reduce violence in underprivileged communities is to address the deep socioeconomic inequalities entrenched in many cities throughout the United States. The acts of violence that are far too common in underserved Chicago communities are ultimately manifestations of inequality in an extremely segregated city. While there are compelling benefits to attacking the social control exercised by gangs, revitalizing neighborhoods through urban renewal, and regulating access to firearms, these strategies do not fundamentally alter the socioeconomic inequalities that are the root of the problem.

Some of the policies that can address socioeconomic inequalities include assuring that affordable housing is being preserved or built in gentrifying neighborhoods, improving public transportation in communities that are far from the Loop, and reinvesting in neighborhood schools that have been closed or neglected. These solutions all require substantial investments during a time in which Chicago and Illinois are confronting a severe debt crisis. In the meantime, preventing the continued disintegration of gangs into competing factions, strengthening community organizations, empowering community leaders, and working to shift the political climate on gun control all represent steps in the right direction to reduce street violence. The ultimate goal, however, should focus on dedicating considerable resources to directly address the socioeconomic inequalities that are entrenched in Chicago.


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r10 - 29 Jun 2015 - 20:07:51 - MarkDrake
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