Having recently finished my first year doing criminal defense work in Chicago, I realize how violent this city can be. I knew we had a drug problem (although I didn't know how popular heroin remains) but I wasn't aware of how many people are armed with handguns. Most of the violent crimes are isolated in the southern and western neighborhoods where poverty is the highest.
Thinking back on 2009, most of my clients lived in these neighborhoods. South Austin, Englewood, and Gresham come to mind. There are websites that track Chicago crime. It appears there were 453 murders in Chicago in 2009. In 2008 the number was 509. In 1999 there were 705. The early to mid 2000's saw a decline with an upturn in 2007.
The Chicago police superintendent credits gang unit reorganization for the decline last year. And I am sure the mayor credits the police as well. I congratulate whomever deserves the credit. However, I am not convinced the lower murder rate is attributable to law enforcement.
Does law enforcement reduce or prevent murders? Do the police make the gang bangers have come to Jesus meetings in an effort to increase the peace? Do the little video cameras that watch and record some corners 24 hours a day discourage homicides? Well I bet at those corners they do. The drug dealers those cameras were designed to capture on film moved down the street. And the violence went with them.
The Chicago police do remove guns from the streets. A lot of guns. Of the 100 felony cases I accepted in 2009, about 30 involved handguns. Despite police efforts, however, there seems to be no shortage. The prices are still low and availability high. However, more gun arrests could mean those people inclined to carry guns are locked up. That could reduce killings. But then there are people like me that sometimes put the gun toting folks back on the streets soon after arrest. By doing my job could I indirectly increase the homicide rate?
I think most of the gun carriers pack heat for protection. The violence is bad. Join a gang and the chances of getting shot raise dramatically. Don't join a gang and you still might get shot. Be at the wrong place at the wrong time and bad things can happen. Unfortunately, wrong places and wrong times are not isolated and rare; they are in the neighborhood and constant.
While driving through some of the rougher areas I sometimes wonder if I will be shot. I really do. I have sat waiting for a red light to turn green and asked if today will be the day I get car-jacked and possibly killed. There were times last summer I stood on porches in Englewood waiting for a drive-by aimed at the gang member I was chatting with.
But I don't carry a gun, even though at times I feel that perhaps I should. The truth is, I don't like guns. I carried, fired, and cleaned enough weapons while in the Army to last me a lifetime. If I don't fire a gun for the rest of my life, it will be fine with me.
In comparison, my investigator, a retired Chicago police homicide detective, still carries a .38 clipped to the inside of his pants. By law, he is allowed. Old habits die hard. He said he doesn't feel safe in this city without it. I never asked if he was ever shot at in the line of duty. Such an event could change perspective I imagine.
I think about the weapons training I went through in the military. Before I ever fired an M-16 I knew a lot about it. I knew how it worked. I knew how to take it apart. I knew how to maintain it. And I knew how to operate it safely or how to shoot the bad guys only. Weapons safety is a top priority in the military. I am sure the police take it seriously too.
Now I think about the 15 year old that buys a .45 in an alley out of the trunk of a car. Is there any training that comes with that gun? Is there a firing range to learn how to use it properly. The answer is no. There are no owner's manuals. And who would read it?
I guess most learn to shoot and handle pistols by watching movies. Only they don't work the same way. Real guns fire real bullets. And real bullets kill real people. Real guns are also heavier than you would think.
As far as the Chicago homicide rate goes, I am not sure how many of 2009's 453 murders were gun related, but my guess is that it was most of them. Stabbing someone is an intimate act. You have to be close enough to hear their last breath. But shooting someone is almost arcade like. You can do it from a distance and not get anything on you. However, due to lack of training, many street gunmen are not great shots. I have seen crime scenes were the shooter emptied a 9 round clip at 4 people from 30 feet and only hit one leg. Marksmanship skills like that, or lack thereof, will keep homicides down.
In 2008, New York city, with a population of about 8 million, had 523 murders. Los Angeles, with a population of 3.7 million, had 384. And Chicago had 509 and a population of 2.6 million. NYC has over twice the population of Chicago and only 14 more bodies in 2008. How is that? Rudy Giuliani effect?
I thought Los Angeles was just crips and bloods shooting up everything. Over million more residents and 125 fewer murders than Chicago. How? Why?
Here are a couple of reasons why Chicago's murder rate might be so high. Too many guns and lack of an alternate dispute program. When I was a young boy, disputes in the street never went beyond a fist fight. And even that was pretty rare. My dad taught me how to box. How to throw a punch. How to feint an attack. How to bob and weave. But he never showed me how to shoot a gun. I grew up in a pretty bad neighborhood. My dad had a pistol. I saw it. I didn't know where he hid it and I damn sure never touched it.
Briefly in the 1980's a street dispute ended up with music, a broken down card board box, and people spinning on their backs. Break dancing was cool. I did it. No one got hurt and it was good exercise. It also did wonders for flexibility. Kind of like street yoga.
Are kids these days too soft to take a proper ass whopping? Are shootings how things are handled these days? Am I going to shoot you because you talked trash after dunking on me in a basketball game? Am I going to shoot you because the bag of weed I bought off of you is a couple of grams light? Am I going to shoot you because you talked to my girl? As silly as this sounds, this is the reality out on the streets.
Another reason and a huge problem I see more often than not is the absence of a father in the house. I can only think of about 3 cases in 2009 where the defendant's father was involved in my hiring. During my childhood my father had a body like Rocky Balboa. He worked out 7 days a week lifting weights and running. And I was scared of him. I didn't get thrown around or abused as a child, but I did get spanked when I earned it. I also went to a Catholic grade school and got whipped there too.
Probably around age 5 I figured out that upsetting dad was probably not a good thing because it brought pain. I was never scared of people in my neighborhood or the police. It was just knowing my dad wouldn't hesitate to whip my ass that kept me in line until I left home at 17. Yes, as a senior in high school I still wouldn't have crossed my father.
But with no father in the house, boys (and girls) are often raised by their mothers or grandmothers. Typically they are raised in the church and are taught right from wrong. But at some point they find their way to the streets and eventually the corners.
At a time when it's necessary to be attractive to young women, money becomes important. It takes money to buy Air Jordans. It takes money to buy a cell phone. It takes money to buy jewelry. It takes money to buy nice clothes. It takes money to pay for a date. And eventually it takes a lot of money for a car with nice rims and a loud stereo.
Sadly not many mothers and grandmothers have this kind of money to give. Working at McDonald's might take years and there's no time for that. This girl needs wooed now. Where can a 16 year old make some quick cash? Too often the answer is by slinging dope on a corner. But working a corner requires membership in that corner's local union or gang.
Now without even as much as insulting anyone, the new young gang member is a target for a senseless shooting. Standing on the wrong corner with the wrong people can be deadly.
Last March I had a 17 year old boy as a client that was caught with a gun. It was his first felony. I negotiated probation as a sentence. After sitting in the county jail for 6 weeks he went home. Two weeks later, while walking down the street, a 14 year old boy shot him in the back. He was dead before he hit the ground. Why? It was over a girl. And it happened on April 5, 2009. A day I will never forget.
I learned of this tragedy from the boy's mother. A day later she called again to give me details of the arrangements. I went to the wake a couple evenings later. Being the only white person there didn't make me uncomfortable but I stood out. I went to the casket. There he was in a nice white suit lying peacefully as if asleep.
I stood there not knowing what to think or how to feel. But suddenly a deep feeling of sadness fell over me. In some ways, it's a sadness that has never left. I think in Japanese it would be called yarusenai.
I was quietly introduced to some uncles, aunts, and cousins. All of them knew the boy was recently locked up. And they all knew his lawyer had gotten him out on probation.
I was thanked by many for what I did. Thanked? For what? I got him returned to the street where he was murdered before he was old enough to vote. Is that really worth thanks? That really spun me around.
This wake was very different from any I had previously attended. People were shooting video of the corpse and most of the young people took pictures of him with their cell phones. That spun me around in the other direction.
In all prior wakes, there was an attempt to celebrate the decedent in life. I lost a grandparent in 2007 and 2008. I remember all of the photos brought to the funeral home showing them in their youth and early adulthood. I even saw pictures I had never seen before. But no one took a picture of the well-aged person in the casket. I wouldn't want that picture. Old and dead isn't a Kodak moment.
But my client was 17, not 77. His life was too short. And although I found it odd at the time, I now understand why so many wanted to capture his image in death. It's because he was 17. Unlike my grandparents, who I will always remember being younger than their age at death, this boy was only 17.
When I think of my grandfather, I don't see the mid 80's old man that we buried. I think of the mid 50's version that was always tanned from golfing. My grandmother was eaten slowly by Alzheimer's and didn't know any of us at the end. But I don't remember her like that. I remember the woman that made me pancakes whenever I asked.
The sad truth is that at age 17, this boy died in his prime. And that's how those that loved him want to remember him. I get that.
Does his mother care the murder rate went down in 2009?