Chicago Tribune: A War Out Here

Published in the Chicago Tribune on July 19, 2010.

"How do you convince people to stay in a community when you have armed police officers shot down? It's devastating. ... It's like a war out here."
- Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, 6th

CHICAGO - Three of Chicago's finest, shot to death in the space of two months. This time it was Officer Michael Bailey, a 20-year veteran just weeks shy of retirement, gunned down in front of his Park Manor home while shining up his new Buick Regal with a bottle of Windex.

Less than two weeks earlier, Officer Thor Soderberg was killed with his own gun in the parking lot of a police building in Englewood. On May 19, Officer Thomas Wortham, just back from a second tour of Iraq, was killed in front of his parents' home in Chatham.

Three officers felled by the violence they were sworn to fight. Open season on cops? More likely, it's a tragic coincidence - Bailey and Wortham appear to have been robbery targets, and the suspect arrested in Soderberg's shooting suffers from mental illness, according to his family. But their senseless deaths rivet our attention, again, on the relentless culture of violence that afflicts so much of our city.

Danger is an inescapable reality for professional crime fighters. In the neighborhoods where they are most needed, it's an everyday reality for children, for families, for anyone who stumbles into the wrong place at the wrong time.

Until the string was broken in 2004, Chicago had gone 36 consecutive years with 600 or more murders. The good news, and the bad, is that there were 512 homicides in 2008, 458 in 2009 - fewer violent deaths, yes, but still far too many.

Sometimes we're reminded by one horrifying example: Last year, it was Derrion Albert, 16, beaten to death near Fenger High School; a few years ago, it was Siretha White, killed by a stray bullet at her 11th birthday party. Sometimes it's a cumulative statistic that gets to us: 34 Chicago Public Schools students killed in a single year, eight murders in one weekend, three cops in two months.

And sometimes we are seized by the startling commonality of it all. That was the case last week, when a group of young men from the Midtown Educational Center's journalism apprenticeship sat in on an editorial board meeting. Our guests, participants in a mentoring program for 10th- to 12th-graders, had already done some reporting on crime and gangs - their work will appear soon on the Midtown Voices blog, Many of them live or go to school in neighborhoods where gangs and violence are everyday fixtures.

For nearly an hour, the apprentices schooled the pros about life on those streets. How they navigate their neighborhoods to get to class safely. How they distance themselves from intraschool skirmishes and gang conflicts. How to behave, who to cultivate and who to avoid in order to maintain relative safety in public. How gang members hold their guns, as opposed to the laughable depictions in the media.

We quizzed them about what can be done to defuse the danger. Are there enough officers on the street? (No, they said.) Do police surveillance cameras deter crime? (Get serious, they said.) Is Chicago better off with or without a handgun ban? (There was a spirited debate.)

Most tellingly, our young guests said they don't count on adults, especially police, to protect them. They dodge the daily perils as best they can. They didn't say this in a way that suggested they felt the grown-ups had failed them. It is what it is.

The headlines tell us what we already know. Our streets are a long way from being safe. For cops. For kids. For anyone.