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Solving Chicago’s Violence Crisis: Chicago Forward takes on issues of public safety

Chicago Forward panelists Toni Preckwinkle, Garry McCarthy, Ameena Matthews, and Steve Pemberton discuss the many public safety issues plaguing Chicago's citizens

As Bruce Dold, editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, stated that the homicide rate in New York City is 1/3 of what it is in Chicago, an astonished murmur spread throughout the auditorium, a harsh realization faced by the people of Chicago trying to outlive their reputation as a violent city.

Public safety was the topic of discussion February 8 as numerous Chicagoans gathered at the Chase Auditorium for Chicago Forward, a Chicago Tribune-sponsored moderated discussion between Ameena Mathews, CeaseFire violence interrupter, Garry McCarthy, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, Steve Pemberton, divisional vice president and chief diversity officer for Walgreens, and Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President.

When responding to the staggering statistic, McCarthy attributed a rise in homicide rates to the availability of firearms throughout Chicago. A veteran of the New York City Police Department, McCarthy seized only 1,885 firearms during his time with the NYPD, a microscopic number compared to the 4,422 firearms he and his team have seized in Chicago. When asked if the 2010 proposed handgun ban would have made any difference in the amount of violence found on Chicago streets, McCarthy did not see any potential distinction.

“The ban would have had no effect,” McCarthy stated, “it’s not the legal guns that are killing people, it’s the inability to track how those illegal guns have gotten where they are.”

While stationed in Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood located on the south side near the University of Chicago, Ameena Matthews places herself in high-risk situations in order to bring these numbers down. “My job is to change what they believe is acceptable, go in and talk to them about consequences, and after I get in the middle of this high intense energy and find out why it’s going on, I work from there and work to solve it completely.”

CeaseFire, an organization that provides a unique approach to violence prevention, maintains that violence is a learned behavior and can be prevented, ultimately leading to a change in the way conflicts are solved. The organization has been featured in the documentary The Interrupters, and violence interrupter Matthews has recently appeared on The Colbert Report.

For Toni Preckwinkle, the most important problem in Chicago is not the rise in homicide rates, but the way the city has handled the ongoing war on drugs. According to Preckwinkle, 70% of those spending time in the Cook County jail system are awaiting trial on non-violent offenses, many of which have to do with possessing small amounts of drugs. “The war on drugs should be dealt with as a public health crisis, not a criminal justice crisis, and unless we allocate more resources to health side we will be in big trouble.”

Preckwinkle also insinuated that the war on drugs can be considered a war on race. According to the board president, African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for low amounts of drug possession than Caucasians, a statistic Superintendent McCarthy had a sharp, quick response to.

“One of the things we recognize is that if we raise kids in suburbs, we know they are in less danger,” McCarthy argued, “We have infused high crime neighborhoods with more police [than in the suburbs] and we do a lot more police work, which results in a lot more arrests, which amounts to statistics you are talking about.”

When asked if there were any places in the city of Chicago that he would not open a Walgreens store, Pemberton replied that while the primary responsibility of safety relies with the company, Walgreens has never stated that they will avoid specific neighborhoods, and realizes that their employees are vital to store operations.

“Folks that work in each store are coming from that community, so we have available ongoing market research,” Pemberton stated, “Because we sit in the middle of health and wellness, we have to provide that safe environment accordingly.”

The issue of public safety hits home for Pemberton, who was raised in the foster care system and was disregarded at an incredibly young age. Now an author of the autobiography A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home, Pemberton hopes to help those that feel they are confined to hopeless situations, and encourage others to make an impact on their community.

“When I was one-and-a-half, it was deemed that I didn’t have a chance in the world, and all I really wanted was a chance,” Pemberton recollected, “People that helped me don’t even know it. They have forgotten about me but I haven’t forgotten about them.”

Matthews echoed that statement, stating the CeaseFire has given chances to over 500 ex-offenders by employing them throughout the Chicago area, and when asked what her fellow panelists could do in order to maintain the initiative, it came down to the simply one thing: teamwork.

“I just want you all to understand and know exactly what it is that we do and that we’ve done it effectively,” Matthews entreated, “We are not against policies and procedures of law enforcement, we just want to work hand-in-hand.”

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.