Hitting Speed Bumps to Progress

According to news sources, 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez has proposed using around $400,000 from the infrastructure budget to install traffic circles and speed bumps in Back of the Yards (particularly in the area around Davis Square Park) in an effort to combat crime. The idea is that by hindering vehicles involved in drive-by shootings, crime will be somehow dissuaded.

The area surrounding Davis Square Park is known as “Halo City,” home of the “Latin Saints” gang, which used to be known as just “The Saints” when the neighborhood was dominated by Polish immigrants. Currently, 47th Street serves as the boundary between Latin Saints territory, and territories of other nearby gangs, such as La Raza, Two-Six, Satanic Disciples, and others. Gang conflict has been an issue in Back of the Yards for decades. Even though demographics have changed considerably throughout the 1900s, the problem persists. One has to ask: is stopping crime really as simple as installing speed bumps and traffic circles?

The answer: of course not. But to really understand why gang violence is so pervasive in this particular area, it’s important to examine the root causes, none of which have to do with pavement.

Back of the Yards1

The intersection of 47th and Ashland. Photo by Daniel Webster.

According to the 2010 census, over one-third of Back of the Yards residents were under the age of 18. This is much higher than the 22% average citywide. Not all gang members are under 18, and certainly not all individuals under 18 are in gangs, but the prevalence of youth gangs in splintered factions tied to both imagined and real geographic boundaries must be addressed. Alternatives to gang life, like after-school activities, can provide a stepping stone, but according to a 2015 survey by the Resurrection Project, around 60% of youth are not participating in after-school or youth programming, even though “100% of focus groups targeted violence as a major hindrance for youth and families.”  Cost, lack of information about available programs, and safety concerns were listed as top barriers for parents in terms of their children’s participation. To add insult to injury, a few years ago a city-run mental health clinic at 4313 S. Ashland Ave. was closed, along with 5 others throughout the city. Cuts to public schools have left many area students with less access to counselors and nurses. Simply put, it’s a perfect recipe for youth gangs to flourish: a high concentration of youth in an area struggling with poverty, a lack of accessible youth programming that could provide an alternative to gang life, a lack of mental health services to combat PTSD and other ailments, and a lack of support staff at schools to help mediate conflicts before they escalate. The safety nets that can help deter a certain amount of gang recruitment, activity, and conflict are being whittled away year after year, budget cut by budget cut.

Apart from the preventative measures that could help combat crime in Back of the Yards, another challenge includes dwindling numbers of police officers throughout the city. Earlier this year, Alderman Lopez procured help from the Cook County Sheriff Department by having additional law enforcement personnel deployed throughout the neighborhood, but this drew mixed reviews from residents. Some were grateful for the extra police presence, while others just felt it was merely a band-aid for a much larger and deeply-rooted problem. The Cook County Sheriff deployment was only temporary, and statistics regarding stops and arrests don’t appear to be immediately available.

And even when police officers arrest suspects for violent crimes, such as weapons violations, there are many documented cases involving the offenders getting probation, early parole, or light sentences. In 2013, there were 13 people (including a toddler) shot in a single incident in Cornell Square Park in the southern portion of Back of the Yards. One of the shooters had been previously convicted of a weapons offense in 2012, but instead of spending 7 years in jail, he was given a 4-month “boot camp” and released back into the public, only to help perpetrate the Cornell Square Park incident about a year later. One of the other gang members involved in the Cornell Square Park incident pleaded guilty to two felony charges, but was given only 2 years per count and credited with 688 days spent in jail prior to sentencing, which means that he will be released back out into the public next year, in 2017.

Suffice it to say, there are many challenges to combating Back of the Yards crime, from preventative measures to law enforcement presence to holding perpetrators truly accountable. Adding speed bumps around a park won’t affect any of those issues. In fact, they may just prove to be more of a hassle. Shooters don’t always use vehicles. Sometimes they are on foot. Even when they use vehicles to conduct a drive-by shooting, they aren’t always cognizant of damage to their getaway vehicle, because sometimes the vehicles are stolen and are going to be dumped elsewhere anyways. However, speed bumps can be problematic for responding emergency vehicles, such as police cars and ambulances, and at minimum an inconvenience for area residents who are not involved in criminal activity.

Existing traffic circle at 45th and Marshfield. There was a homicide about a block south in late June 2016, per CPD Clearpath data.

As a public safety employee and Back of the Yards resident, I simply don’t see $400,000 worth of speed bumps and traffic circles making much of a dent in crime statistics if the root causes behind crime aren’t sufficiently addressed. It feels akin to sailing on a river instead of a lake while ignoring the leak in your boat. Also, the speed bumps and traffic circles will only be added near Davis Square Park, yet there are other parks that have had shootings within the last few years (Cornell Square Park, Little Venice Park, etc.), not to mention all of the shootings that occur on blocks not bounding a park, like this one, this one, or this one.

The funding comes from the infrastructure budget, so I understand that it can’t necessarily be re-appropriated for youth programming or mental health, etc. But as Alderman Lopez is a staunch supporter of Mayor Emanuel, who shuttered our mental health clinic, several schools, and keeps advocating for public school cuts, I don’t foresee him fighting hard for the amount of preventative programming and community resources we require. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong.