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Yet little will change without a close look at the gang and drug conflicts responsible for the violence, including an understanding of the victimizers who don't inspire much sympathy: people like veteran gang members and street dealers.
On April 1, 2010, Chicago police set up shop on the west side, near Pulaski and Congress, in a surveillance van equipped to record video. As the police watched, a street dealer made a number of heroin sales, including one to an undercover officer. Police arrested the dealer, confiscated more than $100 and a cell phone, and hauled him to the 11th District police station.
The cops were doing what they're supposed to. I've never met anyone who wants to live in the middle of a dangerous open-air drug market, and this particular police unit was deployed to investigate street gangs responsible for violence.
Still, the bust showed the limited ability of policing to get at the causes of it.
The dealer's name was Tommy Adams. Then in his 40s, Adams had a long rap sheet—he'd been arrested more than three dozen times, mostly for possessing or dealing narcotics, and he'd spent about six years in state prison. But every time he was released he ended up dealing again, since he couldn't get any other work and he was a heroin addict himself.
The police put Adams in leg shackles and cuffed him to a bench in an interview room. Then they urged him to start talking. Adams said he didn't carry a gun and had no information about unsolved murders in the area. He wasn't even in a gang anymore—he'd been kicked out of the Vice Lords because of his heroin habit.
But Adams had gone to work for another gang—the New Breeds, who controlled a half-mile stretch of the west side. Adams told the police that during his shift from 6 AM to noon each day, the organization was making about $5,000.
A month later police arrested Adams's supervisor, a 26-year-old New Breed named Aaron Bagley. Bagley had grown up in the middle of the New Breeds' drug market; an older brother was a longtime dealer for the gang, and Bagley had followed suit along with a number of his neighborhood friends. He'd tried to step away a couple of times—he even moved out of the neighborhood and took classes at Malcolm X City College—but after being locked up repeatedly, he knew of few alternatives.
As investigators moved up the drug ring's chain of command, they found that the backgrounds of the key players followed the pattern: they grew up in poor, broken homes and found refuge and opportunity in the gang's heroin trade.
To ensure the business survived—to retain control of the block, to preserve their reputation as an organization that wasn't to be messed with—some of the New Breeds used guns to retaliate against rivals. Authorities eventually linked the gang to multiple shootings, and the key players were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for participating in a conspiracy to distribute heroin.
"A lot of these guys are the worst of the worst," says Jerry Bischoff, a defense attorney who represented one of the New Breeds.
Bischoff is a former Cook County prosecutor who stresses that he's not a "bleeding heart." "But when you look at the violence on the west side of Chicago, everybody knows why things are they way they are. These guys realize the future we saw coming."
"It's an organized crime issue," adds Jack Riley, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Chicago office. "But it's also a public health issue."
As he pushes efforts to keep guns from dangerous gang members, the president should also address the despair and meanness that makes them dangerous in the first place. Republicans concerned about our fiscal problems should join the effort, since billions could be saved each year by reducing violence and preparing people for work instead of prison.
No, it's not quite that simple, but then again, perhaps it is.
Incidentally, the New Breeds' heroin originated in Mexico, whose first-year president, Enrique Peña Nieto, just announced a new approach to that country's devastating war on drugs: he wants to invest an additional $9 billion in job training, job creation, and other efforts to prevent drug use and gang membership.