High-Tech ‘Nerve Centers’ Are Helping in the Fight Against Chicago’s Gun Violence Epidemic

Technology hubs are helping police predict and respond to shootings in some of the city’s most crime-prone neighborhoods.

by Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune / July 6, 2018

(TNS) — As a pastor, Curtis Britt Sr. has counseled numerous grieving parents from his West Side congregation who lost children to Chicago’s unrelenting gun violence.

Now, with the killing last month of his own 26-year-old son in broad daylight, he truly understands the depth of their pain — and the obstacles to meaningful progress.

“It’s sad that in certain neighborhoods … the violence is such where it almost seems like you’re in a situation where it’s nothing you can do about it,” said Britt, 51, who delivered both the sermon and eulogy at the funeral of his son and namesake. “A lot of (residents) have gotten to the point where they just feel like this is something that they’re going to have to live with because it’s not going to change.”

At the halfway mark of 2018, shootings in Chicago overall have fallen by double-digit numbers for a second consecutive year, while homicides have dropped even further — a contrast to 2016 when violence hit levels unseen for two decades. But the violence is still outpacing 2015 and 2014 levels as some communities scattered mostly through the West and Southwest sides continue to struggle to make headway.

While the Police Department has heralded new technological advances for playing a key part in the improved overall numbers, the success has been mixed, most notably in the stark contrast in results in the city’s two historically most violent districts.

The West Side’s Harrison and South Side’s Englewood police districts were the first in the city early last year to be equipped with nerve centers designed to help officers better predict where shootings might occur and respond more quickly to gunfire.

Through July 1, shooting incidents have plunged in the Englewood District to 77, a 29 percent decline from 108 a year earlier, according to the Police Department. Homicides fell to 23, a 26 percent drop from 31.

But the Harrison District, which includes the East Garfield Park neighborhood where Curtis Britt Jr. was fatally shot on June 8, leads the city in homicides at 36, two more than at the halfway point of 2017. Shooting incidents totaled 154, a 7 percent drop from 165 a year earlier.

In a joint interview, Kenneth Johnson and his twin brother, Kevin, the commanders of the two districts, couldn’t say why Harrison hasn’t been able to make the same strides as Englewood.

Both agreed technology is just one of many tools they use to fight crime in their districts.

Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which is working with Chicago police to run the nerve centers, said the violence on the West Side appears to be more closely linked to drug activity.

“It could be that the nature of the violence itself is making it harder for the (nerve centers) to have an initial impact on the West Side,” he said.

But Kevin Johnson, who heads the Harrison District, is convinced that the violence in his district would be even worse without the technology.

“What’s key is getting that information to the beat officer, the units in the field,” he said as he sat next to his brother at police headquarters. “They’re able to work smarter. They’re working faster. We’re leveraging all this technology to make things happen.”

Entrenched gang conflicts

Such technology isn’t new to Chicago police. For the last 15 years, the department has been analyzing crime statistics to try to make informed predictions about where violence will strike next. But those analyses were performed at police headquarters, with the information trickling out to the 22 individual districts.

Now, in 13 of the districts, everyone from tactical lieutenants to station supervisors to community policing officers work each day in the nerve centers to review everything from where shootings are taking place to who is wanted on arrest warrants. They also track high-profile shooting anniversaries that could lead to retaliatory violence as well as arrests for gun crimes.

District supervisors analyze shooting data in real time through software called HunchLab to quickly determine where best to deploy their beat patrol and tactical officers. This is all integrated with gunshot detection technology called ShotSpotter that tells officers in the field on their work-issued smartphones from where the gunfire is coming.

The technology showcased at these nerve centers includes large TV screens that display crime maps and surveillance video footage from cameras affixed to light poles at locations throughout the city.

Police and city officials struggled for years with strategies to reduce violence in Englewood and Harrison, both stricken by poverty, joblessness and school closures — all recipes for persistent crime. Entrenched gang conflicts and deeply rooted tensions between the police and the black community have also complicated crime-fighting efforts.

The two districts are regularly the focus of elite citywide units that conduct sensitive investigations on gang conflicts and gun trafficking. FBI agents and other federal law enforcement also work on long-term cases there.

The Johnson brothers have long experience with crime issues in Englewood and Harrison. Kevin Johnson, with the Police Department for 27 years, worked as a patrol officer in Englewood for much of the 1990s, while his brother, Kenneth, a 31-year veteran, was a lieutenant in Harrison before his promotion to Englewood’s commander in 2016.

The brothers said the districts have their own unique set of issues.

While the illegal drug trade affects both districts, Harrison’s issues with narcotics-related violence are more pronounced because of its many open-air drug markets and proximity to the Eisenhower Expressway — dubbed the "Heroin Highway" with its easy access for drug-buying customers from the suburbs and downtown — and the CTA Blue Line.

“The open-air drug market may be as small as a particular corner or be as large as a block,” Kevin Johnson said. “It speaks to the largest socioeconomic challenges that face the community. There’s been a loss of jobs, businesses.”

In Englewood, Kenneth Johnson said the violence is fueled more by personal disputes and gang conflicts that often erupt over social media.

“These aren’t strangers coming from one area to another area,” he said. “All of these individuals know each other.”

Trust not easily won

Englewood has seen some development — Kennedy-King College has expanded at the busy corridor at 63rd and Halsted streets and a strip mall at the same corner includes a Chipotle fast-food restaurant, a Starbucks coffee shop and a Whole Foods grocery store.

But a significant drop in population has taken place there in recent years.

From 2010 through 2016, West Englewood and Englewood ranked second and third, respectively, among Chicago’s 77 communities in population decline with a combined loss of about 9,340 people, a 14 percent drop, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by the local demography firm Rob Paral and Associates.

While African-Americans accounted for most of those losses, the Hispanic population there has been growing, to almost 2,650 at the end of 2016, more than double the total from 2010, the data show.

It’s unclear, though, if the change in population has affected violence in the police district, according to criminologists.

“Crime ebbs and flows,” Kenneth Johnson said. “There’s going to be particular factors that we can’t exactly quantify that are (causing) things to go up and down.”

Johnson does credit some of the reduction in violence over the first half to inroads that officers have made with anti-violence outreach workers and citizens in the communities who long distrusted the police.

Still, he acknowledged that fully winning over the community will take a lot more time.

“This trust, it’s not an easily won thing,” he said. “Trust is easily broken and very difficult to win.”

For many years, Bishop Vesta Dixon, pastor of Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church in West Englewood, said he invited police without success to a back-to-school event. Last summer two officers attended.

Dixon said the contact promises to help break down barriers and fears — on both sides.

“Let them see you, not with your gun out, not stopping them,” Dixon said in his 59th Street office. “But see you as a friend.”

The district has also aggressively been tearing down abandoned buildings, havens for criminal activity in addition to serving as safety hazards. According to city Building Department data, 84 buildings were demolished in the Englewood District in the first nine months of 2017, by far the most of all 22 districts. By comparison, Harrison ranked third with 42 buildings demolished through September.

“We’re very much focused on working with landlords and building owners to bring the buildings up to code so we can have safe, positive locations for our residents to move into,” Kenneth Johnson said. “If you have an abandoned building, and it’s on the path of a school ... we’re trying to reduce the likelihood of maybe someone luring a child into that building or … set up a dope spot.”

Trapped by drug dealers

Overall, homicides in Chicago dropped sharply through July 1, falling to 254 homicides, a 23 percent decline from 331 a year earlier. But Harrison marked one of seven districts in which killings rose or stayed flat, though several of those were in low-crime North Side neighborhoods. The Austin District, which borders Harrison and was also equipped with a nerve center beginning last year, ranked second in the city with 27 homicides, the same as last year.

Two years after a viral cellphone video showed an officer stomping on a suspect’s head in the 3900 block of West Grenshaw Street, Kevin Johnson pointed to some success by police in Harrison working with the community.

That block was already a notorious drug spot, a problem so severe that residents feared even going outside, said Johnson, who became the district’s commander two months after the stomping incident.

“They were just trapped by the drug dealers,” he said. “They had to put chained links on the wrought iron fences to keep the drug dealers from sitting on their porches to sell drugs.”

One woman who lives on the block but declined to give her name because of safety concerns told the Tribune that drug sellers worked shifts “morning, noon and night.”

“The shooting over here was constant,” she said. If gunfire rang out when her two grandchildren were at her home, “they’d hit the floor,” she said.

Kevin Johnson said he implored concerned residents on Grenshaw to start a block club, a good way for residents to show their commitment against drug dealers hanging out on their street.

Johnson said the district also started to arrange for tree-cutting and more efficient garbage pickups on the block. The community came together with the aid of the police, and the criminal element got the message.

Crime on that block of Grenshaw has plunged over the first half of the year, according to Johnson and city data.

“They saw we were serious,” he said. “We just weren’t just driving by and (saying) … ‘Get off the corner.’ We were stopping the cars. We were getting on foot. We’re engaging the community. We’re like ‘we’re not leaving.’”

©2018 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.