Stopping Gangs Means Talking to Gang Members
But police in Chicago are reluctant to get close
Chicago’s gang problem is different in many ways from a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign, such as the one the United States fought against Iraqi insurgents from 2003 to 2011.
Although Chicago’s 786 homicides in 2016 would make the city the 13th deadliest global armed conflict, Chicago’s gang members rarely directly contest the state by using violence against police officers. Not since the 1980s and 1990s have gangs attempted to actually govern territory under their control.
However, the counterinsurgency in Iraq and the countergang efforts by the Chicago Police Department share one fundamental similarity. Both aim to gather information that will allow them to dismantle armed organizations hiding among a civilian population.
To do so, most human-rights minded police forces and armies prefer to gather intelligence by recruiting informants both within the innocent civilian population and within the organized armed group itself.
The most efficient method of doing so, according to most of the academic and policy literature, is for individual soldiers or police to build positive relationships with civilians or armed actors using either face-to-face interactions to establish trust, coercion — for example, providing information in exchange for immunity from criminal charges — or a combination of both.
In fact, CPD lieutenant Jim Roussell said he successfully used such tactics to dismantle an insurgent cell during his deployment as a Marine reservist in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2005, which he learned during countergang efforts on the West Side of Chicago.
Not surprisingly, the larger the number of soldiers or police engaging in this type of practice, the more successful counterinsurgents or police are at curbing armed organizations.
This fact is illustrated most strongly by the widely-cited academic article “Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars,” by Prof. Jason Lyall and Col. Isaiah Wilson III. Using statistical analysis of over 286 counterinsurgency wars between 1800 and 2005, the study found that counterinsurgents who conducted vehicle patrols were far more likely to lose the war than were armies that patrolled on foot.
The authors explain that “the key to success lies in the efficient collection of reliable information on population characteristics, including its grievances, cleavages, power structures, views of the counterinsurgent and the nature of the insurgents themselves. Acquiring this information in turn requires a high rate of interaction between counterinsurgent and population so that the requisite skills — including language and cultural awareness — are obtained and connections forged.”
A U.S. Army major who fought in Iraq stated it more plainly. “The fewer the soldiers that interact with the environment … the less information gleaned from it.”
The authors backed their statistical finding by careful analysis of two units that fought in Iraq between 2003 and 2004 — the 101st Airborne Division and the 4th Infantry Division — that faced similar difficulties in rooting out insurgents from the local population.
The 101st conducted patrols on foot and interacted with the local population, while the 4th I.D. patrolled in armored vehicles with the intent to “intimidate the local population and flush out insurgents by projecting “presence” through armored shows of force.”
The 101st’s strategy allowed it to gain far better intelligence from the local population compared to the 4th I.D. For instance, the 101st not only was attacked far less often than its counterpart was, it was also better able to find weapons caches and avoid arresting innocent people.
Despite the evidence presented by this and other studies, the CPD currently does not train “beat officers” to build relationships with members of the communities they patrol, to include those holding the most useful information. The gang members themselves.
In fact, the CPD primarily relies on about 900 officers from specialized units, spread out among six shifts, in a 237-square-mile city that contains an estimated 70,000 gang members and more than three million other residents. The beat officers, who number around 2,500 per shift, are primarily meant to drive from 911-call to 911-call in their squad cars.
It is true that the CPD holds “beat meetings,” where residents can inform officers on criminal matters. Further, the department supports events that improve police-community relations, including baseball leagues, toy drives, cookouts, etc.
However, according to a January 2017 Department of Justice report on the CPD, these community policing initiatives — namely, beat meetings — are extraordinarily ineffective because they’re underfunded. Neither the police nor the community take the meetings seriously, as the low attendance rates for both officers and residents attest.
More importantly, bonds between police and gang members are unlikely to be forged at these very public events. Although the civilians in the community can and do provide important information to police, it’s the gang members themselves who possess the most vital information for taking down gangs.
To be fair, it’s not as if the CPD higher-ups are unaware of the fact that beat officers are underutilized in efforts to dismantle gangs. For instance, in 2008, then-CPD superintendent Jody Weis put together a three-phase plan to curb gang violence, part of which encouraged a closer working relationship between beat officers and specialized cops.
But closer cooperation never came to fruition, and even under Weis’s few years as superintendent beat officers were not trained to recruit gang informants, according to a high-ranking member of a specialized gang unit.
In seeking out perspectives on why beat cops don’t seek gang informants, and specialized cops don’t enlist the help of beat cops in doing so, I spoke to seven current and former CPD officers, all on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak by the department, and because of the sensitive nature of the subject. I changed their names for this story.
Three officers are currently in specialized units and four either are or were beat officers, and have served for a varying number of years. Both current and former officer recounted their experience working in especially violent neighborhoods with a large gang presence.
As discussed below, those I spoke with blamed the lack of effort by beat cops to recruit gang informants on external factors, such as the aggressive behavior of gang members towards officers, as well as low morale among officers following the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting in 2014.
Interestingly, however, most pointed to issues within the department as the most important reason explaining the beat officers’ lack of effort, and the specialized units’ unwillingness to engage beat cops on the issue.
The main reason cited by almost all of those I interviewed for why beat officers do not recruit informants is a lack of training.
“It starts with a very bad FTO program, which is the Field Training Officer program,” David, a high-ranking member of a specialized gang unit with nearly 20 years on the CPD, said bluntly. “So in Chicago it’s brutal. It’s terrible. The worst people are teaching the new kids what to do. … Most of these guys, they can’t deal with a regular partner. And for the most part they can’t deal with the citizens around them. So, its left to these guys [new cops] to just sit out there and kind of flounder.”
The Department of Justice investigation of the CPD had an almost identical take on the FTO program. “The Field Training Officer program, as currently structured, does not attract a sufficient number of qualified, effective leaders to train new probationary police officers” — PPOs — “[and] has an insufficient number of FTOs to meet demand, and fails to provide PPOs with appropriate training, mentorship and oversight.”
Brian, a former officer who recently left the force after less than two years, corroborated these claims about the current FTO program. He added that even after the FTO period, young officers are often sent to the most violent areas with little guidance from more experienced officers, who often seek out quieter areas of the city as they gain seniority.
“Before we had our own beat, or whatever, and maybe … partly due to maybe not enough vehicles, we would just pack into one van and park in these little areas,” Brian said, adding that the vans were often packed with up to eight brand-new officers who “weren’t very supervised and told to hang in these areas and told if we see something to go over the radio with it, write parking tickets.”
“Towards the end of when I was working there, you had to ride with somebody that was at least off their probation period,” Brian said.
I asked how long the probation period was, “It’s a year-and-a-half after you start the academy,” Brian said. “But, say it’s my first week out of the academy and I’m riding with somebody that’s just a year out of the academy. How much more experience and knowledge does this guy have, you know, to kinda supervise me? Maybe a little, some more than others. But there’s also a point where it’s almost kinda like the blind leading the blind.”
Still, Brian’s district did have specialized units that recruited gang informants. When I asked why he never approached these officers to learn how to recruit informants, he said, “We talked about it, but someone being new you kinda just don’t want to step out of line, or sound like … ”
Brian trailed off, and then added, “An older guy is like, ‘Who the Hell is this new guy? All of a sudden he has a few months on the job as he’s already like kinda poking his head out.’ Yeah, it was supposed to be like, ‘You’re new you’re supposed to be all ears. Just learning a lot, try to soak it in. You ask questions to try to learn stuff, but maybe not those kind exactly,” referring to recruiting gang informants.
By contrast, David, who joined the CPD in the late 1990s, said that 20 years ago the CPD tried, via the FTO program, “to set you with a guy that was good, that had a clue of what he was doing.”
Jay, a district tactical team sergeant who joined the CPD around the same time David did, said that he and his cohort of young beat officers continued to receive direct mentoring from both beat and tactical officers even after leaving the FTO program.
To illustrate this dynamic, Jay recounted a story in which he went with a tactical officer to arrest a gang member with a warrant. Jay said how impressed he was with the fact that the tactical officer brought along another gang member that both he and the arrestee knew in order to make the arrest without an altercation.
Jay said he believed that this mentoring engendered a culture of proactivity among young beat officers in his district. “It was always to us, the more gang members we knew, the more possibilities we had of solving shootings or murders. Because we knew who all the players were. We knew who the shooters were. We would talk to the guys and they felt comfortable to talk back to us.”
Still, according to David and Jay, there are a few current beat officers who are able the recruit informants from gangs.
When Jamie was a beat officer before moving to a specialized gang unit a few years ago, he maintained a network of gang informants. One of Jamie’s co-workers verified much of what Jamie told me, but it’s not difficult to tell why he was able to recruit informants after meeting him.
“It’s just that I feel morally obligated to my job to do a little bit more,” Jamie said, referring to his efforts to recruit informants. Jamie said he doesn’t see gang members as “thugs.” He expressed empathy for their disadvantaged upbringing.
Jamie said he thinks officers devoid of such empathy for gang members are far less likely to recruit informants. “For some, the mentality is ‘let them kill each other off.’”
He said he feels this attitude can be overcome through training. In fact, he said his drive and ability to recruit gang members mainly stems from the fact that he was lucky enough to be assigned a good FTO when he joined the force.
Mike exhibited similar personality traits to Jamie, and seemed to genuinely care about fighting crime. But he lacked training on how to engage with gang members. He seemed to view gang members as essentially aloof to the world around them. And although Mike did try to speak with gang members, he did so rarely. “I knew I’d be wasting my time usually if I tried to engage with them.”
“For most of my experiences … with gang members as a whole most did not want to talk or would give you vague or misleading information,” Mike said, adding that he talked to gang members “mostly to pass the time during the day just to actually see if they would talk to me at all.”
By contrast, Jamie — who also noted that gang members would sometimes provide false information — said he knew from his training that he could cross-verify an informant’s claim either though the district intelligence officer or through an independent third party.
Another reason beat cops don’t recruit informants and specialized officers don’t enlist the former’s help in doing so, has to do with the department’s organizational culture. Almost every officer I spoke with said that many officers will not be proactive, or strive for excellence unless they are certain to receive recognition.
For instance, Paul, who is a part of a plain-clothes beat unit that functions similarly to a tactical unit and has around three years on the CPD, believes that one of the reasons beat officers don’t recruit informants is because they don’t receive official credit for doing so.
He explained that informants who are officially recruited are put onto a special list, and are paid by members of a specialized unit within the CPD or a federal task force whenever they give good information that leads to an arrest, gun-recover, etc.
But Paul recounted that the one time he officially recruited an informant, it was the member of the federal task force paying the informant who received credit for the recruitment.
David, the high-ranking member of a specialized gang unit, expressed his frustration with the beat officers, and even tactical officers’ desire to receive recognition for officially recruiting informants. “I’ll go into a [CPD district office] and say, ‘Hey, you know, do you have any informants? We’ll sign them up under your name, your everything, we just have to pay them.’ And they look at me like I’m an idiot.”
David said he assures officers that “‘you can have the snitch, I’ll personally write the letter. Where you can have him back and he’s all yours. … I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me as long as idiot goes to jail.’” Despite this, according to David, the few officers recruiting informants are largely unwilling to officially register them.
To some extent this inconsistency points to a lack of training. For instance, Jay, the tactical-team sergeant, said he wasn’t sure how to officially register informants, and didn’t believe his team was even authorized to do so. In fact, Paul said that he only knows how to officially register informants because a member of the CPD assigned to a federal task force told him of the program.
As will be discussed in the next section, while informants can be recruited informally, this effort still isn’t recognized by the department. To overcome this inefficiency, most of the officers I interviewed emphasized that the CPD needs to establish an organizational culture that encourages officers to be proactive in their jobs, regardless of whether their efforts receive recognition.
Unfortunately, the current organizational culture and lack of training among beat cops has caused most officers from specialized units to maintain the belief that, in Paul’s words, “people pushing a beat car, if they were quote-unquote a ‘good police officer,’ they wouldn’t be in a beat car. They’d be in a specialized unit.”
The other specialized officers largely exhibited these views. “There are some officers that are terrified on a felony stop,” Jamie said. “The guy has a gun in the car, the gun starts going. All that. They see a guy in the corner and he pulls gun out, there are some officers that are just not mentally, physically equipped to handle that situation. So that’s how, that’s why the department starts dividing stuff into tactical officers, gang officers.”
David said he even believes tactical officers and other district-bound specialized officers aren’t recruiting informants. “I would say there’s almost no one that does it. No one tries to go out there and befriend that guy. Befriend that potential informant. Almost no one, especially on a beat, rapid response, [tactical] … if you’re in patrol you don’t do it. It’s probably one guy in maybe 100.”
Many beat officers seem to accept the separation between the different units. One beat officer with more than 10 years on the force only took issue with the lack of communication between specialized officers and beat officers because he worried that the former may be conducting operations in his beat that may increase his exposure to violence.
Still, the officers I interviewed said they believe that external factors also contribute to the low number of beat officers seeking gang informants. Namely, the behavior of gangs toward officers, and low morale in the department.
The term “police-community” relations is unlikely to stir up images of police officers and gang members standing on a street corner having a friendly conversation. But gang members are a part of the community, and just like with non-gang members, the police-gang relationship is subject to change.
According to Jay, during his time as a beat cop in the mid-1990s gang members were far more likely to be open to friendly interactions with police than they are now. Jay characterized his relationship with gang members in the 1990s using the phrase, “‘You got your job, I got mine.’”
Jay added that his attitude toward gang members was, “Hey I know you gotta take care of you and your family. I don’t agree with the way you’re doing it, and if I catch you dirty you’re going to go to jail, but it is what it is.”
“I understand that,” Jay said. “And [gang members] understood that we were going to lock them up if they were caught with a gun or shot someone. But we knew them. We knew who the players were. Today, the younger gang members … I’m driving down the street in my police car and they look right at me, and you know what they tell me? ‘Hey police! Suck my dick!’ Now, 15 years ago that didn’t happen.”
Interestingly, several former gang members from the 1990s expressed a similar frustration with the shift in young gang members’ behavior towards police. In fact, George Bady, a former high-ranking member of the Four Corner Hustlers on Chicago’s west side in the 90s, used almost the same exact phrase as Jay — “You got your job, I got mine” — to characterize his relationship with the police back then.
In the 1990s most gangs were essentially organizations built to maximize profits from the drug trade. This meant that business-savvy “gang leaders” strove to keep their young “foot soldiers” from attracting police pressure.
Since the mid-1990s, however, the gangs in Chicago have fragmented for a number of reasons, and the gangs present on the streets nowadays are mainly made up of young teenagers who are more interested in gaining social status through violence than maximizing drug profits.
However, David, Jay and Jamie stressed that relationships can still be established with the gangs of today. To build relationships with gang members, Jay said his tactical officers “are constantly chit-chatting” with gang members.
David said he takes a similar approach. “I actually use the same thing just about every time. Make them laugh. You know what I’m saying? Make them laugh, send them on their way, and don’t treat them like crap. And does it work every time? Certainly not. But next time you see them it’s, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ Remember the guy’s name, whatever it is. Remember his name. Or just play a joke with his name or something like that.
“And he’ll say, ‘Hey, you know my names is Tyrone.’ ‘Tyrun? Where you goin’ to.’ Stupid stuff. Just get them laughing and screwing around and, you know, just a bunch of times stopping them, just ask him a couple questions. You know like, ‘Hey, why are they shooting over here?’”
“You gotta get from small talk of ‘hey get off the corner’ to a relationship,” Jamie said. “And once you enter into that relationship, it doesn’t necessarily go away — unless they get killed. But they’ll always come speak to you if you’re respectful. That’s another thing, they like respect. They don’t want to be told, ‘Hey, get the fuck off the corner.’ They want you to … ‘Hey big homie, let me holler at you right quick.’”
Jamie then described an instance in which a gang member he established a relationship with provided information on a shooting. “You know, and they’ll come up and I’ll be like, ‘Hey.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Hey … I ain’t goin’ to lie to you … there was motherfuckers over here last night, we was celebrating a birthday party. He pulled up in the gas station, dude came out and tried to rob him, but that’s not our guys, though.’ You know, and that’s how they’ll tell it, ‘That’s not our guys.’ Basically what he’s saying is that’s not our gang conflict.”
Still, Jamie said that respect alone doesn’t always work with gang members, but that “sometimes you need leverage to establish a relationship. And I mean leverage like say you’re driving in on a revoked license. That means we can take your car. … But instead of taking your car, guess what I want to do? I want you to help me help this community. And maybe you could … and I’m not asking you to dime out everybody and give up the whole gang. I’m asking, when these dudes come out here shooting … let me get a plate, a car, who you’re into it with.”
Jamie said that when he was a beat officer, sometimes young gang member would “yell out, ‘Fuck the police’ or whatever.” But he recalled numerous instance where “the ‘big homie’ will tell them, like, ‘Hey hey bro, don’t disrespect him. He’s cool. He’s a cool officer.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Damn, alright.’ Or I’ve had them send guys back and make them apologize.”
However, Jamie emphasized that even this level of respect is founded on leverage. “They know if I don’t come here disrespecting you, if I got their guys disrespecting me, I’m going to heat this spot up. I’m going to take … you know I’m going to come over there, I’m going to start sitting on it. Sitting on a spot is the worst thing ever. Because they can’t sell. You can’t sell if a car is there. You just sit there.”
While these officers are able to overcome the deterioration in police-gang relations, it seems that beat officers with no training or mentoring see the gang members’ attitudes as too big an obstacle to overcome.
Adding to this, the 2015 release of the Laquan McDonald video, which depicts a CPD officer shooting a young black man, has caused many officers to shrink away from interacting with gang members. Many fear that such interactions could result in and altercation which could then result in a lawsuit or imprisonment if a video of the incident that goes viral on social media.
A recent NPR article including data from the CPD shows that the number of arrests and investigatory stops have declined significantly since the release of the Laquan video.
Almost every officer brought up the “Laquan effect” as a reason why beat officers don’t seek gang informants. Jay, who supervises many young officers, had a unique take on the phenomenon. Jay said he believes that while the low morale is somewhat justified, he also believes that the organizational culture within the CPD causes officers to shrink from the increasing challenges facing cops.
“When I got on, it was always ‘be careful, never trust them, watch their hands,'” Jay said. “‘They can’t hurt you if you know where their hands are.’ You know that’s kinda the golden rule. They can punch you, but the fight’s on.”
“What I think is happening now is, in training — this is just my opinion, again — in training officers are taught the proper way to do things. But I think everything is prefaced with ‘or you’re going to get sued, you could lose your job and go to jail.’ Well, let me tell you something, if you tell someone that enough they’re not going to want to do anything. That’s where I think the problem has come into play. And the truth behind it is, yes, we can get sued. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing your job.”
None of the officers I spoke with said that the issues preventing beat officers from seeking gang informants — training and organizational culture within the CPD — will change any time soon.
According to the Department of Justice report on the CPD, these officers are likely correct. “CPD told us of an ambitious dashboard of changes to its academy, in-service, pre-service and FTO training,” the report notes. “Currently these plans amount to verbal commitments with uncertain dates for completion.