Will new crime-fighting legislation save Chicago?

CHICAGO—Following an extended holiday weekend where Chicago experienced an elevated number of shootings and homicides, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law two crime-fighting bills just in time for the state’s concealed carry law deadline.

Attempting to make the streets safer and stem a longstanding “no snitch” tradition, where witnesses refuse to tell on offenders, House Bill 1139, sponsored by State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt and State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch goes into effect immediately and creates the Gang Crime Witness Protection Act. The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority will establish a Gang Crime Witness Protection Program reimbursing counties for assistance that they provide witnesses and victims. This includes moving expenses and temporary living costs.

“I would think this would be effective,” said Bob Jackson, executive director of CeaseFire’s Roseland branch, located on the South Side of Chicago. “Hopefully we can catch these young people before they become hardened criminals.”

‘Stronger than street gangs’

When a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old were shot in two separate incidents in parks over the weekend, Jackson’s team met with the families affected. “Citizens who do see these crimes need to step forward. If there’s a monetary reward for it, then so be it.”

“This legislation will empower people who might be afraid to testify against members of organized crime regimes,” Van Pelt said. “If witnesses are willing to tell the authorities everything they know about criminal activity, they can help stop the violence that is rampant in our communities.”

Welch said, “These bills will help make our schools safer by allowing for greater communication between our principals and law enforcement, and protect those who have the courage to stand up to gang violence.” He continued, “We have to show people that the law is stronger than street gangs.”

Drop in violence falls on deaf ears

A second bill Quinn signed will take effect Jan. 1. House Bill 2768, sponsored by Welch along with State Sen. Tom Cullerton, will require school principals and assistant principals to report any illegal gang activity, weapons use or possession to law enforcement officials. The new law will also require law enforcement officials and courts to notify school principals when a student is arrested for illegal gang activity.

Over the long holiday weekend between Wednesday and Sunday, in Chicago alone 12 victims were killed in shootings and at least 74 were shot in attacks across the city, according to the Chicago Police Department.

Yet Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel continue to boast an overall drop in violence.The news comes right in time for the July 9 court-mandated deadline for the Illinois state legislature to produce a concealed carry law after its last-in-the-nation gun ban was ruled unconstitutional in December, 2012.

New strategies to be implemented

Illinois’ Democratic governor last week issued an amendatory veto of House Bill 183 which would have regulated and allowed carrying concealed handguns in public places. Quinn asserts that his changes to the bill will “benefit the common good,” suggesting handguns not be allowed inside certain restaurants that serve alcohol.

On Monday, Quinn said the bloody Chicago weekend highlighted why his changes are necessary.

Democratic bill sponsor Rep. Brandon Phelps said Quinn took a huge risk by making changes to the contentious compromise legislation, especially since it had majority support in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. “We really believe we have enough votes to overwrite [Quinn],” Phelps told reporters last week. “(Quinn) should be more concerned with what could happen if we don’t override his veto,” Phelps said. “There could be mayhem.”

More crime-fighting strategies came at the city level Monday, when Chicago’s top cop announced changes to a community policing program encouraging residents to use their cell phones and social media to report crime, and offering them the chance to do so anonymously.

“We are using every asset, visible and virtual, traditional tools and new technologies, cops and community members, to make our neighborhoods safe,” Emanuel said.

Success in eye of the beholder

Rolling out into three high-crime areas in the city—the South and West sides and the River North area—the pilot program will also include a pilot Twitter program allowing police to share community alerts and missing residents reports with residents, as well as other information.

Still, McCarthy continues to stress that the department’s “comprehensive crime reduction strategy” has been successful.

According to police, this year Chicago has experienced 200 homicides, 76 fewer than there were last year this time, and 909 shootings, down from 1,193 for the same period in 2012. Last year closed out with more than 500 murders on the streets of Chicago.

“These new tools are an important step forward for the Chicago Police Department and for the city,” McCarthy said. “Our comprehensive policing strategy involves much more than policing alone, and by continuing to improve our communications with residents we will continue to foster stronger relationships that will benefit all of Chicago.”

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.