Justice, Restored? New North Lawndale Court Aims to Change Punitive System

Justice, Restored? New North Lawndale Court Aims to Change Punitive System

By Jenny Simeone-Casas, Sarah Conway, and Resita Cox

North Lawndale native Derek Brown is walking on his old block on 18th and Avers on a balmy August evening. He passes the spot where he and two of his best friends wrote their names in wet cement. He points out the apartment where his grandmother was evicted when he was 8. He’s stopped every few minutes as people shout out warm greetings.

Most days, Brown is a restorative justice facilitator with St. Agatha Catholic Church. The main part of his job, like most restorative justice work, is running peace circles: voluntary group conversations, often in response to a disagreement or conflict. The circle is a safe space where all parties can discuss what happened and why, without interruption, in hopes of reaching a resolution together.

Mondays and Wednesdays he runs a boxing program out of his garage for roughly 15 neighborhood kids, also using peace circles and other restorative practices to help them avoid conflicts.

Members of the North Lawndale Boxing League line up arm-lengths apart before practice on August 9, 2017, in front of Derek Brown's garage. "I've got all the bad kids in the community, the so-called bad kids. Of course everyone want to learn how to fight especially in this environment. Young men have a harder time because of the trash they walk intoÓ Brown said. But they don't just learn how to fight. They learn how to respect themselves." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Members of the North Lawndale Boxing League line up arm-lengths apart before practice on August 9, 2017, in front of Derek Brown's garage. "I've got all the bad kids in the community, the so-called bad kids. Of course everyone want to learn how to fight especially in this environment. Young men have a harder time because of the trash they walk intoÓ Brown said. But they don't just learn how to fight. They learn how to respect themselves." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Brown knows that restorative justice works—it helped turn around his own life—but he’s skeptical about a new criminal court opening in his neighborhood that will use those practices to help people atone for their crimes and reintegrate into the community. He, along with other long-time North Lawndale residents, say the court organizers have not done enough to reach out to people who have lived in the area their whole lives.

At 16th Street and Harding Avenue, he stops to shake hands with a lanky guy in his twenties named Bollo. To illustrate his point, he asks if Bollo has heard about the court, and the younger man says no.

“He’s not aware of the restorative justice [court]—and he’s in the community every day,” Brown said, pointing to Bollo. “This is the community right here.

It’s an ongoing problem for the court organizers, who have tried working with neighborhood groups to bring North Lawndale residents into the process. They say it’ll be a boon to the community to have a less punitive, more productive way of addressing crime, compared to incarceration or fines. They want to shift the way neighborhood residents and key players in Chicago’s criminal justice system think of justice. But even as the court begins taking cases, it faces two major hurdles: authentically engaging North Lawndale residents and raising enough money so that the court can serve them well.

The Challenges

The phrase “building the plane while it flies” has been used by numerous organizers to describe the opening of Illinois’s first Restorative Justice Community Court. Progress has come in fits and starts since planning began in 2014, thanks to problems finding a location for the court, losing and replacing key staff and ideological disagreements between court organizers. After delaying the planned opening earlier this year, the court set up shop on the UCAN campus on August 31. That first day, there were no cases on the docket.

“We’re trying to do something very different. You can’t just jump from doing same-old, same-old to something completely different,” said presiding Judge Colleen Sheehan on the anticlimactic opening after three years of planning.

What’s so different? The court will hear cases for low-level crimes (non-violent misdemeanors and felonies) for defendants ages 18 to 26 from the neighborhood. Instead of facing a trial and a prison sentence, they sit through a peace circle with a facilitator, the victim of the crime and other North Lawndale residents, to talk about what happened and why. Together they decide how the defendant can remedy the harm he or she has caused in the community—for example, through a drug rehabilitation program, a GED program, or job training. People who successfully navigate this court will have the charges wiped clean.

In the court’s second week, Sheehan heard two drug possession cases. Both defendants agreed to participate in the court and will be entering the private peace circle process in the coming weeks. On week three, Sheehan dropped both defendants’ electronic monitoring and invited them to join a court alumni board. There they could offer guidance to newer defendants. “I’m really interested in what you think,” said Sheehan.

Now open every Thursday, the court was designed so there’d be no separation between judge, court personnel and defendants—everyone sits around the same table. There are no jail cells where people await judgment, no one arrives in handcuffs, and everyone at the table introduces themselves before proceedings begin. Defendants are given time to ask questions and meet with their lawyers for legal counsel. There is no physical barrier blocking defendants from their family members and loved ones.

It’s a far cry from the high tension and rushed proceedings of the Cook County Criminal Court at 26th and California. Still, it’s hard for some long-time restorative justice practitioners to swallow. Restorative justice, they say, is about figuring out what people feel and having everyone move together toward a solution. Getting charged with a crime is not supposed to be part of that process; it changes the nature of the situation, creating disparate levels of power that are anathema to peace circles.

“The rush to set up the court has [shortchanged] the process of building trust between a system and a community that’s been hurt by that system,” said Elena Quintana, the executive director of Adler’s University’s Institute of Public Safety and Social Justice. Quintana and her team monitor and evaluate a network of North Lawndale organizations using restorative practices (better known as the Restorative Justice Hub). “They really need more time to build a relationship, goodwill and vision between those two entities,” she said.

Fred Cooper has seen the community engagement efforts and planning meetings firsthand at St. Agatha, where he’s worked for three years as a peace circle facilitator.

“Honestly, I just think we’re not all on the same page here. It’s all over the place,” Cooper said of the court’s launch.

Some St. Agatha staffers are working with the court, but Brown and Cooper have stayed on the periphery.

“[Restorative justice] means too much to me,” Cooper said, adding that he doesn’t think it can operate freely within the criminal justice system. With this court, he feels the peace circles become “mandatory,” since defendants will choose it as an alternative to incarceration, regardless of whether they want to repair the harm they’ve caused.

Community Involvement

Over the past three years, court organizers tried to reach out to North Lawndale residents to get them involved in setting up the court. Employees of the Lawndale Legal Christian Center ran a door-knocking campaign to spread the word, held community meetings and focus groups, trained residents in circle-keeping and hired liaisons who already practice restorative justice in the neighborhood.

And the court has community partners, like Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center (LCLC) who joined the effort early as a main organizer. They also reached out to community leaders, like Pastor Phil Jackson, who were too busy with their own programs to get involved. The founder and executive director of the Firehouse Community Arts Center, Jackson sees the court as a second chance for people who are arrested for small-time crimes, who would otherwise end up incarcerated. “There are people who really, really need it,” Jackson said, adding that the court needs more consistent engagement to win over a skeptical community.

And while Jackson is not involved, he’s helped the court find a case for last year’s pilot program: 21-year-old Manny, a North Lawndale resident, avid chess player and aspiring accountant.

Manny displays his hands for a portrait on September 5, 2017 after work. An ex-boxer in his youth, he considers himself more of a chess player these days. "Chess makes you think about the situation you are in and what you can do to get out," Manny said. "It makes you think ahead. You can't just go off top and do the wrong move because it can hurt you." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Manny displays his hands for a portrait on September 5, 2017 after work. An ex-boxer in his youth, he considers himself more of a chess player these days. "Chess makes you think about the situation you are in and what you can do to get out," Manny said. "It makes you think ahead. You can't just go off top and do the wrong move because it can hurt you." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Manny met Jackson when he got involved in after-school programs at the Firehouse when he was 17. Last year he was arrested on a weapons charge and spent four months in Cook County Jail until Jackson connected him and his family with the LCLC. (His lawyers asked to omit his last name to protect his privacy.)

Manny doesn’t use the phrase “restorative justice” when he describes his experience in the pilot, but he appreciated the peace circles. “We talk about life and what’s going on, what you can do to be yourself and make you better,” he said. “Peace circles teach lessons. I learned not to be cool, don’t go off top, think before you move, just like chess.”

Now, Manny is on probation, working a job that he found through the LCLC. While he wouldn’t have qualified for the now-launched court (his weapons charge is considered a violent crime), he thinks it’s a positive addition to his community.

“[In regular criminal court,] the state is against you, they’re trying to get you locked up, they ain’t trying to help you because they’re getting paid off you coming to court every day,” Manny said. “At the Restorative Justice Court, they’re trying to help you, they want you to do peace circles and whatever the victim wants you to do.”

“[But] the state’s still making money off you,” Manny continued after a pause. Despite their better intentions, the court is still a court, and it’s still part of a criminal justice system.


Quintana, one of the court’s biggest supporters, says another monumental challenge for the court is to get enough funding.

“There’s so much will to do restorative justice work—as long as it’s tiny and isn’t funded properly,” she said. “It’s like someone saying, ‘I’m going to fund all of the drywall and wood and I want you to build a house.’ And you end up building a shell of a house because you don’t have the nails, or the wiring, or the paint, or the roofing. That’s what we are doing with this Restorative Justice Community Court.”

The LCLC’s Nellis, a court organizer, said it would cost about $2 million to operate at full capacity for the first year. A month later, though, after the court had opened, Nellis walked that figure back, noting that it would depend heavily on the number of defendants and the types of services they need. Though the court received a $200,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant awarded through the Center for Court Innovation last year, Nellis is still fundraising.

“The grant is not much. It doesn’t fund [peace] circles, wraparound services, the judge, the state’s attorney, the public defender, none of the staff,” Nellis said.

Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy Evans, explains his plans to bring Restorative Justice to other South Side communities. Accredited as one of the pioneers of the Restorative Justice Community Court, Evans explains the need for an alternative court, "I have to admit that the system that the larger community has embraced in the past has not worked," he said. "We've tired arresting these young people, prosecuting them, they have been convicted, incarcerated, but the recidivism rate does not go down. We need something new." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy Evans, explains his plans to bring Restorative Justice to other South Side communities. Accredited as one of the pioneers of the Restorative Justice Community Court, Evans explains the need for an alternative court, "I have to admit that the system that the larger community has embraced in the past has not worked," he said. "We've tired arresting these young people, prosecuting them, they have been convicted, incarcerated, but the recidivism rate does not go down. We need something new." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

The grant funded the salary, travel and evaluation of the court’s first coordinator. For everything else, the court has had to rely on other sources, like the Steans Family Foundation, which funded consultants to establish a steering committee, a practice and procedure manual and part of the pilot program, to test collaboration between local nonprofits serving the court, Nellis said.

Cook County also pitched in a $100,000 to help fund the pilot program, but it could not commit to funding the actual court, Nellis said. But the county funds the personnel (like the judge and court reporter) who would be employed by the court whether or not the restorative justice program was in place.

Cook County’s Chief Judge Timothy Evans, one of the driving forces behind the court, hopes to absorb its costs into the Cook County budget eventually, and expand the model beyond the West Side—if the first year goes well.

“This is just the start,” Evans said to a crowd of court personnel and media gathered for the press conference announcing the court back in July. “Englewood, we are on our way! Roseland, we are on our way!”

But the court’s opening reveals a cautionary tale. If North Lawndale is an iceberg, court organizers say they have only grazed the tip. To go into new neighborhoods, the work increases exponentially.

The greater goal, ensuring that ownership shifts away from organizers to community members, is even harder, according to Father Larry Dowling, a pastor at St. Agatha and a member of the court’s steering committee.

“From Derek [Brown]’s perspective and my own, it’s like, how do we get people who we wouldn’t normally see?” said Dowling, adding that the court has operated at a shallower definition of “community.”

“But the deep dive? We’re not there yet. It is that deep dive that we need to do.”

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

Seeking a Home, Without a Country

Seeking a Home, Without a Country

Amina and her children (Daniel Rowell)

Amina and her children (Daniel Rowell)

By Sarah Conway

Asylum seekers occupy the uncertain ground between outsiders and refugees. Unlike refugees, who are pre-screened by the government and can access public assistance upon arrival, asylum seekers find their own route to the U.S.—sometimes illegally, sometimes by visa—and are ineligible to receive any government assistance while awaiting a decision on their cases.

The denial of federal benefits, such as food assistance, paired with long delays and denials of the right to work leaves the United States alone among developed countries in its treatment of asylum seekers, according to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, “At Least Let Them Work.”

Many arrive with little to no savings, and it can take up to three years for asylum cases to process, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; it used to take just six to eight weeks. The delay is the result of a perfect storm that has clogged the U.S. asylum system since 2014: an influx of Central American immigrants and an ongoing global refugee crisis driven by the Syrian Civil War. Even acquiring the right to work can be a struggle: Asylum seekers in the United States are prohibited from working until at least 180 days have passed (150 days after filing and 30 days of filing) since they submitted the asylum application, unless they are granted asylum sooner.

“Our system is inhumane,” laments Melanie Schikore, the executive director of the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants in Mount Greenwood. “It leaves an asylum seeker with the choice between homelessness while their case processes, or working unauthorized which can jeopardize a pending case,” says Schikore. For just over three years, her organization has provided housing and support to asylum seekers and refugees through the Marie Joseph House of Hospitality for Women in Hyde Park as well as a men’s home in Cicero.

Asylum seekers from Africa have been hit especially hard in Chicago. They disproportionately make up seventy percent of all participants at centers like Heartland Alliance’s Kovler Center, which predominantly serves asylum seekers with active cases in Chicago. Over fifty-five percent of Kovler Center’s clients are homeless at intake, and four out of the top five countries of origin are in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are three stories of Africans caught up in the asylum seeker housing crisis.

Names and certain details of these stories have been changed to protect the identity of asylum seekers with active cases.

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Amina is an asylum seeker from Somalia living in West Ridge. She’s been waiting six months for her work permit to arrive so she can work to pay her rent.

I want you to know that an asylum seeker is someone that is forced out by circumstance. No one leaves their home without the fear of what’s behind them. Somalia had no peace, and there was a different kind of suffocation in the refugee camp in Djibouti. The trauma from your past is baggage you bring with you to America, too, and it finds a way to creep back into your life.

I came to Chicago during a cold December in 2016 with my two children, ten-year-old Mohammad and eight-year-old Zahra, with nothing. We didn’t even have coats. We floated from sleeping on the streets in West Ridge to staying with Somali families who would throw down a mattress for us in their basement laundry rooms during the winter. Every week we would move to a new place, and sometimes that was outside. For me, that feeling of being alone in the darkness of the laundry rooms where we slept triggered my memories of what I ran from in Somalia.

I didn’t anticipate the problems I faced here. I knew no one, but I thought at least I was coming to a country run by a developed government. But there was no help from the government. I found myself on the street roaming from place to place.

This had an impact on my children. Every day I would walk Mohammed and Zahra to school, but with no steady place to live, their grades would drop. At the same time, I wasn’t allowed to work to get money to provide for us. This stress took a toll on my mental health and morale.

In the beginning I was so depressed. In my heart, I would ask myself, “Why aren’t people helping me?” But today, I realize there are so many good people who have helped me along the way—you can call them good Samaritans. When I moved into this basement, it was empty with just two mattresses on the ground. Now, it is furnished. Just yesterday, volunteers were here visiting me. These people really changed how I view my life now in America.

But the biggest thing I can celebrate is the therapy and medical treatment that I have received at Kovler Center. It’s helped me regain my faith in humanity. Once I get my work permit, I will be able to provide for my own children. I dream of studying very hard and becoming a nurse. That’s my goal in America: to educate my children and myself.

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rowell asylum 2.png

Paul left his country of Congo Brazzaville twenty years ago after his parents disappeared. After he settled in Canada to pursue his PhD, his wife was deported from their home due to a visa renewal delay stemming from a university strike. Paul says his wife’s deportation triggered his past trauma of losing his parents to state violence. Paul, who is now in his forties, sought asylum in the U.S. and spent nine months in an Uptown homeless shelter with two young children and an infant.

Always I saw the only way to make my life better was to study. So I kept studying and working to achieve my two master’s degrees in chemistry and biochemistry of natural products, then I moved on to acquire my PhD in Canada.

Everything changed when I started to struggle with my PhD scholarship. Because of issues outside of my control, my wife was deported to Congo Brazzaville from Canada. A particular judge decided that she had to be deported because of issues that arose from my student visa. It was a black situation.

I’ve always carried the trauma of my parents’ disappearance; I spent twenty years without my family, so I had tried to create a new family with my wife, and then government was again shattering everything that I had built, only this time it was in Canada. In my mind, I thought, this is a cycle. I arrived in Chicago with a baby, a five-year-old, and a seven-year-old, with no mother. Imagine your kids asking, “Where is Mom?” 

For me, the asylum process has been a jump into the unknown. There you are floating around in the darkness, looking, but every possible door feels blocked. You don’t have a work permit and you don’t have housing. You have nothing.

At first we stayed at a hotel downtown, but at $300 a day I realized we couldn’t stay there, and the only option was to go to a shelter. I heard to head to Uptown for temporary housing. I remember arriving there on a Friday, and on Monday I had a meeting with the case manager who said we could stay for a few months.

For me it was great, but for my kids it was crazy. They lived in better conditions in Canada. All we had now was a single room with four beds and one space for baggage and clothes. They would say, “Dad, are you sure we are in the right place? Why are we in a small room with many beds and everyone around us is screaming and making noises? It’s like they are sick.”

You see real life in a shelter. It’s a place where you can see every level of society, and their struggle.

Everything changed when I met a man who had heard about my qualifications. He called me one day and said, “Oh my god, you are not in a good place. The U.S. should really want you here with your skills.” I said, “No, sir, I’m really here in the shelter.” He discovered that I have more than fifteen years’ experience leading labs, and I was researching cosmeceuticals, a sort of marriage between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, in Canada. He told me, “I have the money and you have the brain. Let’s start a business.”

Now, I live in a home with my children and I’m a cofounder, principal scientist, and the doctor of our lab in the northwest suburbs. I have Americans working for me, and I pay their salaries. I’m doing cosmetics and I’m working with the FDA to make natural products. I love this work.

I’m waiting for my asylum interview these days. After I get asylum, I will apply for my wife to come. When she is here it will be the best thing for everyone. For my kids, and for her, too.

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Imam Ousmane Drame

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Ousmane Drame is an immigrant from Mali and the imam of Masjid Al Farooq, a mosque that has served African immigrants and African American in Calumet Heights since 2002. As a community and spiritual leader, he has provided emergency housing for asylum seekers predominantly from West Africa for the past ten years.

We had no plan in mind to host asylum seekers. It just sort of happened. The houses were intended for people coming from the prison system who were struggling at finding housing and reintegrating into the community. Although the reasons behind the problems of these two groups might be different, at the end of the day they are facing the same issue: they have no place to live.

If someone has West African blood, any mosque in the city will tell them to go to Imam Ousmane on the South Side. Our first asylum seeker found me in 2007. She was running from government persecution in the Ivory Coast, and I thought to myself, we can’t turn her away, so I found a space for her.

Asylum seekers are often nervous and scared. Many of the asylum seekers we have helped are running from oppressive governments, slavery, female genital mutilation, and forced marriages.

I’ve seen with my own eyes the massive delays in the asylum system. It went from nine weeks to two or three years to get your call. We tell asylum seekers they have six months here so they don’t feel too comfortable, but in the end, we would never ask them to leave. Where would they go?

The housing helps them to some extent, but it isn’t the same as if they had a professional therapist or psychologist. At the end of the day, I’m an imam and I can treat the spiritual aspect, but there is a lot of mental trauma too, just like our brothers from the prison system.

Now, I’m overseeing six houses with about twenty-six formerly incarcerated Muslims and eleven Muslim asylum seekers about four blocks from the mosque. All this housing was funded by Muslims in the Chicago area.

Nine out of ten times, when they get asylum, they get work and they move on. It makes me feel good because at least we were able to help someone become self-sufficient.

This report was produced in collaboration with the South Side WeeklyAdditional reporting by Timna Axel and Ryan Cortazar of the Police Accountability Collaborative.

A Taste of West Africa on the South Side

A Taste of West Africa on the South Side


For many West African immigrants, neighborhoods like Chatham, South Chicago, and Bronzeville are becoming a home away from the North Side nucleus of the African immigrant community. Five West African immigrant business owners share how food is a bridge to preserve their culture and build new homes on Chicago’s South Side.

Mariam and Ade Lala, owners of Southside African Restaurant

Mariam and Ade Lala, owners of Southside African Restaurant (Sarah Conway)

Mariam and Ade Lala, owners of Southside African Restaurant (Sarah Conway)

Restaurant owners Mariam and Ade Lala are determined to live the American Dream without sacrificing their Nigerian identity. “I feel American now, I really do, but at the same time at home and in my restaurant, I’m one-hundred percent Nigerian,” explains Mariam as she sits with her husband Ade in a bright orange booth at Southside African Restaurant, with the sounds of ping-pong and customers chatting in Yoruba in the background. “The generosity and love of our culture is something we are trying to bring with us to South Chicago.”

Business isn’t just about selling food they love: they want to build community. “During the summertime, we are all out in the parking lot next to the restaurant grilling, playing Nigerian music and just making people feel comfortable in their own spaces,” explains Ade.

But it wasn’t always that way. “When I was opening this business, I didn’t have a lot of money to start but I wanted to take a chance that the neighborhood would love our food,” Ade said. It seems to be working: now, most customers are locals looking for a taste of the African diaspora on a plate, he said.

Nigerians make up the bulk of catering orders for naming ceremonies and birthdays, and they often visit for grilled suya, a spicy shish kebab, in the adjacent parking lot during the summer. With more and more West African families moving to the South Side, Mariam and Ade feel this growing community needs more unity. “Look at the journey from here to Africa. How can we migrate out here and not be together?” said Mariam.

Southside African Restaurant, 8311 S. Baltimore Ave. Monday-Saturday, 10am-10pm. (872) 666-5588.

Alioune Diagne, owner of Mandela African Caribbean Grocery

Alioune Diagne, owner of Mandela African Caribbean Grocery (Sarah Conway)

Alioune Diagne, owner of Mandela African Caribbean Grocery (Sarah Conway)

Alioune Diagne is often on the phone bouncing between his native Wolof and French, taking orders for fresh baguettes.

“French bread is very important for West African immigrants because of the influence France had during colonialism. It’s become a regular part of our diet, and for Malians, Senegalese, or Cote d’Ivoirians living on the South Side, my shop provides it fresh,” says Diagne as he hands a large fresh loaf to a Togolese customer at his African grocery on 79th Street.

He says almost all his customers are West Africans living in the area looking for specialty items like Dutch Calvé mayonnaise. “It has this very particular taste that they are missing from home, and at the end of the day I’m in the business of selling items that make people feel like home,” says Diagne. His two-room shop is filled with popular items like dried baobab fruit, tangy gari flour, and dried hibiscus leaves.

Food is a bridge for memories and traditions from West Africa; Diagne says: “You can immigrate to a new country but there are foods that are a part of you.”

Mandela African Caribbean Grocery, 722 E. 79th St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-8:30pm. (773) 723-2111.

Boyede Sobitan, co-founder of OjaExpress

Boyede Sobitan, co-founder of Oja Express (Sarah Conway)

Boyede Sobitan, co-founder of Oja Express (Sarah Conway)

“How do you tell if your yam is good?…You check the ends, feel for any brown soft spots, and cut into the middle to make sure they aren’t spoiled,” says Boyede Sobitan as he eyes a mound of leathery Ghana yams in the back corner of La Fruteria grocery in South Chicago.

Yams aren’t cheap, and he only wants to select the best for OjaExpress, his grocery delivery app that specializes in African and Caribbean ingredients, largely sourcing from local shops like La Fruteria. It’s an endeavor Sobitan co-founded in 2015 to help African families find cherished food items like ground ogbono seeds or palm oil on the South Side.

Coming from a Nigerian immigrant family himself, Sobitan grew up frequenting the city’s multicultural groceries that allow African families to prepare traditional food like egusi stew at home. Though these stores are a “happy place” for him, he says they aren’t always accessible for busy moms or professionals who don’t have time to drive to the far north or south of the city.

With OjaExpress, Sobitan says the growing African and Caribbean population no longer has to scour the polar ends of the city for ingredients to make the dishes they love.

Order online at ojaexpress.com(877) 472-1180. info@ojaexpress.com

Adama Ba, owner of Gorée Cuisine

Adama Ba, owner of Gorée Cuisine (Sarah Conway)

Adama Ba, owner of Gorée Cuisine (Sarah Conway)

Before Adama Ba opened Gorée Cuisine, his airy restaurant with honey-colored walls in Kenwood, he already served the Senegalese community as a tailor and clothing store owner.

“Imagine fitted, elegant clothing in unique cuts with brilliant colors,” Ba says, referring to the Ankara maxi skirts and other contemporary Senegalese styles that he still sells at a storefront next to his new restaurant.

Last December, Ba opened Gorée Cuisine, serving up bold dishes like chicken yassa and tiebu djenne, the national dish of Senegal made of rice, yams, cabbage and fish. His inspiration comes from his home on Gorée, a tiny forty-five-acre island just two miles from Dakar where roughly twenty million Africans were sold into slavery. The island, now popular as a pilgrimage site for diaspora tourists, was a natural bridge to Ba’s new life in Chicago.

“When I moved to the South Side, I felt that I already had this deep connection from Gorée island,” he explains. “For me, I see the South Side as a beacon of Black culture and art, and Gorée was the last part of Africa that many African Americans experienced before the journey to the Americas.”

There’s a growing Senegalese community on the South Side, Ba says, from hair braiding shops to restaurants. With two storefronts in Kenwood, he hopes he has planted a seed for a community center. “I would love for a Little Africa to be on 47th,” Ba says. “Maybe it will happen one day.”

Gorée Cuisine, 1126 E. 47th St. Monday-Sunday, 8am-10:30pm. (773) 855-8120. goreecuisine.com

It’s Been One Year Since Mayor Emanuel Put a “Down Payment” on Police Reform

It’s Been One Year Since Mayor Emanuel Put a “Down Payment” on Police Reform


One year ago today, a scathing report on the state of the Chicago Police Department was released to the public. Among its many explosive findings, the mayor-appointed Police Accountability Task Force found that “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”

A week after that, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaimed that the city was placing a “down payment” on police reform—committing to 25 of the 126 recommendations made in the report—but, according to members of the task force, legal experts, and other local leaders, that payment has not been made in full.

Of the 25 items Emanuel promised to implement “immediately,” nearly half have been put into play, according to an analysis by City Bureau, a nonprofit journalism group. Some critical changes have shown success, but many have been stymied.

The city acknowledges the completion rate doesn’t look great, but emphasizes that it is committed to a sustained effort. “I think you could look at this and say ‘barely half are implemented,’ but what you want to look at is that the from the very beginning, [we’ve been] committed to engaging on these reforms and making them happen,” Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp said. “If you look at the body of work, a significant number are implemented, the majority of the rest are underway and there’s been a clear commitment to get them done.”

Below is a synopsis of where the city has made substantial progress, where it has failed, and where it is stuck in limbo, collected from City Bureau and Invisible Institute’s “One Year Later” Tracker, an annotated version of the mayor’s 25 proposed reforms that is open to public comment.

Now in Play

Progress within the department’s Crisis Intervention Team training (to help officers approach mental health situations) is “encouraging,” according to Alexa James, the executive director of National Association on Mental Illness and a former Police Accountability Task Force member.

“They’re taking the [Department of Justice] report seriously,” James says. “People may be frustrated because training has slowed down, but it’s because they’re not doing a Band-Aid fix just to get numbers up. They’re building a foundational team.”

That team includes a new leader, 16-year CPD veteran Lt. Antoinette Ursitti, more sergeants, more community partners, and more officers engaged with the program on a volunteer basis. But when it comes to the raw numbers promised by the mayor in April 2016, James says the department’s 30 percent certification goal is unlikely to be met by the end of 2017.

Three other items that are either implemented or underway include expanded use of body cameras, the development of an Early Intervention System to find and retrain officers that are likely to commit misconduct, and the recording of all Bureau of Internal Affairs interviews, according to Karen Sheley of the American Civil Liberties Union and the CPD’s March 2017 “Next Steps for Reform” report.

Likewise, Chicago Survivors executive director Susan Johnson says that “things are going extremely well with CPD” when it comes to providing relief for Chicago families affected by homicide through the nonprofit’s support and training.

“We prize our relationship with the CPD,” she adds. “I’d call it a good and complex relationship. I think we’ve been making some good progress.”

Stalled or Unknown

According to two members of the Police Accountability Task Force who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the issue, many of the city’s promises on increased oversight, transparency, and rebuilding trust within communities have lagged.

The reason, the task force members say, is due to an apparent drop in federal pressure and employment turnover within the department, including the unexpected departure of Emanuel’s handpicked reform czar, Anne Kirkpatrick, in January.

A clear example is the CPD’s third-party misconduct hotline that would allow police officers to make anonymous complaints within the department. Though the hotline is ready and was supposed to go live on April 3, it is currently awaiting CPD approval, according to former task force member Inspector General Joe Ferguson: “At CPD’s request, we have invested months into creating a completely anonymous hotline. We are waiting for CPD to tell us when they are ready to go live,” he says.

CPD says it’s looking ahead despite the setbacks. “The reforms we have made over the past year are built on the principles of partnership and trust between our residents and our officers, and they laid the foundation for the 2017 reform plan we outlined just a few weeks ago,” says CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. “Reform is in our self-interest and that is why Chicago has been, is, and always will be committed to reform.”


Since promising to issue quarterly progress reports, the city has failed to update Chicago residents on a number of changes within the department, including those that will be influenced by this summer’s union contract negotiations.

But it’s not just the public that’s been left out of the loop; despite convening the Police Accountability Task Force in 2016, Emanuel hasn’t reconvened the full group since it released its report, according to one unnamed task force member, who is surprised that the mayor did not approach the group to discuss best practices, considering the amount of time and effort put into researching the report.

When it comes to the mayor’s reform promises: “There were a lot of omissions. For example there’s nothing [there] relating to the various collective bargaining agreements, which the mayor continues to be silent on,” task force chair and Chicago Police Board president Lori Lightfoot says.

(Still, Lightfoot says it’s important to look beyond the mayor’s 2016 list to see where the city has made major changes to the police department, including the creation of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which passed City Council in October.)

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Internal Affairs, which reviews the majority of police misconduct complaints, “remains a big black box,” Lightfoot adds. “One of the problems is [that] BIA puts out so little information publicly. CPD is going to produce an annual report, but what about BIA? It should be putting out info on a quarterly basis just like [its civilian counterparts] will be doing.”

Also of note, the Trump administration’s decision to ”pull back” on civil rights probes of police departments, including Chicago, decreases the external pressure for CPD to make substantive changes. CPD produced its 2017 roadmap for reform but “it’s unclear what the timelines are and who’s responsible for deliverables,” says the aforementioned task force member who asked not to be identified. Without that “we’ll run into the same problems… We need ownership, as in these are the deliverables and here are the benchmarks we’re going to hit.”

As the other unnamed task force member puts it, the most important failure has been the city’s lack of transparency, which “makes it so difficult for citizens to know where progress is being made.”

This report was produced in collaboration with Chicago MagazineAdditional reporting by Timna Axel and Ryan Cortazar of the Police Accountability Collaborative.

Rites of Commerce

Rites of Commerce

Shop owners in Austin worry the proliferation of churches in their commercial districts is making it harder to do business.


Lawrence LeBlanc has been doing business in Austin for more than a decade. The furniture store owner operates on North Avenue, a high-traffic commercial corridor. LeBlanc’s business sits several hundred feet from a bus stop. One neighbor is a corner store. There’s a copy and print store across the street.

But many of LeBlanc’s neighbors aren’t fellow businesses. His immediate neighbor to the right, his across-the-street-neighbor, and the new tenant of the old bank building on the corner: all churches.

“When you have [so many] storefronts being used for churches, people who are shopping will not come into that area because they know that it’s mostly churches, and churches only open on Sundays,” said LeBlanc.

The issue isn’t limited to foot traffic. Parking is also a sticking point, as are the liquor license restrictions on any business within 100 feet of a church. And since churches don’t pay property taxes, they don’t contribute to the local Tax Increment Financing district, which redistributes excess property tax revenue into community redevelopment funds, and which is supposed to be a tool for economic revitalization.

“On a Sunday it looks wonderful out here with all of the cars, suits, and ties,” said Malcolm Crawford, who co-founded the Austin African American Business Networking Association and owns a business on Chicago Avenue, about a mile south of LeBlanc’s store. “But then around 1 or 2 p.m., when everyone leaves, it all goes back to us trying to survive.”

Operating a business in Austin — a neighborhood that struggles with disinvestment and crime — is already a challenge, especially for those who rely on foot traffic. Crawford and LeBlanc both own businesses on commercial strips where storefront churches are prevalent. They say they’ve spoken to other business owners who share their concerns: city regulations and economic conditions often favor churches at the expense of stores.

“It’s not that we don’t get along,” said Crawford, who added that he knows many of the pastors on the block. “We are not frustrated with the church itself. Most of us go to church. We are frustrated with the structures.”

Among those structures are TIF districts and Special Service Areas, two main ways that the city incentivizes economic development, which are dependent on property tax. Even if churches are renting a property, in some cases they are able to apply for a property tax exemption on behalf of the landlord. And because they’re only used once or twice a week, landlords are more likely to rent to churches than store owners, Crawford said.

The commercial corridors on North and Chicago Avenues are part of the Austin TIF district; since 2007, the majority of funds ($2.3 million, or 60 percent) was invested in public improvements such as streetlight improvements, road resurfacing and alley construction. Business owners are keenly aware that storefront churches benefit from these upgrades without paying for them.

‘Soul City Corridor’

Crawford and other local business leaders are trying to create a “Soul City Corridor,” running on Chicago Avenue between Austin and Central. Crawford, who is board chair of Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center on that strip, said the Soul City project aims to showcase and attract African-American businesses and cultural establishments. Four new businesses in this vein — a travel agency, a sit-down restaurant, a bistro, and a sweets shop — have opened within the past two years. But at least a quarter of the establishments — the majority in the center of the strip — are churches. (Last December, the city announced an SSA just outside of the Soul City Corridor, starting east of Central Avenue on Chicago Avenue; in an SSA, property owners must agree to an additional property tax, which is then used to beautify and promote a business district.)

Still, churches don’t merely exist for financial or economic purposes, said Frances Kostarelos, author of Feeling the Spirit: Faith and Hope in an Evangelical Black Storefront Church.

“They’re a source of vitality and educational and cultural significance,” said Kostarelos, an anthropologist who has studied storefront churches on Chicago’s West Side. “These are really important institutions that needs to be understood by anyone who wants to be a neighbor.”

Layla Bitoy’s store, Bitoy's Sweet Treats, is pictured on part of the "Soul City Corridor" on Chicago Ave. on Monday morning, Feb. 13, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Kanaar | City Bureau)

Layla Bitoy’s store, Bitoy's Sweet Treats, is pictured on part of the "Soul City Corridor" on Chicago Ave. on Monday morning, Feb. 13, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Kanaar | City Bureau)

Part of being a good neighbor, said pastor Robert Stevenson, is engaging with local residents and providing services to the community. Rock of Our Salvation Church, about a 10-minute walk from Sankofa Cultural Center, has worked with Circle Urban Ministries for more than 30 years to offer a law clinic, after-school programs, a medical clinic and food pantry.

“The founders wanted [our church] to be salt and light to the world. They had a biblical principle of understanding social justice and racial reconciliation,” said Stevenson, who grew up on the South Side but now lives in Austin.

But he recognizes that neighboring churches do not provide the same type of services. He added, “Community churches are not being intentional and engaging [with the neighborhood]. That’s why you see those doors closed throughout the week.”

Though pastors along the commercial strips of Chicago and North Avenues said they organized at least one clothing drive or food drive in the past year, none had regular weekday daytime programming bringing people inside, according to interviews with pastors, posters and handouts.

Attracting Loiterers

And LeBlanc, the furniture store owner, says that the empty churches become magnets for loiterers: “All week long these places are closed. It creates a safe haven for people to hang out and do their dirty deeds,” LeBlanc said.

Rev. Kenneth Giles of Second Mount Olive M.B. Church situated on part of the "Soul City Corridor" on Chicago Ave., leads service on Sunday morning, Feb. 12, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Kanaar | City Bureau)

Rev. Kenneth Giles of Second Mount Olive M.B. Church situated on part of the "Soul City Corridor" on Chicago Ave., leads service on Sunday morning, Feb. 12, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Kanaar | City Bureau)

Stevenson thinks it’s due to a lack of resources, not desire, that keeps other pastors from launching additional programming. He noted that most of his congregants hail from the neighborhood, which is not the case for many other churches in Austin.

It’s a common phenomenon in northern cities after the Great Migration, according to research by University of Chicago sociology professor Omar M. McRoberts. Churches sprang up that appealed to people with “distinct origins and affinity groups — whether working-class Baptists from North Carolina or middle-class Methodists from Virginia,” he said in an interview for his book Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood.

“If a church distinguishes itself demographically and culturally, people will commute from other parts of the city, and even from outside the city, to attend it if that’s where they feel at home,” said McRoberts.

That could explain why some Austin churches have active, insular congregations but minimal community outreach. Some say they wish they could provide more programming, but say they lack the funding and staff.

“Over the summer I would love to have classes for the kids when they are out of school,” said Pastor Kenneth Giles, who leads Mt. Olive M.B. Church, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. But Giles is a full-time social worker whose shifts change on a weekly basis. Despite his church’s expansive facility — the building includes five classrooms, two auditoriums, a basement equipped for computer courses, and a newly renovated banquet hall — it cannot afford to hire someone to run the programs, Giles said.

If churches aren’t able to host programming during the week, business leaders have other requests that they say could help encourage commerce and, ultimately, bring economic change to the neighborhood. For instance, they could ask congregants to respect loading zones on Sundays and make their own parking lots available to the public during the week.

Layla Bitoy’s is pictured outside her store, Bitoy’s Sweet Treats, located on the ÒSoul City CorridorÓ on Chicago Ave., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Kanaar | City Bureau)

Layla Bitoy’s is pictured outside her store, Bitoy’s Sweet Treats, located on the ÒSoul City CorridorÓ on Chicago Ave., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Kanaar | City Bureau)

Layla Bitoy, who owns Bitoy’s Sweet Treats and Bitoy’s Bistro, and Harold Blake, the owner of Avanti Elegant Boutique, all on Chicago Avenue, say parking is their businesses’ biggest challenge. Currently, there are no meters or hourly parking restrictions on the block. Bitoy is one of several small-business owners who said they asked the city to add parking restrictions to discourage people from parking all day in front of their storefronts, which limits the number of shoppers and makes it difficult to receive deliveries.

Crawford and other Soul City Corridor members are working with the city in order to launch a jazz club, as well as attract other restaurants and bars to Chicago Avenue. Illinois statutes require that establishments selling alcohol be at least 100 feet away from churches and day care centers; in order to circumvent the statute, they must either get the approval of a majority of registered voters in a 500-foot radius of the business or persuade the alderman to lift the restriction.

Many of these issues are in the purview of the alderman, whose office can influence whether churches get “special use” approval to open in a commercial zone. Chris Taliaferro, the alderman whose ward includes the Soul City Corridor, said he’s aware of the concerns of business owners but hesitates to call the “frustrations.”

‘”I think there’s concern about being able to economically develop these areas along the commercial corridors with the present number of churches that exist,” he said. “We have to find out how both can exist and flourish while still being in the same area. . . . We have to come up with creative measures to make sure that both can exist without one suffering.”

Communication Barrier

A major barrier appears to be communication. Though business owners say they have talked among each other about their concerns about churches, even those who are friendly with pastors are loath to bring the issues directly to congregants.

Crawford said his critiques of churches in the past year have caused some community members to accuse him of hating the church. “That just tore me,” said Crawford, adding that the problem is not the church but rather the economic conditions in which they live. “I love everything about Christianity. It’s just that the very thing that is supposed to save us is killing us.” One other business owner who was interviewed for this article asked his name and quotes be removed, for fear that he would lose customers over it. And Taliaferro warned that airing the business owners’ concerns could create a division in the community.

What the community really needs, according to Andrew Born of Austin Coming Together, is someone who can give businesses and churches “the opportunity to come together to determine what works best in their specific target area, and . . . make rules that are mutually beneficial.”

“These two parties should not be opposed, but the way the system and structure is set up they are,” said Born, director of programs and development at the community organization. “Both churches and small businesses have an important role in the community and in revitalizing the community. Austin needs a place where people can find jobs but people also have space to worship and build community and support systems.”

Crawford agrees. He said he is working with local political and business leaders to encourage more churches to meet in public schools and community centers, such as Sankofa, rather than renting storefronts, which can be more economical for them.

Crawford said he is looking for creative ways to break out of the structures that once posed challenges to his fellow business owners, while also working with the churches.

“We’re just looking for the right to coexist,” said Crawford. “We have tons of problems right now. The last thing we need is the churches against the businesses.”

This report was produced in collaboration with the Chicago Defender.

Inside Englewood’s Best Corner Store

Inside Englewood’s Best Corner Store


If Sami Deffala had more access to capital, he would swap out his simple bins of cabbage and sweet potatoes for real refrigeration units to carry more produce like mushrooms, mustard greens, and mangos.

“I would turn myself into a mini Whole Foods and customers would love it,” he says of his dream to reshape his shop, the Morgan Mini Mart, in the likeness of the newly arrived organic powerhouse chain.

Deffala, a South Side native who has been working the counter in Englewood corner stores for three decades, opened his own two-room shop on the corner of Morgan and 66th Street in 2003. Always dressed in untucked plaid button-downs, the 47-year-old usually stands behind his elevated counter—sometimes politely serving new customers, other times roasting regulars to a chorus of laughter as a steady stream of shoppers comes through. Other times Deffala leaves the register to prune disorder in his nearly immaculate shop; he adjusts a crooked box here, restocks cans of green beans there.

Corner stores, often portrayed as the heart and soul of the South and West Sides, were once vibrant community centers when they monopolized the grocery market after the flight of big box stores in the 1960s and 1970s. Residents became dependent on smaller stores, which later became notorious for having limited fresh food options, higher prices, and unpleasant environments.

Though Englewood often makes headlines for its gun violence and entrenched poverty, some residents see signs of a rebirth for the once-bustling economic center. Many corner store workers in the Englewood community say the glistening 18,000-square-foot Whole Foods embodies the change in shopping habits they have witnessed slowly over the years: less dependence on corner stores, higher expectations for quality service and products, and a slight shift toward healthier living.

“There are misconceptions about Englewood, as a whole, in Chicago,” says Deffala, who was born in Back of the Yards and worked for years at his father’s corner store, just a eight blocks north of Morgan Mini Mart. “Outside the neighborhood, most people think it is just a crime-ridden community and the people residing in it are just up to no good and don’t want anything positive in their lives. But that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” he says.

Now, more than ever, the neighborhood wants more out of life—and groceries, he says.

Sami Deffala, 47, has worked in Englewood corner stores for three decades.

Whole Foods arrived in September after planting stores in lower-income corners of cities like Detroit and New Orleans since 2013. Despite creating nearly 200 new jobs and attracting new businesses, like Chipotle and Starbucks, the $20 million Englewood Square development that contains Whole Foods still has some residents torn on whether the project will be positive for the community in the long run.

Most shoppers at Morgan Mini Mart said they had not visited Whole Foods, despite being just a 10-minute walk away. The same was true for customers interviewed at about a dozen other local corner stores this winter. Some harbored mixed feelings about the organic giant’s prices, in a community where 46 percent of households live below the poverty line, according to the 2015 American Community Survey. Though prices are significantly reduced from the numbers at, say, the Lincoln Park or West Loop location, they are often still higher than the nearby Aldi, which has operated in the neighborhood for 25 years and garnered a lot of shopper loyalty.

While Deffala’s customers recognize the benefit of having a high-end grocery store in a neighborhood that some consider a food desert, outreach to change the hearts and minds of an average Englewood customer has been lacking.

“I don’t know what the purpose is of Whole Foods opening here, but it’s not for the people,” says George Cruthird, a regular at Morgan Mini Mart who visited the Englewood Whole Foods and found himself disappointed in prices. Like many other residents interviewed, Cruthird believes the store is more of a trophy for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his fight against the city’s food deserts than a community partner that will help Englewood grow.

Cruthird pops into Morgan Mini Mart several times a day for coffee, groceries, and conversation. “Sami is a witty guy and he means what he says, says what he means, and stands by his word—he is like me,” says Cruthird, whose friendly relationship with Deffala is a rarity in a neighborhood where there’s often tension between African American customers and predominantly Middle-Eastern, Muslim corner store owners.

While some Englewood corner stores are doing a great job, others can perpetuate vices in the neighborhood, slinging lottery tickets and booze, says Perry Gunn, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, a neighborhood nonprofit focused on improving the community’s quality of life. Common complaints about stores predominantly owned by Muslims from Palestine, Jordan, and Yemen, are that they only provide low-quality food and don’t take any ownership over their role in the community. “The reality is that Englewood is changing, and if you don’t improve your model, in time you will go out of business,” says Gunn. 

Customers say Deffala, who hosts a summer block party for his neighbors each year, is Englewood’s corner store king.

Customers say Deffala, who hosts a summer block party for his neighbors each year, is Englewood’s corner store king.

But there are two Englewoods—for some people, the corner store is all they have, says Shamar Hemphill, youth & organizing director of the nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which works closely with corner store owners to improve community relations through a program called Muslim Run. IMAN’s research shows that about half of Englewood’s population visits a corner store daily.

“Without a doubt, there are people who are dependent on corner stores for food,” Hemphill says. People sometimes won’t travel too far for fear of getting caught in the neighborhood’s gun violence, fear of getting stopped by police, not having access to cars, as well as the simple convenience of proximity, he says. They’ve told Hemphill, “I don’t want to take two or three buses,” or “Three people just got shot down the block and I want the air to clear out a bit before I go to a new store.”

Of the 64 corner stores that are part of IMAN’s Muslim Run program, Morgan Mini Mart is the best, IMAN officials say.

Deffala’s loyal customers agree—they say he is Englewood’s corner store king—but the Palestinian American owner says he sees the writing on the wall.

Fewer customers are coming in to make big purchases, he says, so Morgan Mini Mart no longer has large grocery carts. More people are coming in to grab single staple items like a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.

Though business is still good, these are all clues that his customers no longer rely on him for their primary source of groceries, Deffala says—but that’s not a bad thing. He knows that obstacles of space, capital, and financial risk hinder small family-owned corner stores from offering a healthy selection comparable to big box stores.

Deffala says IMAN’s Muslim Run program has helped him not just do better business but be a better Muslim, a faith that he says prescribes him to treat others fairly in both life and in business. “What we are trying to do as part of their program is let the customer know it’s OK to change old, unhealthy habits,” says Deffala, who holds a weekly cooking demonstration at his shop.

Muslim Run focuses on improving stores’ food and service, as well as their customer experience, he says. Deffala’s well-lit, 3,500-square-foot shop is often filled with incense. There is no cash register glass panel, a safety measure that Englewood residents say is frustratingly common. The street outside has garbage cans for customers. His biggest victory? Keeping away loiterers, a problem at many local shops, where patrons are uneasy about walking past groups of unfamiliar young men—female customers especially appreciate this courtesy, Deffala says.

“We have become not just like friends, but family,” says Deffala, who sometimes lends credit to customers who don’t have enough money to buy food for the week. “You feel good about helping that person. You feel bad about losing the money, but there are greater things at stake than money.” He even hosts a summer block party, something of a neighborhood customer appreciation day, where he grills up unlimited burgers and hot dogs while neighborhood kids enjoy rainbow-hued bounce houses and giant inflatable slides.

Despite the changing neighborhood, customers like Tiara Stewart, 19, and Delisha Reeves, 31, say they will keep coming. One December afternoon, they pass up several stores before darting into Morgan Mini Mart to grab tacos for lunch. Though they depend on Food 4 Less on Ashland and 71st Street for groceries, Morgan Mini Mart is still their choice for conveniently grabbing a few items.

Stewart and Reeves don’t shop at Whole Foods, but they love other new chain stores in the neighborhood, like Chipotle and Starbucks. “It’s the convenience of having everything you want and need now in one neighborhood. This just makes you feel proud of living here,” says Stewart.

Others say they will continue to depend on the corner store for the sense of community it provides, in a neighborhood where poverty, violence, and fear have severed many of the ties that bond people together. Sheila Prince, a 49-year-old Englewood native, says Deffala’s shop provides comfort and intimacy, in a space where the employees know her name.

“Sami is loved because he respects people. It’s all about respect in Englewood. We feel he isn’t just here to make a profit, but he is part of the community,” Prince says. “You really can’t find that everywhere.”

This report was produced in collaboration with Chicago Magazine.

Police in Chicago Public Schools Operate With No Special Training and Little Oversight

Police in Chicago Public Schools Operate With No Special Training and Little Oversight


During wrestling season, when the final school bell rings at Hyde Park Academy, Darren Wright changes out of the clothing he's worn all day and into sweatpants and sneakers to become Coach Wright, head of the Thunderbirds high school wrestling team.

Training takes place in an old classroom repurposed as a gym; its floors are covered with blue mats, its beige walls splotched with paint that likely covers some student graffiti. On a snowy winter weekday evening, the room is full of high-schoolers, mostly boys and a few girls, smelling of sweat and the rubber of the mats, running through an exercise regimen Wright calls the "workout of champions"—100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 300 jumping jacks, and ten crawls on all fours up and down the stairs. They laugh and joke, their voices breathless, as they work through Wright's drills.

Wright says he appreciates the humility and discipline wrestling teaches his athletes. "I was in seventh grade when I started," he says, "and I've been wrestling ever since." He's been at Hyde Park Academy for 15 years, and has coached for most of that time.

The young people Wright works with say he's always friendly and often tries to talk things out with them if they're feeling upset.

"He is one of my mentors," says India Coleman, a recent Hyde Park graduate who was on the wrestling team her freshman and sophomore years. "You can talk to him about anything, come to him when you have problems."

That warmth extends to the school's administration.

"He has a really good temperament to deal with students—a certain kind of patience," says Antonio Ross, Hyde Park's principal. "He's been extremely, extremely helpful here."

Occasionally Wright will recruit a student he encounters in a disciplinary setting to join his team—the thinking being that wrestling is a good place for kids to channel their anger and frustration more effectively.

"I get a lot of my kids because they've gotten in trouble," he says.

That's because although Wright is a wrestling coach by evening, by day he's one of more than 240 Chicago Police Department officers who serve in some 500 Chicago Public Schools. Primarily charged with stepping into incidents that might warrant an arrest, Wright says that he and other cops play a dual role in the schools they serve: that of mentor, but also that of disciplinarian.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

"They say you're put here for a reason," Wright says, "and my reason is to be a schools officer."

But cops like Wright now find themselves at a difficult juncture. The national debate around policing has extended to schools, with incidents like the brutal October 2015 attack of a student in Columbia, South Carolina, by a school resource officer, as they're usually called (in Chicago the term "school officer" is used), bringing increased scrutiny to the role police play in educational settings, and to the potential for abuse. In Chicago, the Police Accountability Task Force convened after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald found in its April 2016 report that officers were "not adequately equipped to engage with youth," and that the relationship between the CPD and youth is "antagonistic, to say the least." The U.S. Department of Justice investigation into CPD unveiled last month found that officers repeatedly used force on young people for noncriminal conduct or minor violations, and that in some cases officers were exonerated without being interviewed. In one complaint detailed in the report, an eight-year-old girl said she was grabbed by her hair, swung around, and choked by an off-duty CPD officer stationed at her school.

In several months of reporting, City Bureau and the Chicago Reader found a small handful of cops stationed in CPS schools with disturbing complaints on their records: Of the nearly 250 police officers serving in CPS schools as of April 2016, two have killed teenagers, one was sued for beating a minor, and one was recommended for firing by the police board. In addition, 33 school officers have nine or more misconduct complaints on their records, while 80 percent of all CPD officers have four or fewer complaints, according to data released by the Invisible Institute. Records from CPS's own incident tracking system, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed more than 8,000 alleged incidents involving a CPD officer and students between 2013 and 2015.

Even Wright, beloved as he is by many of his Hyde Park Academy students and colleagues, has been the subject of nine separate misconduct complaints during his time as a cop.

Our investigation also found a surprising lack of oversight of cops in schools, on both the part of CPD and CPS, especially in cases where officers have been accused of wrongdoing: there are no youth-specific trainings or guidelines for school officers; there is no systematic screening of officers assigned to schools or assessment of their relative fitness to work with young people; and when an officer is allegedly involved in wrongdoing, there's no effective disciplinary or review procedure to determine potential punishment or firing. This lack of oversight is compounded by poor communication between CPS and CPD, and between the agencies' top brass and the principals, disciplinary deans, teachers, and other administrators who work directly with students. It also runs contrary to best-practices guidelines laid out by the DOJ and followed by most organizations that offer school officer training, our reporting found.

When asked for comment on our findings, CPS directed all inquiries about the school officer program to the police department.

CPD, meanwhile, defended its oversight and management of its school officers, saying in a statement that all police officers receive adequate training, and that officers accused of any wrongdoing had been cleared by the appropriate oversight agencies.

"Regardless of their assignment, CPD officers are held to the highest professional standards," the statement reads. "Any allegations of misconduct are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly by the Bureau of Internal Affairs, or in use of force cases, by the Independent Police Review Authority. Every officer within the Department is evaluated individually for the appropriate fit to their respective assignment."

Still, these assurances are cold comfort to criminal justice reform advocates, who argue that Wright and other officers like him are unfit to work with minors, raise concerns that police in schools fast-track children into the criminal justice system, and question whether police belong in schools at all.

"We cannot proactively prevent our children from having contact with the justice system," says Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, an attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, "when CPS's use of police officers creates a justice system within the school."

"If we were detectives, they’d send us to detective school. If we were equestrian officers, they’d train us with horses. We’re the only unit that doesn’t get that specialized training."click to tweet

Cops were first stationed inside public schools in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s, as part of a community policing strategy designed to relieve tensions created by growing anger at aggressive policing in minority communities. The program was considered a success, and by the 1970s the idea of stationing police officers in schools had caught on with several major police departments, including those in Miami-Dade County and Los Angeles. Rising crime rates across the country, coupled with an increased focus on juvenile violence in the 1980s and '90s, led other school districts to introduce more officers into schools. By 1997 22 percent of school districts had on-duty officers.

Chicago introduced police officers into schools in 1990, then-mayor Richard M. Daley's first full year in office. The city had been struggling with increasing homicide rates and widespread violence since the mid-80s, and as of that June, looked to be heading into one of its bloodiest years yet. The situation seemed so dire that many aldermen began calling for the National Guard to restore peace in some of the most badly affected neighborhoods.

In response, Daley created a new school patrol unit within CPD. He introduced his plan to bring police officers into schools at a special meeting of the City Council that fall. His proposals included Operation SAFE (Schools Are for Education), which would bring two uniformed police officers into every public high school and assign additional police patrols around elementary schools. Two years later, following a highly publicized fatal shooting that took place on a Tuesday morning in the hallway of west-side Tilden High School, Daley introduced metal detectors into all high schools. Daley also instructed the commander of CPD's Youth Division, which was charged with operating the school patrol unit, to have ongoing meetings with CPS's head of security.

Individual officers entering the school patrol were to be trained in CPR, first aid, and conflict resolution techniques, and were advised on how to strengthen links between schools and their surrounding communities and when to make referrals to nurses or social workers. Their positions were to be funded by the Chicago Board of Education.

The new program seemed to make an impact: by 1994 Catalyst Chicago reported that violence in schools had "declined steadily and dramatically"—a change CPD officials attributed to the school patrol unit, but which principals at the time said was simply due to the presence of more adults in the building.

But punitive school disciplinary measures increased starting in 1995, when the Illinois legislature effectively handed control of CPS over to Daley; the school patrol unit was instrumental in enforcing zero tolerance policies for guns, which led to the increased use of pat downs and searches on students. The unit occasionally received criticism for its tactics—in one instance, a Cook County circuit court judge threw out three weapons cases involving CPS students, saying they had been unfairly searched.

Then, in 2006, 16 years after its creation, the school patrol unit was dissolved. There would no longer be a unit made up specifically of officers stationed in schools. Instead, officers would stay in schools but be assigned to numbered police districts and would be trained and supervised like any other cops.

CPD now says that the unit was disbanded in order to bring officers into schools who were familiar with the unique situations faced by different police districts and the schools within them. But something was lost in the transition, according to Wright and others familiar with the department before and after the school patrol unit program was killed. Wright's career at Hyde Park Academy spans this shift, and illustrates the ways in which the patrol unit offered key benefits that officers no longer have access to today.

Wright started as a member of the school patrol unit in Hyde Park Academy in 2001, after ten years in the military and four years as a CPD tactical officer in the Sixth District. He also coached wrestling at Hirsch Metropolitan High School, and, he says, looking for a way to integrate that hobby into his day job, he asked for a transfer.

Applicants to the school patrol were put through a rigorous interview, Wright says. Officers who were selected were then put through an intensive training regimen.

"All the school officers would go to the police academy, [and] they'd bring in paraprofessionals [trained school aides] just to teach us how to work with kids on certain issues," Wright says.

The trainings took place annually, Wright says, and were helpful to him as he dealt with the myriad of complicated situations that would inevitably come up: a young person upset because of something that happened at home who'd then take that anger into the building, a crime committed outside the school that involved one of his students.

School patrol unit officers also regularly met with CPS security officials. Wright says those meetings would often be used to clarify alternatives to arresting students, such as referring them to counselors or other in-school professionals.

But when the school patrol unit was disbanded, all these support mechanisms disappeared. The yearly training sessions stopped entirely, leaving established officers no way to refresh their skills, and newly stationed officers with little guidance.

The changes troubled Wright.

"If we were detectives, they'd send us to detective school," he says. "If we were equestrian officers, they'd train us with horses. We're the only unit that doesn't get that specialized training."


"They say you're put here for a reason," Darren Wright says, "and my reason is to be a schools officer." (Bill Whitmire | Chicago Reader)

"They say you're put here for a reason," Darren Wright says, "and my reason is to be a schools officer." (Bill Whitmire | Chicago Reader)

Indeed, while all CPD officers receive training upon being hired and periodically afterward—including training related to interactions with young people—we weren't able to identify any training specific to school officers. Multiple Freedom of Information Act requests made to CPD and CPS seeking training manuals, documents, or directives directly related to the training of school officers turned up no relevant documents, according to responses received from both agencies.

All CPD officers are required to undertake 1,000-plus hours of training when they're recruited, including basic training on everything from use of firearms to vehicle stops and building entry tactics. Directives, such as those governing the use of force, guide officer behavior once they're in the field.

Additionally, all officers are required to take Crisis Intervention Training, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT), and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), according to CPD spokesman Frank Giancamilli.

"Officers also receive ongoing conflict resolution and de-escalation training," Giancamilli says.

But none of these training programs is specific to school officers—CIT training, previously optional, has been made compulsory for field training officers. De-escalation training has been mandatory for all officers since September 2016, following the furor over the shooting of Laquan McDonald, and officers who only occasionally visit schools have been trained under programs like DARE since the 1980s. That leaves a significant gap in training that might address the unique challenges of working with children in a school setting—everything from grappling with schools as safer spaces than the streets to the challenges of dealing with young people's developing brains and unpredictable emotions.

For his part, Wright can remember few times since the school unit was disbanded that he was asked to review his skills in any way. That means that officers new to Hyde Park Academy, including the two Wright works with, have only him or other senior officers teaching them how to calm down an upset student or gauge when an arrest should be made. "Everything ends up in the police room," Wright says, of the many complicated scenarios he deals with throughout the school year.

The DOJ, which between 1999 and 2005 gave $725 million in grants to cities that wanted to bring police into schools, says that officers in schools must not only have arresting power but be "educators, emergency managers and informal counselors."

But the key to this, experts say, is training.

"A police officer assigned in a school setting should get special training to that role," says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit that has assessed school resource officer operations in five of the country's ten largest school districts. According to Dorn, failing to offer specialized training is "a disadvantage for the officer, department, and school system, and the students that they serve."

De-escalation training programs have proven to be effective, Dorn says, but that's not the same as formal, position-specific training. That training can cover topics like search-and-seizure rules in schools, which differ from commonplace searches in that the burden of proof is higher within a school; what information can be shared between police and school officials under Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines; special needs students; and juvenile law. Such programs do exist: the National Association of School Resource Officers, the biggest school officer training group in the country, contracts with school departments and police districts around the country to put new school officers through 40 hours of training on topics including developing teaching skills. At the conclusion of the training, the group administers a certification exam.

Mbekeani-Wiley says that she'd like to see CPD officers undergo dedicated school officer training—a key component of the reform recommendations the Shriver Center will release in 2017.

"CPS and CPD must ensure that the officers hired to work within the city's schools have the tools and skill set to effectively engage our youth," Mbekeani-Wiley says. "Without youth-specific training, officers will resort to what they have been trained to do on the streets: make arrests."


(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION:John Paul Higgins | Chicago Reader)

(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION:John Paul Higgins | Chicago Reader)

In many ways, Wright seems to embody the kind of school police officer advocates like Dorn say they want. He sees himself as a mentor, and says he thinks carefully about the psychology of the young people he works with.

But Wright is also one of a handful of officers serving in CPS schools whose track record raises questions about his suitability for the job, and illustrates why the lack of oversight and clear disciplinary and accountability processes creates special concerns for cops in schools.

In 2009, Wright fatally shot 17-year-old Corey Harris, a student from neighboring Dyett High School.

Wright was off-duty at the time, and says he believed that Harris had a gun, and had been involved in a nearby shooting. Wright chased Harris in his car and eventually cornered him in an alley, where Wright shot Harris in the back, according to the autopsy report.

A civil lawsuit filed by Natasha Williams, Harris's mother, claims her son was unarmed when he was shot.

"He had just got out of school," Williams says. "The only thing my son had on him was his school ID, the ten dollars I gave him that morning, and the schoolwork paper."

Because CPD has no review or disciplinary procedures unique to school officers, Williams's complaint against Wright was investigated the way all use-of-force misconduct allegations against CPD officers are investigated: by IPRA.

But IPRA's ability to curtail police misconduct and ensure consequences for bad behavior has been significantly compromised, according to the DOJ's findings. The January report describes IPRA's investigations as a kind of toothless plea bargaining in which cover-ups have been institutionalized and investigators routinely take the word of officers over hard evidence that contradicts their stories. The dysfunction has been so severe that in August 2016 Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would replace IPRA with a new police accountability board.

In May 2016, IPRA cleared Wright of all wrongdoing in the case, as it has in all but two of the more than 400 police shootings it's reviewed over the past ten years. The city eventually settled with Harris's mother for $1.24 million, an amount significantly larger than the average of $36,000 paid out by the city in police-related settlements, according to data compiled by the Chicago Reporter.

"Only God can judge me," Wright now says of the shooting. "It's an unfortunate incident, and I can't take it back."

(Wright was later commended for his role in the shooting by the 100 Club of Chicago, which honors first responders for what it calls "acts of bravery.")

After the shooting, Wright was off work for just three days before he returned to Hyde Park Academy and resumed his interactions with students around Harris's same age. (This was the norm at the time—in December 2015, CPD changed its rules to mandate a 30-day grace period before officers involved in a fatal shooting could return to work.) Wright was also required to meet with a psychologist, but neither CPD nor CPS responded to repeated requests about whether there was any review of Wright's mental health or eligibility for his position following the shooting.

Thomas Trotter, who served as Hyde Park Academy's principal at the time of the shooting, declined to comment for this story. But Trotter "knew about the incident," Wright says. "It was in the media."

Meanwhile, Harris's mother marvels that Wright was allowed to continue working with high-schoolers.

"He shot and killed my son," Williams says, "and he goes back to work."

And Wright wasn't the only one: In 2007 CPD officer John Fitzgerald fatally shot 18-year-old Aaron Harrison. IPRA ruled the shooting justified. But when a civil case against Fitzgerald went to trial, four witnesses contradicted his testimony that Harrison had a gun; the jury awarded Harrison's family $8.5 million. According to data compiled by the Citizens Police Data Project, Fitzgerald has been the subject of 28 misconduct complaints—a mix of illegal search, verbal abuse, and false arrest (all of which were also deemed unfounded by IPRA) and is in the top 100 or so CPD officers with the highest number of complaints against them.

According to CPD data, as of April, Fitzgerald was still with CPD, serving in a roving car that attends multiple schools.


(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: John Paul Higgins | Chicago Reader)

(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: John Paul Higgins | Chicago Reader)

CPD and IPRA's tendency to let officers accused of misconduct off the hook naturally leads to another question: What about CPS? Specifically, does the school district have the ability to review and even punish misbehavior by officers in its school?

Principals, deans, and other school leaders we spoke to said they had never received guidance from the district or CPD about what officers' intended role was, let alone about how to handle any concerns they might have.

"I've never had any formal communication from CPS about the role of police officers in schools," says Chad Adams, principal at Sullivan High School in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Adams has had a positive experience with the current officers in his school, but notes that he'd be more comfortable with a clear set of guidelines laying out "this is what a school police officer at your school is and isn't," he says.

Alvaro Ortega, a former dean at Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Ashburn, agrees. He also complains about the inability of principals to have a say in which officers are assigned to their schools.

"We do not have any control of who was assigned to us," he says, adding that he's worked in schools where the principal found assigned officers didn't mesh with the school's culture.

Principals, it turns out, can indeed flag infractions involving officers through CPS's own reporting system for school incidents, which is known as Verify. But much like CPD and IPRA's complaint system, CPS's reporting system has flaws that keep it from halting bad behavior, resulting in two separate and uncoordinated accountability processes, neither of which works well.

Wright's own history at Hyde Park Academy illustrates the complications and gaps in oversight that can arise from such a system. The Harris shooting wasn't the only time Wright's conduct as a police officer has been scrutinized. In January 2013, Wright was involved in another incident, this time with two students at Hyde Park Academy, that brought him under the lens of both CPD/IPRA and CPS.

The incident was documented in three separate sets of documents: a Verify report, completed by Ralph Bennett, Hyde Park's dean of behavior, and obtained via FOIA request; a complaint submitted to IPRA by one of the student's legal guardians, also obtained via FOIA; and in a civil lawsuit filed against Wright and the city on behalf of Christiona Kearny, one of the students involved.

These three separate accounts agree on a few things, starting with where the incident began: outside of Hyde Park Academy. They also agree on where the incident ended—in the police room, the base of operations for the school's officers. At Hyde Park it's barely more than a storage room, nearly filled by three blond-wood desks, one of which is plastered with a faded poster of President Obama. And on the door are signs with a printed warning: IF YOU ENTER THIS ROOM, IT'S ON POLICE BUSINESS.

Beyond that, the three accounts differ markedly.

According to the January 2014 lawsuit, on January 17, 2013, several students were involved in a fight outside the school. The suit claims that although Kearny wasn't involved in the fight, Wright took her into custody anyway when he came to break it up. While Kearny was in custody, he "struck [Kearny] in the face with his fist," the suit alleges. The city settled the suit for $15,000.

The IPRA complaint, filed six days after the fight, offers additional details and paints a confusing scenario. The fight led to the arrest of the two victims in the complaint, one of whom is likely Kearny, although their names were redacted by CPD.

The situation started with an argument between two students outside the school and grew to involve at least four other students. According to the complaint, as Wright attempted to break up the fight, he handcuffed two of the teenagers, identified as the two victims, and brought them up to the police room. From there, the complaint alleges, he punched the first victim in the face, choked the second victim, and pushed her by the back of the neck. A police report notes that one of the victims had a swollen eye.

The IPRA files include a statement Wright made to the commander of the Third District, in which he says that he "did execute an open hand stun to the face" to "gain control over an arrest situation." The arrest report, which names Wright as the victim and complainant, notes that one of the arrestees hit Wright on the left side of his face.

IPRA ruled not to sustain the complaint, as it has in all complaints against Wright.

The Verify report, meanwhile, lays out a starkly different scenario, one that doesn't hint at the allegations of misconduct. It notes what happened as follows: A student, whose name was redacted from the records we obtained, was involved in some kind of shouting match with another student outside the school. A police officer, likely Wright, told the first student to leave the area. When that student didn't comply, Wright took her to the police room to arrest her. But once in the police room, the student "became physically resistant to Officer Wright," according the report, "and began swinging [her] arms, hitting [Wright] in the process."

Wright disputes the version of events detailed in the IPRA report and complaint. Moreover, he says his relationship with Kearny remains positive.

"She graduated this year," Wright says. "She needs to contact me for anything, she knows she can."

Attempts to reach Kearny for comment were unsuccessful.

(Wright has also been accused of rape and/or sexual assault once, of excessive or inappropriate use of force three times in addition to the Kearny case, and of conducting an illegal search once. IPRA ruled all of these complaints unfounded, and Wright says that in the sexual assault complaint in particular he was unfairly accused. We were unable to obtain records related to the other complaints made against Wright. CPD failed to answer FOIA requests for all but the Kearny complaint, and IPRA rejected similar FOIA requests because the records either pertained to juveniles or were subject to the 2014 Fraternal Order of Police injunction, which blocked the release of several decades of citizen complaints against police.)

The marked discrepancies in these accounts suggests the first of several problems with CPS's reporting system. Namely that although principals can flag incidents like these in Verify, they don't have access to complaints made to CPD—complaints that might offer information beyond or in at school what school administrators have access to themselves.

Apart from that, CPS isn't obligated to investigate incidents involving school officers based on what's reported in Verify, according to interviews with more than a dozen school officials, attorneys, and teachers. But even if the district did want to pursue action, there is no clear process for doing so, sources say. Nor does the district have the ability to punish officers. The best a principal can do, sources say, would be to report an incident to an officer's sergeant and hope that the district would then remove the officer from the school.

That said, all school personnel are mandated by law to report child abuse to DCFS—any physical injury that wasn't accidental, as well as excessive corporal punishment by parents, family members, or "any employee or contractor at the child's school." In a January 2014 memo, the DOJ further charged administrators with ensuring student safety and enforcing laws that ban discriminatory disciplinary measures, even if they're carried out by contractors, like school officers, not directly employed by the school. (Officers are technically contractors, per an intergovernmental agreement between CPD and the Chicago Board of Education.) All this suggests that CPS does bear some responsibility to further investigate and report use of force against students by police officers in its schools, even if the district doesn't see it as
its role.

In the meantime, reformers say simply sharing information between CPD and CPS would be a good start in reducing any potential harm to students.

"The conflicting narratives in IPRA's investigative report, CPS's Verify System, and the civil complaint filed thereafter demonstrates the need for CPS, CPD, and the city to routinely report, review, and evaluate the performance of police officers assigned to schools and share that data with each other," Mbekeani-Wiley says. "This may prevent the assignment of police officers that students need protection from."

"Without youth-specific training, officers will resort to what they have been trained to do on the streets: make arrests."click to tweet

Critics of police officers in schools see these cops as a crucial link in the "schools-to-prison pipeline," in which punitive and zero-tolerance policies within schools funnel young people into the criminal justice system. Dealing with misbehavior through a police officer, rather than, say, a restorative justice counselor, can be a fast track to a criminal record, they say.

Ortega, the former dean at Sarah Goode, says officers serving in schools rarely give second chances to young people who've done something wrong.

"Once a student does some behaviors and finds themselves as a criminal in their eyes, they couldn't really get out of that," he says. "They were so quick to say, 'Come on and get him locked up.' "

In 2014, Christion Gunn was a 15-year-old student at Foreman College and Career Academy in Portage Park when he was involved in an altercation at school. According to Gunn, he saw another male student hit a girl. No one intervened, Gunn says, so he stepped in. Shortly after, Gunn says, the school's officer, along with a security guard, broke up the argument and took Gunn to the principal's office.

There Gunn was accused of punching a security guard, he says, and was told he'd be be arrested for his role in the fight. He was charged with aggravated assault and forced to repeat his sophomore year. Moreover, his relationship with the school's leadership was ruined, he says—they'd eventually motion to have him expelled. (Foreman's principal, Wayne Issa, declined to comment on the case.)

Although the charge against him was eventually dropped, Gunn, who's completing his degree at Association House High School, says that because the charge was used to expel him, much of the damage had already been done.

Although Gunn was spared time in prison, he thinks that cops involved in incidents like his unnecessarily escalate everyday situations that can be resolved without intervention from law enforcement. If the situation had been handled only by school security guards, he argues, they could have asked him to sit down and cool off without resorting to an arrest.

"Personally, I don't think police should be in school systems," he says. "It ruins the education process."

The research bears up his concern. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Educational Sociology found a link between arrests of high school students and the propensity for them to drop out of high school. A 2008 study by the Council for a Strong America, an antiviolence nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., found that young people who drop out of high school are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than are their peers. And a study published in a 2011 issue of Justice Quarterly found that having an officer in a school more than doubled the rate of referrals to law enforcement for simple assault, and made discipline more punitive across the board.

Research also suggests that relatively few students arrested ended up in the criminal justice system because of a serious offense. An analysis of arrest data by WBEZ found that of 4,600 arrests on school grounds in 2011, only 14 percent were for felonies—meaning the rest were arrests for relatively minor misdemeanors.

Nor is this punishment applied evenly. School officers are most often stationed in low-income and minority schools. And mirroring racial disparities in the criminal justice system as a whole, a report by the police abolition group Project NIA found that 75 percent of young people arrested in schools in 2011 and 2012 were African-American, despite their accounting for only around 40 percent of CPS's student population.

Representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union say they'd like to see resources that go toward officers redirected to professionals like counselors or social workers—a 2016 report from the 74, a news site covering education, calculated that there were about twice as many officers as counselors nationwide.

In 2015, CPS released a revised student discipline code that attempted to limit suspensions, and around 100 schools have restorative justice counselors who provide a regular alternative to cops—they aim to solve conflicts through the use of "peace circles," which bring in people affected to resolve a conflict through discussion and encourage the school to work through problems with students rather than immediately disciplining them.

Later this month the Shriver Center will release a list of recommendations for improving how school officers function in CPS schools—recommendations it's already begun to discuss with CPS. Among the suggestions: CPD officers must have clear guidelines that distinguish between disciplinary misconduct and criminal offenses; they must be provided with additional training that teaches them how to effectively work with young people; data related to the school officer program must be published regularly; schools with stationed officers must increase student access to counselors; and any changes to the school officer program must be made with the involvement of community partners.

"We hope that the data and research collected in our report will be used . . . to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline," the Shriver Center's Mbekeani-Wiley says.

Gunn now works with the Voices of Chicago Youth in Education (VOYCE) Project, a youth group organizing to break the school-to-prison pipeline at its source—schools' discipline systems. The group was instrumental in passing SB 100, a state-level bill that makes suspension or arrest a last resort within schools. It's also part of the Transforming School Discipline Collaborative, which seeks to offer concrete proposals for state-level changes in school discipline. Members are now working on a campaign to advocate arrests only for felonies within schools, more comprehensive mental health services, and training for school staff on conflict resolution.

But many criminal justice reformers ask whether police belong in schools at all.

Mariame Kaba, Project NIA's director and a longtime antipolice activist who coauthored a 2012 report on arrests in schools, says that cops exist to arrest people—a reality no amount of training or improved guidelines can change. Cops, Kaba says, "aren't supposed to be conflict resolution counselors . . . it expands their reach and mandate and asks them to take on things they shouldn't be taking on."

Project NIA is a member of the Dignity in Schools campaign, a coalition encompassing organizations in 27 states, including Illinois, that are working to remove officers who patrol in school.

For his part, Wright rejects calls to eliminate police from schools.

"Anybody tell you they don't think police officers are very necessary—they are," he says. "In some schools, you really don't need them, but in certain schools it's a must."

But fundamentally Wright and the reformers have more in common than one might expect. Wright says he would love to see a return to the days of the school patrol unit, when CPD provided him and his fellow officers with additional training and other forms of support.

After all, he asks: Who else is going to "build that rapport," as he puts it, to help his students develop positive associations with police?

"You build a trust with the kids," he says. "Once they graduate, they go on and do good things and never forget you." 

This report was produced in collaboration with the Chicago Reader.

Being a Good Neighbor

Being a Good Neighbor


If you can pay a kid ten dollars an hour to shovel snow, you could help keep him out of the drug business.

That might sound simple, but it’s one of the core ideas that’s driving the Good Neighbor Campaign, a group of community organizations, churches, and West Side residents who hope to empower their neighbors and transform their community.

The Good Neighbor Campaign (GNC) aims to forge mutually beneficial relationships among Austin residents, creating a safer, more vibrant community, according to Quiwana Bell, chief operating officer of the Westside Health Authority (WHA), and one of the campaign’s primary organizers. The first-year goal of the campaign is to connect at least 1,000 residents to one another by identifying those willing to volunteer or pay their neighbors for goods and services, employ local youth to complete tasks throughout the community, and partner with clergy leaders to “adopt” blocks.

WHA took the initial steps toward launching the GNC last summer by surveying Austin residents about what they wanted to transform in their community, eventually collecting over 500 responses. “Residents talked about the need to feel connected to the neighbors that are on their block, the institutions within the community, and [the] political process,” said Bell.

By talking to residents, WHA found that among youth who participate in drug sales, some earn as few as forty dollars per week. In a bid to replace drug-related income with legal wages, GNC searches within the community to find people who can pay a comparable hourly wage for household tasks like snow removal. Already, eight snow removers have been hired to clean up blocks in Austin and Oak Park for a payment of ten dollars per hour. (Young people ages 12 to 24 interested in becoming snow removers should call (773) 378-5034.)

At the campaign’s announcement in October, Lafrance Lucas, 19, an anti-violence advocate and GNC partner, spoke about the hardships Austin youth face.

“I know it sounds crazy, but we’re out here rain, snow, sleet, because [the gun violence] doesn’t stop. If it’s snow time people are getting killed, if it’s fall someone’s still getting killed, if it’s hot someone is still getting killed,” Lucas said to the crowd gathered at shuttered Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St. “The main thing is to get everyone out the way from the shootings and try to make everyone successful.”

Two years ago, he was a homeless teen living on the West Side. Today, Lucas credits his WHA mentors for giving him an opportunity to find a job and showing him how the community can work together to lift up its most vulnerable members. Through GNC, Lucas has assisted other young people in finding jobs at the Handi-Foil of America factory in Wheeling, IL, where he works.

As part of GNC, Bell and former president and founder of the WHA, Jacqueline Reed, hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for over one hundred people. Reed said this campaign is unique in its commitment to crossing divisions in the neighborhood and its focus on resident input.

“The needs are so great and the mountain is so high,” she said. “We have many people with gifts within the neighborhood but they don’t have an opportunity to give them. The Good Neighbor Campaign gives people the opportunity to give their gifts.”

As of this month, seven Austin churches have committed to adopting a block through the GNC’s program, according to Bell. She hopes to get one hundred of Austin’s 400-plus churches to participate. Churches will hold meetings to connect with the residents and learn the needs and assets of each block, then find out how parishioners can help.

The Good Neighbor Campaign meets on the second Tuesday every month at 6 pm at 5437 W. Division St. To learn more about the Good Neighbors Campaign, call the Westside Health Authority at (773)378-1878 or text “goodneighbor” to 94253 to be added to their text-alert list.

This story was produced on partnership with the South Side Weekly.

Chicago's Cajun Connoisseur Serves Deliciousness and Opportunity

Chicago's Cajun Connoisseur Serves Deliciousness and Opportunity


Kyle Kelly is the co-owner and head chef of The Cajun Connoisseur. He's a self-taught Cajun chef starting out his second winter in the “deliciousness business” of Chicago’s food truck scene. With his crew of family on board, Kelly serves grits, jambalaya and po'boys, makes plans for his brick-and-mortar restaurant, and offers opportunities to young people from his Englewood neighborhood. But his mantra of good food and forgiveness can't prevent gun violence from touching his business and his life.

This story was produced as part of new collaboration between CHIRP Radio and City Bureau, a Chicago journalism lab. City Bureau reporter Sarah Conway worked with CHIRP producer Dan Epstein to create this day-in-the life radio portrait as part of City Bureau's fall 2016 cycle on Englewood's food desert. All photos by Sarah Conway.

The Fight for East Chicago [PHOTO ESSAY]

The Fight for East Chicago [PHOTO ESSAY]


The West Calumet Housing Complex is home to nearly 1,200 people, located on a seventy nine-acre site in East Chicago, Indiana, which the Environmental Protection Agency has declared hazardous to human health. Up until 1985 a lead refinery, a copper smelter, and a secondary lead smelter were also in the area, and as early as 1987, federal and state agencies investigated the site as a potential cleanup priority. But due to limited resources and an abundance of red tape, the site has remained contaminated for decades.

This July, the residents of West Calumet Housing Complex were told they had a year to move somewhere else. Many say that local officials waited too long before telling them about environmental hazards, and they fear uprooting their families and struggling to find affordable housing nearby. On December 10, the EPA planned a meeting so residents could ask questions about the lead cleanup, but it was canceled at the last minute due to a “possible lapse in funding.”

“This is not really an explanation,” says Roy Morgan, who attends church in East Chicago and is worried about the elderly and young members of his congregation. “I understand about the lapse in funding. But…it’s the EPA, aren’t they supposed to protect the environment? We really need some answers.”

In this photo essay Alyssa Schukar takes a look at the people of East Indiana and an environmental legacy that will affect generations to come.

Photos were taken in summer and fall 2016 and captions reflect the subjects’ ages at the time the photos were shot. Additional reporting by Alex V. Hernandez.

This article was published in collaboration with the South Side Weekly.

Keeping Kids On Track

Keeping Kids On Track


When Saeri Geller’s son was fifteen months old, she caught him eating paint chips in their home in Grand Crossing. A visit to the doctor confirmed her fears: Ian had dangerously high blood lead levels.

For the last five months, Geller and her son have been shuttling between doctors’ appointments and friends’ homes as Ian undergoes chelation drug therapy and their house is renovated to remove the lead threats. She hopes that they will be done with his therapy and back at home in time for the holidays. But she knows that even then, her family’s struggles with lead will not be over.

“This isn’t really something that you put behind you,” says Geller. While their doctor found no problems with his development so far, Geller knows that the damage lead did to her son’s brain might not be evident until he’s older.

“Every little issue or problem that comes up, is it just because how he is or is it because of lead?” she says. “He’s a pretty chill baby for the most part, but any tantrums that happen, or out-of-the-ordinary behaviors, is it because he’s a toddler or is it because of the lead? How do we recognize what’s lead-based and what’s not? It’s almost impossible.”

While doctors have long understood the link between childhood lead poisoning and developmental delays, parents in Illinois, like Geller, have been locked in a waiting game. Until their child has substantial developmental difficulties, they are not eligible for the state’s Early Intervention program, which provides free or low-cost therapy to children ages zero to three with delays or disabilities. But by the time a child begins exhibiting these delays, which may take years, it’s often too late to make a real difference.    

Soon parents may be getting some extra help, however. The Illinois Department of Human Services is considering allowing all young children with elevated blood lead levels to be automatically eligible for Early Intervention. If adopted, Illinois would join twenty-one other states that currently provide such services to lead-affected children.

Underpinning the move are advances in modern brain science, which suggest that the human brain is most elastic in young children. Because of this, infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable to lead. Even low levels of lead in a child’s body has been shown to damage their central nervous system, decrease academic achievement and IQ and impact their ability pay attention, learn language and read.

While lead abatement and chelation drug therapy can help reduce the amount of lead in a child’s body, this neurological damage cannot be overcome by a trip to the doctor’s office alone.

“There’s no drug that I can give that will eliminate the effects of lead on the developing brain,” explains pediatrician Dr. Nicole Hamp of the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital. “But the developing brain, particularly between birth and five years old, is so plastic that while we can’t reverse the effects of lead, we can compensate for the effects of lead. So early intervention is really key for these kids, because we’re catching them at an age when they are really going to benefit from it.”

Hamp says that services offered by the IDHS’s Early Intervention program can help families maximize their child’s development, with services ranging from speech therapy to occupational therapy to nutrition services. Once approved for the program, a child would receive an Individualized Family Service Plan that lays out what sort of treatment the child needs and over what time period. Service providers, who are generally therapists or nurses, then come to the family’s house regularly for sessions with the child and his or her caretaker.

While the IDHS does allow pediatricians to recommend children to the program if they believe there is “substantial risk of significant delays,” few doctors currently steer lead-poisoned children into the Early Intervention program, says Amy Zimmerman of the Legal Council for Health Justice. That’s a problem, she says, because nearly half of the developmentally delayed children who go through the Early Intervention program in Illinois don’t need special education when they reach kindergarten, a benefit that saves taxpayers seven dollars for every dollar spent on Early Intervention.

This month, two working groups from a state advisory board are meeting to determine the blood lead level necessary to qualify a child for Early Intervention and the types of services that will be offered.

“Our hope with getting these kids who have been poisoned in there early is that they will be on target at age five when they enter school, because they were able to get the services and the tools they need to be able to compensate for what will be coming down the pipe,” says Zimmerman, who sits on that advisory board.

The effort has garnered support both locally and in Springfield, where Governor Bruce Rauner’s Cabinet on Children and Youth is “discussing a number of potential interventions to develop a comprehensive prevention and response strategy to reduce the impact of lead exposure on children,” according to Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson Melaney Arnold.

In October, Julie Morita, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, also voiced support for the Early Intervention push, but cautioned that the benefits and costs of such a move must be weighed.

“If we had unlimited resources, I think we could just do it without looking at the evidence,” says Morita. “But I think we have to look at the evidence to see if studies show if this is beneficial or worthwhile. If we find that it’s effective and it works and it’s also costly, I think we need to look at all those factors before we make a decision.”

Less than half of the funds for Early Intervention in Illinois come from state general revenue. Medicaid, private insurance, and family fees cover the rest of the cost. The program currently serves over 20,000 infants and toddlers each year.

While automatically allowing lead-poisoned children into the Early Intervention program may increase the cost of the program, the extra money would be well spent on her patients, says Hamp.

“Already children on the South Side have to face so much adversity and throwing lead into the mix is just one more hoop that they have to jump through,” she says. “I think with having a patient population that’s so disproportionately affected by lead, this seems like something that we can really get out in front of and do something about.” 

5 Ways to Prevent Lead Poisoning

 1. Protect your home

Was your house built before 1978? Keep an eye out for peeling paint: at least eighty-three percent of houses built before that year contain lead-based paint, and paint chips are one of the most common ways for a child to accidentally consume lead. Call the city’s lead hotline at 312-747-5323 to request an inspection or to learn how to get financial assistance for removing lead-based paint in your home.

2. Protect your water

About eighty percent of water lines connecting homes to Chicago water mains contain lead. Filtering your water can greatly reduce your risk of exposure, but not all filters on the store shelf can prevent lead contamination, so make sure to look for the “NSF” mark that means it meets National Science Foundation standards. The product’s label should explicitly state that it will reduce lead levels in water. You can also get your home water quality tested by calling 311 or going to www.chicagowaterquality.org.

3. Get tested

Go to your primary care doctor or pediatrician and get a blood lead level test. If you don’t have one, call the lead hotline number, where an operator can connect you with a doctor who will see you for free or at a sliding-scale rate based on your income.

4. Eat well

A balanced diet can help the body resist the absorption of lead. The EPA lists calcium, iron, and vitamin C as essential nutrients that will help anyone, especially children, fight potential lead poisoning. They even put together a guide with lead-fighting recipes like grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches and French toast.

5. Stay informed

Check to see how prevalent lead may be in your area by texting the word LEAD to 312-697-1791.

Want more information? We have a list of links to resources mentioned above at www.citybureau.org/lead.

This article was published in collaboration with the South Side Weekly.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

Staying Ahead of the Curve


We will spend whatever it takes. Whatever that cost is, we will pay it.”

Those were the words of Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool at a community event in June, just as CPS began testing its more than 6,000 sinks and faucets for lead-contaminated water.

Anna Espinosa, 38, was in the audience that night. School officials had planned for a crowd at the Back of the Yards high school gym, fully expanding the orange bleachers toward the middle of the basketball court where a table was reserved for CPS, Department of Water Management, and Department of Public Health officials. But only a handful of parents, teachers, experts, and reporters showed up, so the attendees were relocated to a dozen chairs around the table.

Darryl Holliday

Darryl Holliday

Claypool was soon peppered with questions.

”Why weren’t the meetings publicized widely?” one attendee asked.

“They were,” Claypool replied.

“Why did you wait to test until the media started investigating?” another asked.

“CPS launched this program, not the press,” Claypool said, bristling slightly at the insinuation.

And the exposure risks for CPS students from school fixtures? “Basically non-detectable,” Claypool assured those gathered on the court.

But the newly launched water testing was only one reason Espinosa attended the meeting that day. At the age of four, her autistic seventeen-year-old son had already been poisoned by lead in the family’s last home, she said, later telling reporters that the CPS officials she had just listened to were “full of it.”

Instead, Espinosa wanted to know what CPS would do for her son in his last years at Thomas Kelly High School. In other words, how does Chicago’s public school system plan to help students who were poisoned by lead as children and are now suffering the effects as young adults?

Darryl Holliday

Darryl Holliday

While CPS works to find and eliminate lead-contaminated fixtures in its buildings, students who arrive at school already exposed to lead still have limited options for treatment. Though the city imposes mandatory lead screenings on children before they turn six years old, a review of departmental policy shows that CPS has no official or comprehensive policy on how to assess and assist lead-affected children. Considering the symptoms and their effects—ranging from low grades to violent behavior—and compounded by budget cuts, the public health crisis of lead poisoning extends beyond today’s water fountains. What schools do and do not provide to children affected by lead will shape the futures of thousands of young Chicagoans.

An Invisible Legacy

The symptoms of lead poisoning include a range of seemingly unrelated ailments like abdominal pain, constipation, sleep problems, headaches, loss of appetite, and memory loss. Many are relatively mild and can be individually overlooked, but, in the case of lead poisoning, could pave the way for a myriad of lifelong effects including irreversible brain damage, aggressive behavior, lowered IQ, growth delays, and poor grades. Recent reports even link childhood lead exposure with trends in violent crime.

“Those [effects] happen even at low levels of lead poisoning. So these kids get poisoned before [age] 5, and they get to school already with learning disabilities,” says Howard Ehrman, an environmental advocate, University of Illinois at Chicago professor and former top official at the Chicago Department of Public Health. “One of the problems we have, not only with lead poisoning but all possible learning disabilities, is the fact that CPS and most public schools have never funded or made it a priority for enough people to do proper testing and then put the children, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, into the right programs to treat their learning disability.”

Symptoms of lead poisoning often do not become apparent until a child has difficulty in school. And while those effects are often translated as bad behavior and underperformance, in a time of citywide cuts and changes to school budgets, which critics say could shrink special education funds, the impact of untreated lead poisoning raises tough questions for communities already facing disastrous levels of unemployment, incarceration, and public school closures.

In 1999, Fuller Park was the community area with the highest incidence of elevated blood lead levels among children tested, with nearly two in five kids testing positive. By 2013, only 2.8 percent of kids tested there had elevated levels. The dramatic decrease can be tied to a number of factors including disuse of leaded gasoline, an increase in lead screenings, and cleanup of lead paint in homes. But lead is an “absolute neurotoxin,” according to Ehrman, meaning that babies affected in 1999—now high school students—are likely impacted by the exposure even today.

Among those students is Espinosa’s seventeen-year-old son, Moises, who was tested in 2005 and had a lead count of 4.9 micrograms per deciliter, Espinosa says, adding that she believes it was higher in the years before. She says he was likely exposed to lead-based paint in their home, which is how most children accidentally consume lead. But small amounts of lead can accumulate in the body from many different sources.

The family’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, where the CPS community meeting took place in June, is part of the New City community area. In 2013, 1.4 percent of children (ages zero to six) tested in New City had elevated blood lead levels, putting the neighborhood fifteenth among Chicago’s seventy-seven community areas. Espinosa’s son attended schools in McKinley ParkBrighton Park, and Pilsen during that same time frame, some of which had sinks or water fountains with lead-contaminated water during this year’s tests.

“I couldn’t believe there was lead in my school [Perez Elementary], where I had grown up, and that there was lead in Pilsen Academy where [my children] went also,” she says.

Moises was diagnosed with autism at fifteen years old, and though scientists have not found a causal link between the toxin and autism, childhood lead poisoning has many of the same symptoms as Autistic Spectrum Disorder—and it has been found to contribute to autism severity in lead-poisoned children.

Espinosa’s message for parents today: “Keep insisting on getting the resources.

“There’s more resources out there to know where the lead is coming from, how they’re getting it, where you could go get more info, [and] how you could get more help,” she says.

CPS is scheduled to complete testing of 526 schools by the end of 2016, according to district spokesperson Emily Bittner, who noted that final results from all tested schools will be complete in early 2017. As of December 5, ninety-five school drinking fountains and eighty-nine sinks—thirty-two of which were in kitchens—tested above the EPA “action level” of fifteen parts per billion. Of the 184 fixtures above that level, all were shut down and more than 120 have been returned to service after pipes were flushed, repaired, capped, or replaced, according to school officials. The Chicago Park District went through a similar process this summer.

For many parents and city officials, the full array of park and school tests was worth applauding.

“I have to commend the Park District and CPS for being so aggressive and testing the faucets and the sinks within their buildings and outside,” says Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner Julie Morita. “I think it’s an extra step to ensure the safety of the water.” She added that CPDH is currently working with CPS to mail letters, informational packets, and the results of tests in their schools to parents.

“What we’ve said is that the risk is low and yet if people want to be tested, they should reach out to their health care providers,” she says.

As of December, CPS has spent $1.9 million and anticipates spending about $2.3 million total for the first-ever system-wide lead testing of school water fixtures, but when it comes to the root cause of lead, Ehrman says the city will continue to see cases of exposure until it removes the lead service pipes and fixtures that bring water into schools and homes around Chicago.

Leading the Way

Cuffe Academy kindergarten teacher Jeanine Saflarski says she’s happy with how the lead-affected water fixture in her kindergarten classroom was capped and fixed by CPS.

Of the 141 of fixtures tested at Cuffe in August, three tested positive for lead. Two sink faucets, both in pre-K classrooms, tested between twenty-six and twenty-nine parts per billion, significantly higher than the EPA’s “action level” of fifteen parts per billion. According to Bittner, the third fixture tested below that level and was flushed along with all other water fixtures in the district.

But zoom out further and a more concerning picture emerges. In 2013, 7.6 percent of children tested from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, where Cuffe is located, had elevated blood lead levels, ranking ninth out of Chicago’s seventy-seven community areas. Though experts say Saflarski is unlikely to encounter a severely lead-affected child in her kindergarten classroom today, many of the thirteen-year-olds graduating from Cuffe’s eighth grade this year were born during a time when nearly twenty-one percent—more than one in five—of Auburn Gresham children under the age of six who were tested had elevated blood lead levels.

Saflarski says a teacher is trained to notice the smallest, earliest signs of a learning disability. “You do everything you can in the classroom to try to meet modifications and needs,” she says, adding that teachers have protocols in place for kids in need of special assistance such as speech and occupational therapy. The school system even gives teachers lists of children with medical needs like food allergies, she says, which is not the case for lead.

But even if parents were to disclose their children’s lead poisoning, there is no official protocol for what teachers should do. Younger children may be eligible for the state’s Early Intervention Program, but according to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “lead exerts long-lasting effects and the effect of lead on a child may not be demonstrable until the child is well into the elementary school years.” The CDC report lists research-backed recommendations for lead-affected people from infancy to the age of twenty-one, including specialized counseling to help with aggressive behavior, nutritional programs, chelation therapy in severe cases to decrease lead content in the blood, and individualized plans that identify, monitor, and assist children who have learning disabilities.

“I think it’s terribly concerning that CPS doesn’t have a policy,” Ehrman says. “The policy should include, number one, a memorandum of understanding, a formal agreement, between CDPH and CPS signed off by the mayor of the city of Chicago saying there will be integration of databases,” so that city agencies can share information to identify and help children affected by lead.

Many lead-safe schools recommendations are agreed upon by lead experts, and while CPS does not formally address any of these recommendations in its policies, the district “uses a process called MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) to identify any students with potential special needs,” according to Bittner.

But a comprehensive school policy on lead is not unheard of. The Connecticut State Department of Education, for example, has published policies designed “to clarify the role of schools in meeting the needs of children and families affected by lead.”

In fact, “developing school district policy and procedures regarding children who may be affected by lead” is first on a list of ten distinct ways schools can better serve lead-poisoned youth, according to the department’s website. Other points include educating school personnel, maintaining special-education resources, development of monitoring plans, and referral of lead-poisoned students to enrichment and eligible disability programs.

Likewise, school districts in Boston; Rochester, NY; and Columbus, OH all have posted, or are in the process of creating, policies for school-based lead safety. According to the University of California’s Lead-Safe Schools Guide, benefits of a policy include avoidance of unnecessary costs, open communication with parents, better-trained school employees, and evaluation of what works on a local level.

In Flint, MI, a class-action legal battle is currently underway alleging the local public school system is not providing services and interventions that could make a difference in the ability of lead poisoned youth to succeed.

“Since the full magnitude of this crisis became public in 2015, there have been federal and state inquiries, investigations, task forces, declarations, and appropriations. Yet there has been no effective response to address the needs of the thousands of children who attend Flint’s public schools,” the lawsuit alleges on behalf of fifteen children who were exposed to lead in Flint.

Espinosa, along with many other CPS parents, is worried about the same thing. If no cost is too high for the district to find and repair lead-contaminated sinks and drinking fountains in the schools, what about the costs of ensuring lead-poisoned children get the care they need?

This article was published in collaboration with the South Side Weekly. Additional reporting by Timna Axel and Enrique Perez. 

Paths to Contamination

Paths to Contamination


Lead, a soft and naturally occurring metal, is one of the best-studied toxic substances known to humans—it is especially harmful to the brain, kidneys, bone marrow, and other body systems of young children. Childhood lead poisoning has been dramatically reduced over the past few decades, as lead has been phased out from gasoline, food and beverage cans, house paint, and other common sources. In 1978, there were about 14.8 million poisoned children in the United States; by the early 1990s, that number had declined to 890,000 children. In Chicago, the rates of elevated blood levels in children have decreased from one in four to fewer than one in one hundred children tested.

Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015 found close to 1,000 children in Cook County with elevated blood levels. Many more children likely go uncounted because their results fall under the CDC’s “reference level” of five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, but the reality is that any lead in the body can be dangerous.

Read on to follow two different paths to lead exposure that have been identified in the city, and how families and children are affected by the poison.

Paint in Homes

In 1978, the federal government banned the consumer use of lead-based paint, but more than 75 percent of houses and apartments in Chicago were built before 1970, according to the Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and the city itself estimates that a third of its housing stock has lead hazards in its paint or soil. Four to five times more children in Chicago are affected by lead poisoning in houses built before 1950 than in other cities, according to civil and environmental engineer Marc Edwards, who presented the information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010.

In most Chicago homes, deteriorating lead-based paint is the main issue as it chips and becomes dust, prominently gathering in areas like windows, porches, doors, and doorframes that are easily accessible to children. Paint dust was likely the culprit when Yasmine McCray was diagnosed with lead poisoning at two-and-a-half years old, says her mother Mary McCray. Yasmine had a blood lead level of eleven micrograms per deciliter, just above the level at which the Chicago Department of Public Health must be notified so that it can investigate possible lead hazards in the home.

Provisions are in place to make sure residents know about lead hazards when they move in: A lead disclosure form, which should be given whenever a residence is leased out or sold, should detail the location of the lead-based paint and the condition of the painted surfaces. Home buyers are also allowed ten days to conduct a paint inspection or risk assessment for lead-based paint hazards before they buy. But those regulations are hard to enforce, and often require buyers and renters to be discerning in a situation where they might not have much choice.

In the McCrays’ case, after Yasmine’s blood results came back, a CPDH inspector was sent to their home in Hyde Park. The inspector found old paint peeling on the walls, which were then scraped and repainted. Even so, the McCray family soon moved to Auburn Gresham. But the damage was already done: when McCray noticed that her daughter’s behavior had become overly hyper, a doctor drew the connection to lead exposure, she says.

Critics say that the city’s lead policies are reactive, not proactive. Inspections only take place if the owner or tenant requests them or if a child has high blood-lead levels and CPDH is alerted, as in the McCrays’ case. And children don’t get tested regularly for lead.

“The only two mandates for getting tested that I know of are: [Medicaid] has a mandate—I’m not sure how strictly it’s followed—and for entering the Chicago Public Schools system you’re supposed to have a blood lead test on file,” says Eric Potash, a lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “But I also don’t know how rigorous that testing is. The big caveat with the CPS mandate is that most people don’t enter CPS until they’re five or six [years old] and then it’s way too late.”

The city has limited resources when it comes to lead inspection, says David Jacobs, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.

“The Chicago Department of Public Health has ten [lead] inspectors, which is ridiculously low considering the number of units. It is estimated that there are 5,000 to 10,000 units with lead hazards in Chicago,” he says. A department spokesperson says it conducts between 800 and 1,000 home inspections every year.

Another factor is an ongoing change in public housing. As cities like Chicago have torn down housing projects and moved toward Section 8 vouchers over the past twenty-five years, low-income families have become more at risk. Public housing units were inspected regularly for lead due to federal oversight, but Section 8 housing is not held to the same standards, says Howard Ehrman, a doctor and environmental activist who was a former top official in the Department of Public Health.

With limited city resources, researchers are looking for ways to predict when and where children are at risk for lead poisoning, in order to concentrate efforts on the hardest-hit communities. Potash is working with graduate students to build a predictive model based on data, such as building inspections for lead hazards, locations where children have been poisoned by lead in the last twenty years, rates of renting and homeownership, and whether or not people in a neighborhood have health insurance.

Potash says his model can predict households that likely contain lead hazards and have children younger than one year old. They are now running a pilot outreach program, partnering with the CDPH, landlords, and other agencies (including integrating with electronic medical record systems) to alert at-risk households and provide inspection information and remediation services.

“The CDPH only has resources to help a couple thousand kids each year,” says Potash. “By using the model to target the resources, you dramatically improve the efficiency and effectiveness by something like three times that much. You could potentially help three times as many kids.”

Water in Parks

This October, Chicago Park District officials announced that all of its drinking fountains and sinks had been tested for lead. The results: at least one fixture in forty-four percent of the District’s parks had lead levels that matched or exceeded fifteen parts per billion, the action level set by the Environmental Protection Agency at which water systems are required to step up their corrosion control or replace pipes. Specifically, fourteen of 544 indoor fixtures and 445 of 1,891 outdoor fountains tested above this level and were immediately turned off.

While contaminated fountains were found in parks throughout the city, certain neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham, where every park contained fixtures with elevated lead levels, were especially hard-hit.

This was news to McCray, who moved away from her lead-contaminated Hyde Park home to Auburn Gresham, and whose kids had been playing on the jungle gym at Foster Park. Three of the park’s outdoor fountains had elevated lead levels, testing showed. At Mahalia Jackson Park, about 1.5 miles away, both drinking fountains had elevated levels of lead, with one testing at 361 parts per billion. Two other Auburn Gresham parks, Dawes Park and O’Hallaren Park, also had contaminated fixtures.

Yasmine’s pediatrician didn’t recommend any medical treatment for the lead in her blood, but she has been tested every year since her diagnosis. McCray says her lead level has decreased over time, and she is now ahead of her class at school. Still, she worries about her kids drinking lead-contaminated water at the parks: “What if they get lead from the sprinklers?” she says.

While most studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated water is not likely by itself to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, there is a danger to infants and pregnant women who may be using the water. Pregnant women especially are at “the most sensitive time” for lead poisoning from water, says Helen Binns, a pediatrician who directs the lead evaluation program at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Fountains that the Park District did not shut off may be dangerous even if they didn’t exceed the EPA’s “action level,” Binns says. She and other lead experts agree that the EPA level is meant to be an engineering marker, and that no level of lead is safe inside the human body. “The fifteen parts per billion of lead in water is not a health-based standard. We would prefer that it be two, or something really low,” Binns says.

There is no federal regulation requiring water testing for park facilities. Nevertheless, a few U.S. cities have conducted similar tests of parks and other public facilities, including Portland, OR, and Ithaca, NY, both announced around the same time this summer.

The Park District has not yet identified why so many of its water fixtures have elevated lead levels, and the situation could get worse in the winter when all fixtures are turned off—unused fixtures are more likely to have contaminated water, which is why health departments recommend people regularly flush their pipes. Still, city officials emphasize that the results show no system-wide contamination.

“If it were because of the water that was coming through the pipes themselves, we would expect all of the faucets within a school or a park to be affected,” says Dr. Julie Morita, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

As of late November, Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, spokeswoman for the Park District, could not provide details about whether the district is working with Department of Public Health or Water Management officials to determine how to prevent future lead contamination at the water fountains. The Chicago Park District is still investigating the cause of the contaminated fountains, Maxey-Faulkner says.

Ground Zero

Ground Zero


Wearing glasses and a heavy green sweater, Patrick MacRoy kneels down in the sweltering basement of his yellow brick Andersonville condominium and presses a key against the metal pipe. As he begins scratching it, silver filings shave off the pipe and fall onto the floor. That’s how MacRoy, the former director of the city’s Lead Poison Prevention Program, knows that the pipe (known as a service line) that brings drinking water from the city’s water main into his twenty-four-unit building is made out of lead, a toxic metal long known to cause cognitive and physical impairments in children.

Experts say Chicago has more lead service lines than any other American city, yet MacRoy never thought to check his own service line because of the size of his building. Larger buildings require bigger pipes, and lead is a soft metal typically used for narrower lines. Then his condo association installed a sprinkler system in the courtyard, and MacRoy spotted a note that the plumber had written on his estimate: “Water main – 2 inch lead.”

“I looked at that and went, ‘Really?’” MacRoy says. He ordered a water testing kit from the city, but it did not detect elevated lead levels. Still, MacRoy wasn’t convinced, since he knows all too well that contaminated pipes sometimes have clean water readings.

“If the pipe is disturbed, whether through construction or some sort of shaking, it releases particles of lead that come through in an unpredictable way,” he says.

Jean Cochrane

Jean Cochrane

In fact, national evidence is mounting that the chemical treatment of lead pipes—a common method used by cities like Chicago—is inadequate to keep the toxin out of drinking water, particularly when there is any street disturbance due to construction, large trucks on the road, or even changes in temperature. Yet as other cities such as Milwaukee and Cincinnati begin to address the problem by systematically replacing their lead service lines, and the Environmental Protection Agency considers requiring cities to do so, Chicago is leaving residents and property owners to deal with the problem. In fact, the city is in the middle of ramping up its 900-mile water main infrastructure project without taking inventory of lead service lines and with no plan to replace them.

Service lines are the pipes that connect iron water mains running under the streets into buildings to provide drinking and cooking water. To prevent lead from leaching directly into the water, the pipes are chemically treated with orthophosphate, which coats the lead pipes and prevents corrosion. This coating comes off when the pipes are disturbed. Without that protective orthophosphate coating, water can quickly become contaminated by lead—as it did in Flint, MI, where one sample had astronomical lead levels of 13,200 parts per billion, and tens of thousands of children were exposed to the poisonous substance.

In Chicago the use of lead in pipes was required by plumbing codes until Congress banned it in 1986, despite the fact that most major cities stopped using it in the 1950s. Estimates show that eighty percent of Chicago’s properties have a lead pipe, an unusually high number that prompted Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, to call the city “ground zero for lead service lines.”

To compound the problem, in Chicago, the entirety of the service line stretching from the public water main to the home is considered private property. (Elsewhere, lead service lines are owned partially by the water utility and partially by property owners.) That’s why the city claims it is not taking action to inventory or replace any lead service lines—it doesn’t own them. The city will only perform spot repairs when there is a leak in a service line that’s in the public way, according to Gary Litherland, a spokesman for the Department of Water Management, “because it’s in the public way [and] we feel the responsibility to the public to keep that public way safe.”

But experts on lead say that as a matter of public health, the city should take action. They argue that the most cost-effective way of dealing with the lead pipe problem in Chicago is to replace them when the city opens the street to replace water mains. Since the pipes would be exposed, residents would not need to do any additional digging to reach the pipes. In places like Milwaukee and Green Bay, WI, the city is sharing the replacement cost with homeowners. Other towns have applied for federal funding—just this weekend, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would provide $170 million to Flint to replace its 29,000 lead service lines. Some began their pipe replacement programs as early as the 1950s.

Jean Cochrane

Jean Cochrane

Since 2009, Chicago has conducted more than 1,600 water main and sewer replacement projects, a necessity given that many of the city’s water mains are more than one hundred years old. Not only is each project an opportunity to take stock of the lead hazard underground, but the construction could agitate the connected service lines and cause lead to leach into the drinking water.

MacRoy says he thinks it’s a “disservice, from a public health standpoint,” for public officials to not take action to fix lead service lines. “For the city to just kind of wash their hands of it and say, ‘Oh well, it’s the property owner’s responsibility,’ denies the fact that they were the ones who mandated this connection, particularly so long after everyone else stopped,” he says.

Recently, Humboldt Park and West Ridge residents joined together in a class-action lawsuit contending that city officials knew about the risk of toxic lead levels entering tap water from construction projects and did not adequately warn residents or do anything to mitigate the problem. The lawsuit seeks to have the city pay to replace all lead service lines with copper and to establish a trust fund to pay for lead-related medical monitoring. In October, a judge granted the city’s motion to dismiss the suit without prejudice, but the plaintiffs say they will re-submit the case next month.

Meanwhile, the Department of Water Management announced in August that it would conduct a study to determine the possible impacts of water main construction on water quality for homes with lead service lines.

It’s a move that Mark Vazquez, an attorney representing the residents in the class action suit, says, “is focused on disproving the conclusion that water quality experts have come to around the country … Now is the time to be focusing on a solution. And it seems like the city is still intent on determining whether or not there is a problem.”

This article was published in collaboration with the South Side Weekly.

Looking for Economic Revival in Chatham

Looking for Economic Revival in Chatham


This summer, Nedra Fears moved from Atlanta to Chicago’s South Side at a time when affluent blacks are more likely to do the opposite. Sixty-year-old Fears is living at her mom’s house in Chatham and looking for a home to buy in the historic black community, whose fortunes have declined in the past several decades.

The serene street lined with bungalows and tidy lawns where Fears grew up alludes to Chatham’s reputation since the 1950s as a bastion of black middle-class excellence. Black-owned mom-and-pop shops dominated nearby South Cottage Grove Avenue and West 79th Street. But economic decline set in about a decade after the area’s 1970s heyday, and today those business corridors are marred by empty storefronts and fading facades. These retail strips are critical to a revitalization effort Fears has returned to lead.

Nedra Fears at home. (Photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur)

Nedra Fears at home. (Photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur)

“We need to be the change we want to see, but how do you do that?” said Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, a collaboration between elected officials, the private sector, and community residents meant to reverse Chatham’s economic decline. “How do you self-invest and make that change happen, and how do you galvanize others to make that change?”

The Greater Chatham Initiative (GCI), when it rolls out this fall, will aim to revive the old heart of Chicago’s black middle class by focusing on wooing more businesses to Chatham and nearby communities, bolstering existing establishments and improving retail strips, Fears said. Part of the problem is excess retail capacity—vacancy rates commonly top out at twenty to thirty percent—and Fears said some of the buildings could become co-working spaces or be rezoned for apartments. A GCI collaboration with the Chatham Business Association, the office of 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer, and other community development groups will look to rebrand the 79th St. retail corridor from Cottage Grove to King Drive, Fears said.

But even now, before the revitalization effort kicks in, business still operate each day on Cottage Grove and 79th. Their experience shows there is opportunity in the neighborhood—despite years of neglect and stigma—as well as major hurdles that the community and Fears’s GCI programs must confront before bringing about a true renaissance.


On a sweltering summer afternoon in a South Side martial arts gym, a tween dutifully strikes a punching bag with his wooden staff. Watching from the sideline is Steven Kinison, a cheerful but stern personal trainer with a clean-shaven head and mustache who co-owns Combatzone, on 82nd and Cottage Grove.

The Edgewater resident admits the loitering and news of shootings on Cottage Grove gave him pause two years ago when he and his business partner opened the gym. But Kinison says he saw more businesses than he anticipated in the area, and that there was a lack of businesses like his focused on fitness. He knew he’d have an edge.

“I was kind of skeptical at first but now I can see it,” Kinison said, touting the gym’s 200 members as proof he made the right call. “I have faith that we will continue to grow.”

Businesses like Combatzone, local favorites like the famous Dat Donut, and community staples like the sixty-year-old, family-owned Tailorite Cleaners are all bright spots on Cottage Grove. On the 79th Street corridor, Captain’s Hard Time restaurant and Mather LifeWays café are other popular destinations. But this diverse variety of establishments is an outlier on the two retail strips.

Of the 208 licensed businesses between both the Cottage and 79th commercial stretches, six types of businesses account for more than half, according to a City Bureau analysis of city data.  About one in five businesses either do or sell hair and haircare products, including barber shops and beauty supply stores. Nearly twenty stores are fashion apparel retailers, and fourteen are fast food joints. These three categories encompass the goods and services people tend to buy locally, rather than look outside the community for, according to Lauren Nolan, an economic development planner at the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood & Community Improvement.

Business owners said public safety is one of the biggest challenges to economic growth on the corridors, and that creating an environment where shoppers, including local professionals, feel comfortable walking the stretch would help their bottom lines. This summer, Kinison said he saw how a visible police presence discourages bad behavior on the street, even if that hasn’t been a panacea.

Some business owners, including Dat Donut co-owner Darryl Townson, said that addressing unemployment in the area could make a difference by deterring people from using crime to support themselves.

Fears said she wants to focus on reintegrating people whose criminal records make finding work tough. To that end, GCI is partnering with the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to open a new workforce center, at a location to be announced by the end of the year. CCWP will spearhead running and staffing the new center, which will have more than a dozen staff, a computer lab, classes in digital and financial literacy, and space for other organizations focused on workforce development; CEO Karin Norington-Reaves said her agency’s responsibility “is to make sure we have access to a wide array of services so we meet people exactly where they are.”

Earlier this year the Walmart Foundation gave CCWP, one of the biggest workforce agencies in the country, a $10.9 million grant to offer free education and employment services for retail workers looking to advance their careers within the industry in Chicago and ten other sites around the country. Norington-Reaves said that there are also plans for a satellite location in Chatham targeting locals with similar efforts.

Fears also said that she is working with Skills for Chicagoland’s Future to link more Chatham-area residents to corporate employers over the next two years. She is currently identifying “high-impact, high-growth business owners” in sectors like transportation, logistics and distribution, food processing and packaging, and fabricated metals, to connect them with partners NextStreet and Case “so they can take their firms to the next level, employ more residents, and create more wealth.”

Nedra Fears. Photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur

Nedra Fears. Photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur

Other business owners said that the city should spend money-improving infrastructure to make the area more attractive to potential businesses, something Mayor Rahm Emanuel named as a goal of a $4.7 million streetscape project underway from 77th to 83rd Streets on Cottage Grove.

Chatham does boast a Target, Nike Factory Store, Payless, Walgreens, and Garrett’s Popcorn that are clustered on the southern end of the Cottage Grove retail strip near 85th and 87th Streets. Businesses like McDonald’s and Family Dollar have footprints in the area. Yet the backbone of Chatham’s local economy is small business, and the neighborhood has a proud history of black-owned establishments. However, the latter sentiment conflicts with the current reality, where many shopkeepers are immigrants from countries like Jordan, Korea, and Pakistan.

Fears said she welcomes any business owner who invests in the community, provides quality services, and is a good steward of their space. She suggested that increasing black business ownership is one way to combat people’s discomfort.

“What we need to be able to do,” she said, “is make people believe that they can start their own businesses, and support them.”

Listen to City Bureau reporters Adeshina Emmanuel and Latricia Polk discuss the changes Chatham is going through on Vocalo’s Barbershop Show:

But black-owned businesses face serious challenges, not least among them the structural obstacles and racial discrimination that have made it difficult for black entrepreneurs acquire sufficient startup capital or credit to open, grow, and sustain businesses. Despite Chicago’s long history of institutional racism, which Fears acknowledged, she and the GCI report still lean toward more race-neutral explanations of Chatham’s woes. She points to deindustrialization, the difficulty posed by living far away from jobs, and how many Chatham residents didn’t update their skills and education to ride the wave into the “new economy.”

Diversifying the types of stores in the area remains a challenge. Businesses of similar type and quality tend to cluster, in what urban development researcher Molly Gallagher calls the “snowball effect” of retail. This makes it difficult to both quickly change the mix of small businesses or attract businesses to serve as catalysts for change, she said.

For that catalyst, Fears said “you typically need to have a big anchor institution, and that anchor institution drives that development, [or] you have someone with outside influence and capital who decides to put money in an area.”

At the neighborhood level, experts prescribe several solutions, including individuals banding together to establish business cooperatives to reap tax benefits, utilizing public funding opportunities, and cutting costs by pooling funds to cover overhead expenses like rent and product costs.

Some of these options already exist. The city’s microlending program helps business owners overcome capital hurdles; tax increment finance districts offer business improvement grants to help entrepreneurs renovate their spaces; and credit unions and community banks are key alternatives to big lenders, but not everybody has access to or education about these options.

Photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur

Photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur


In addition to her plans to bring in new businesses, Fears says the initiative will include training and connecting residents to jobs to boost their social mobility, thawing a frozen housing market, and rehabbing distressed apartment buildings. Details are still scarce for these initiatives, but business development can be a vehicle for driving broader improvements, she said.

Gallagher agrees, adding that changing the tone of an area has to be a holistic effort. The test will come when the plans begin rolling out this fall, when Chatham residents will hopefully begin to see the effects of the ambitious project.

Among other factors, Fears touts the mayor’s commitment as one reason why the GCI has the potential to succeed where other revitalization efforts have fallen short.

“We have accomplished great things with far fewer resources than we have now,” Fears said. “We can do this. And I think people need a vehicle in order to get it done. This is the vehicle. And I’m not doing it alone. This is a collective effort.”

This article was published in collaboration with the South Side Weekly.

911 Decoded (COMIC)


Chicago's 911 system has seen drastic changes over the past 100 years. City Bureau, in partnership with South Side Weekly, sketched the key points in emergency history.

The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in Chicago

The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in Chicago


On a mild morning in early May, two teenage boys sat on the porch of a house in West Humboldt Park on busy Chicago Avenue. From there, they could see a string of abandoned stores, boarded up and painted in bright colors. Occasionally, a CTA bus would pass in front of them, carrying commuters from the distant edges of the city to the Magnificent Mile shopping district eight miles to the east. A heavy breeze shook the blooming tree in front of the house.

At 10:30 AM, someone walked up to the porch and started shooting at them. The 16-year-old, Eddy Brooks, was shot in the head and later died in the hospital, according to Chicago Tribune reports. The 17-year-old was hit in the calf and thigh but survived the encounter.

Neighbors say they had long known the house to be a drug den. In the months leading up to the shooting, they had repeatedly complained about the building to the police and attended meetings of CAPS, the city's community policing unit, to demand that officers do something about the young men who congregated there.

CAPS community organizer John Campos was on his way to one of these public gatherings on the afternoon of May 6, when he saw yellow tape around the house. Two uniformed officers were taking pictures of the blood-splattered porch stairs. Despite a decades-long community policing system in place for reporting and preventing crime, violence had prevailed that day at the house on Chicago Avenue.

Community policing has long been a matter of life and death in Chicago. When it's worked, researchers have found that communities of color report less fear of crime and better relations with the police, which can translate into improved crime prevention and fewer shootings. And in a year when shootings have skyrocketed and community trust of the police has been severely damaged by the release of a series of videos capturing police shootings, it's been touted by politicians as a powerful crime-fighting strategy.

"Chicago is where the whole idea of community policing began," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a speech on police accountability on December 9, 2015, just two weeks after the release of the Laquan McDonald video rocked the city and sparked a crisis in police-community relations. "It remains the best and most comprehensive approach we have in changing the everyday conditions that breed crime and violence and then breed mistrust."

But nine months after that speech, an analysis by City Bureau and theReader finds CAPS in crisis. Chicago's once-trailblazing community policing program has been hollowed out by years of budget cuts and restructuring. Stretched thin, the police department no longer has the money necessary to reach out to the community and quickly follow up on citizen complaints such as the ones made about the house on Chicago Avenue. Neighborhoods like those on the city's west side struggle with far fewer resources and institutional knowledge than in previous years. CAPS today is an uneven patchwork of programs around the city. The result has been the destruction of the trust and goodwill the police department had built in the early years of CAPS.

Arguably, neighborhoods such as West Humboldt Park need strong police-community relations more than ever. An open-air drug market plagues the area, and residents live in constant fear of violence. District 11, where the May shooting occurred, has had twice as many murders so far this year as it had in the same period last year. As of September 15, CPD reports that there have been 65 murders in District 11 this year. That accounts for around one-tenth of the 519 homicides the city has had, as of September 19, so far this year. But while residents are eager to tackle crime, with CAPS a shell of its former self, they no longer have the support from the community policing program that they once did.

"It comes down to a question," Campos says. "Are our voices being heard on the west side?"

Asked for comment, Emanuel's office deferred to CPD. Meanwhile, the head of CAPS, deputy chief of community policing Eric Washington, has dismissed the idea that the program is in crisis, arguing that "Chicago has always been at the forefront of community policing."

"Community policing started in Chicago in 1993," Washington said in an interview at CPD headquarters. "We were at the forefront then and I believe we are at the forefront now."

CAPS community organizer John Campos, pictured here in 2012. (Jim Newberry/File)

CAPS community organizer John Campos, pictured here in 2012. (Jim Newberry/File)

Community policing got its start in the 80s and 90s as an innovative approach to reducing crime. Cities from New York to Seattle to Cleveland tried establishing community policing strategies during this time but failed to create strong stand-alone programs because of a lack of government funding or support.

In Chicago, however, Mayor Richard M. Daley was a staunch advocate of community policing and fueled the growth of CAPS.

The city established the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy in April 1993 during a period of high crime and poor public relations with the police. Chicago logged 940 murders in 1992 and 850 in 1993.

In a "Strategic plan for reinventing the Chicago Police Department," released in October 1993, Daley praised community policing as a "new, proactive approach to preventing crimes before they occur." He wrote that a "historic change was taking place in Chicago" with the adoption of CAPS, and that while "community policing means reinventing the way the Chicago Police Department works, it also means reinventing the way all City agencies, community members, and the police work with each other."

The strategy was rooted in a belief that communities can and should play a role in preventing crime and maintaining a safe environment. Through regular neighborhood beat meetings and district advisory councils, CAPS allowed police officers to work directly with community members to solve persistent problems like drugs and graffiti. Strategies ranged from playing basketball with neighborhood kids to holding regular community meetings and improving transparency in police operations and crime data. At the root of these strategies was relationship building, with police officers taking the time to engage with youth, business owners, and community residents.

After a brief experimental phase, CAPS was rolled out to all police districts in 1994. Between January and May 1995, more than 9,000 officers completed a three-day training on community policing's approach to problem solving.

In 1996 and 1997, CPD expanded its civilian staff in order to improve community outreach and increase participation in beat meetings. More staff members were also brought on for additional CAPS programs like court advocacy and projects targeting gang and drug hot spots.

By 1999, CAPS had a budget of $12.5 million, about 1.4 percent of CPD's total budget of $907 million—a small but significant slice. Each district was assigned a sergeant focused solely on community policing. The program was no longer dependent on the goodwill of the mayor's office, and had an established bureaucracy that could address the needs of each district. The response from the community was by and large positive, but some communities found CAPS more useful than others.

Researchers at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research studied CAPS between 1994 and 2003 and in 2004 published a report that found that the program had had a substantial impact on crime levels and police-community relations during its first decade. They found that African-Americans reported a 10 percent decrease in what they saw as crime problems after CAPS was created. African-Americans also experienced a 22 percent decrease in fear of crime in their neighborhood. Whites also saw decreases in these measures during this time, though Latinos didn't. (Researchers speculated that Latinos didn't respond as well due to a combination of factors including language barriers, fear of deportation, and a young, mobile population that wasn't interested in attending beat meetings.)

Northwestern researchers also found an improvement in how communities saw social order and physical decay in the first decade of the CAPS program. African-Americans reported a 60 percent decrease in perceived social disorder and a 30 percent decrease in physical decay problems in their neighborhoods.

Even more significant was the change in police favorability ratings among these communities during this time. African-­Americans, Latinos, and whites all felt that officers were more responsive after the establishment of CAPS than before its creation.

"From 1993 or so well into the 2000s, Chicago had the largest and most impressive community policing program in the world," says Northwestern University's Wesley Skogan, who led the CAPS study.

The early 2000s would prove to be CAPS's high point, however. While other cities invested heavily in community policing programs, Chicago began to pull back from its once-powerful tool.

"The energy went out of it after that time," Skogan says. "There was a new chief of police [Phil Cline] who wasn't interested in it. . . . And the mayor got sidetracked by a crime wave that was on the cover of the Chicago Tribune." Violence spiked again in 2001 with 667 homicides, breaking a six-year trend of a decrease in murders.

Following the rise in violence, Daley took a hard line on crime and focused the police department's efforts on guns, gangs, and homicides. Money was pulled away from CAPS and never returned. This past April, the Police Accountability Task Force convened by Emanuel gave its assessment of the state of policing in Chicago. The task force noted in its final report that "attendance [at CAPS events] dropped off significantly after 2000." (Cline declined to comment for this story. Daley didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.)

In 2010, Daley moved 111 officers from CAPS to street patrol in order to address what he described in a press release as "the most immediate and pressing problem facing many of our neighborhoods—violence in our streets and in our homes." Daley promised that the move would increase efficiency while at the same time ensuring "that the original goals and objectives of CAPS are met."

A Chicago News Cooperative/New York Times story from early January 2011 noted that because of budget cuts and shrinking staff, fewer community meetings were being held.

"The program has pretty much been eviscerated, which is tragic," 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore said at the time. "There's no substitute for an engaged citizenry and police officers taking an active role in preventing crime."

By the time Emanuel took office in May 2011, the budget for CAPS had fallen to $4.7 million, a little more than a third of what it had been in 1999. Meanwhile, CPD's total budget had jumped to $1.3 billion from $907 million in '99.

But in January 2012, Emanuel announced the "revitalization" of CAPS in order to restore "an effective community policing structure to the Department while providing the best possible services to the residents of Chicago."

"Community policing is a philosophy, and the strength of that philosophy within the Chicago Police Department and in our communities is more critical now than ever before," Emanuel said in a statement at the time. "CAPS is an important partnership between residents and police, and it's time to revitalize the program by giving District Commanders responsibility and authority to tailor programs for individual communities."

Under the new CAPS structure, community policing resources once controlled by police headquarters were moved to individual districts. Each district's CAPS program was to be handled by the commander, a CAPS sergeant, two officers, a community organizer, and a youth services provider. District commanders were given the responsibility of choosing which CAPS programs they would fund and which they would stop supporting, a strategy that the department hoped would make CAPS more responsive to local needs.

(Garry McCarthy, who served as Emanuel's police superintendent from 2011 to late 2015, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.)

While the "revitalization" changed the structure of CAPS, it didn't alter the downward trend in funding for community policing. In 2012, the year after Emanuel took office, the budget for CAPS was slashed by $178,497 from the year before. In 2016, CAPS has a budget of $3.9 million, less than a third of the funding it had in 1999 and 17 percent less than when Emanuel took office. The police department's overall budget has ballooned to $1.45 billion today; CAPS funding represents just 0.3 percent of CPD's overall budget.

"Emanuel kept CAPS in place, but there's no money there," says Jimmy Simmons, who has volunteered as a CAPS beat meeting facilitator in District 11 for 22 years. "They don't put any money into it. They continue to do these [beat] meetings, but that's it."

Emanuel's 2012 changes to CAPS also resulted in a patchwork of programming spread unevenly across districts that inadvertently isolated CAPS volunteers and staff from their colleagues in other parts of town.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CPD said that each CAPS district received between $7,000 and $9,500 in 2016 to "support local community policing activities." Funding levels are dependent on "the size of the district, levels of crime, particularly violent crime, previous spending patterns and other factors."

But in analyzing CAPS programs for the first seven months of 2016, City Bureau and the Reader found striking variations in the activity level across districts. Several districts had more than 100 public events in the first seven months of this year, while others had fewer than 40. Our analysis showed that the number of events a district held didn't correlate with the amount of money it received from CPD; some districts that received less funding had many events, while other districts that received more funding held fewer. Nor did programming levels in a district correlate with crime rates. Instead, interviews with CAPS volunteers and staff suggest that programming levels are determined more by the interests of district commanders.

Plus, CAPS teams now work in what one facilitator described as "silos" in each district, rarely collaborating with their colleagues. Campos recalls going out on "wolf pack" missions with organizers from other districts before 2013 to address problematic areas together. Now, however, he rarely talks to CAPS employees outside of his own district.

"We don't even have the opportunity to learn from each other," Campos says. "Like, 'Hey John, what are you guys doing in [District] 11 to do this?' We used to get together monthly and have meetings. We don't do that [anymore]."

In the first seven months of this year, several police districts had more than 100 public CAPS events, while others had fewer than 40. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

In the first seven months of this year, several police districts had more than 100 public CAPS events, while others had fewer than 40. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

On a Wednesday afternoon in July, two police officers roll a dusty portable chalkboard with SWAT printed on it to the front of a meeting room in the basement of District 11's west-side headquarters.

"How many chairs and rows do you think we need?" asks one of the officers.

"Ain't going to be that many people here anyways," says the other, as he arranges 36 blue chairs in the middle of the room. Indeed, when the meeting begins a few minutes later, only a dozen chairs are occupied.

District 11's Expanded Anti-Violence Initiative meeting wasn't always so poorly attended. Campos says that as recently as seven years ago, between 40 and 50 people would regularly attend the meeting. At that time a five- or six-person panel of community policing experts would help facilitate the initiative. Now it's led by Campos, beat facilitator Simmons, and the district's CAPS sergeant, who is out of the office on this particular day.

In the past, every district held monthly antiviolence meetings. That changed with the decreasing budget and recent restructuring, which allowed district commanders to choose whether or not to hold them. District 11 is now one of the few places that still does, but it's only the "skeletal remains" of the program, Campos says. A previous commander got rid of the program altogether; it was only reinstated when a new commander came in.

EAVI was originally envisioned as an ideal venue for community policing, a "beat meeting on steroids," as Campos puts it. Neighborhood leaders would meet regularly with police officers and CAPS staff and delineate problems in the neighborhood. People would break into groups around topics like public safety, community outreach, and problem buildings, and come up with solutions. Both community members and police officers were responsible for thinking up solutions and taking on "homework" that contributed to the solution. This could be as simple as finding out who a resident needed to speak to in order to get a stop sign installed on a certain corner, or talking to the principal of a school where young men loitered and caused trouble. When the group met again the following month, its members would be graded on how well they'd completed their homework and how close they were to resolving the issue.

Campos says that while those early violence-prevention meetings were "pretty successful" at addressing problems and holding people accountable, the low turnout in recent years has made the program less effective. Someone assigned an important piece of homework in one meeting could easily not show up to the next meeting, making accountability difficult.

Leticia Segura makes a point of attending the meetings, despite the fact that they fall in the middle of a workday. She walks into this one a little late, but is immediately recognized. The 44-year-old has lived in the area for more than a decade, and got involved in CAPS a year ago when she started having trouble with drug dealers near her house.

The dealers were hiding drugs in the alley, she says, and preventing her from backing her car out of the garage. When they began concealing drugs in her yard, she says, she feared for her family's safety, and began attending every CAPS meeting she could find. She called 911 frequently, determined to get the police department's attention.

Her persistence paid off. After more than three months, during which she asked the department for help, police raided the drug dealers and cleared the area.

Segura says the experience made her appreciate the power of community policing. Then, seeing that her local CAPS office was short-staffed, she started volunteering there, answering phones and doing administrative work.

CAPS "is spread very thin," Segura says. "You have only so many officers who can do so much. If we had more police help and more money, I think we could do way more things."

CAPS did indeed do more things in the past, Simmons says—when they had a bigger budget.

"CAPS was high on the list [back then]," he recalls of the 90s. "Oh, you had your little drug dealers and shootings, but nothing like this because the people were committed."

CAPS had turned his neighborhood around then, Simmons says. People weren't afraid to leave their houses, and they felt respected by the police. Thanks to the good relationship with the police, he says, the community was the "eyes and ears" of the department and helped officers solve and prevent crimes.

But when funding for community policing started decreasing, Simmons says that CAPS stopped being the cornerstone of policing in his district. The number of public meetings between officers and community members decreased, and their relationship suffered for it. Districts had to rely on donations to support bonding events like barbecues, and began enlisting volunteers like Segura to answer phones and do paperwork in their CAPS offices.

Looking at the cold and half-empty room, Simmons knits his brows.

"I think [CAPS] can do a much better job than what is being done," he says.

“It’s like building a better mousetrap.” We don’t need new or fancy methods for improving public safety, because the mousetrap “has already been invented.”click to tweet


Now, facing pressure over rising homicide numbers and poor community relations, CPD is once again looking to community policing to alleviate its problems. Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in April that CPD had made a mistake by downsizing CAPS and that the department is working on "reinvigorating" the program.

"While CAPS has been successful for decades, enhancements are being implemented to forge better relationships between police and the community," CPD told City Bureau and the Reader in a statement this week. "Over the next several months, you can expect to see more on this as the department will develop a specific community affairs platform that tackles some of the very challenging obstacles and tensions that exist between communities and the officers as well as implement better programs to work with young people and minority communities."

Still, just what the "new CAPS" will look like is unclear. So far the department has been vague and sometimes contradictory about the scale of the changes in store. In an interview at a CAPS event in August, Johnson had said his department was working on revamping CAPS, though he was "not really ready to roll out the actual details" of the change. In its statement to City Bureau and the Reader, CPD said that the formal strategy that will guide CAPS in the future is "still a work in progress."

Yet in an interview after a community meeting in July, CAPS deputy chief Eric Washington said, "We are not changing anything." In a second interview held at CPD headquarters in August, Washington hesitated to even use the acronym "CAPS" to describe Chicago's community policing program, and hinted that the letters would soon stand for something besides the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy.

"Because that 'alternative' is still there, I don't say 'CAPS' right now," Washington said. Both Washington and Johnson have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an "alternative" strategy for CPD, but rather the guiding philosophy of the department.

"Every officer that works for CPD should be engaging in some type of CAPS activity," Johnson said. He didn't elaborate on what that work should entail, or how it would be paid for, however.

The talk of making CAPS a department­wide doctrine and not just an "alternative strategy" may stem in part from the Police Accountability Task Force's review of CAPS in its final report, in which it asserted that community policing should be "treated as a core philosophy throughout CPD."

"Community policing cannot be relegated to a small, underfunded program," the report stated.

Since the CAPS "brand is significantly damaged" and its "civilian staff has dwindled to the point of ineffectiveness," the task force recommended getting rid of the program altogether. (The task force is not the first to call for the death of CAPS. Last year, District 14 commander Marc Buslik said of the program, "We need to drive a stake right through its heart.")

The task force recommended replacing CAPS with what it called "Community Empowerment and Engagement Districts." These CEEDs, one for each of Chicago's 22 police districts, would be more responsive to community needs, the task force argued. But there has been no indication that the police department or the mayor's office is considering such a change.

Meanwhile, as CAPS withers, police departments across the country are bolstering their community policing offices with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice. Last year, President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing included community policing as one of its six pillars for police reform and recommended that community policing be "infused throughout the culture and organizational structure of law enforcement agencies."

Johnson and other CPD officials have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an “alternative” strategy, but rather the department’s guiding philosophy. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

Johnson and other CPD officials have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an “alternative” strategy, but rather the department’s guiding philosophy. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

On a hot afternoon in August, Superintendent Johnson grills hamburgers and sausages in a park set up for the 11th District's National Night Out. Nearby, Campos applies temporary tattoos of the CAPS logo to children's arms, and seniors take refuge from the sun under white tents. The event, which is held by police departments across the country, aims to create stronger community-police bonds.

"We are celebrating the community for being our right hand and helping us solve crimes," explains Daniel Allen, District 11 CAPS sergeant and an organizer of the event.
 For some, like a 13-year-old named Xavier, the event marks the first time residents will meet a police officer. For others, it's a chance to learn about ways they can help prevent crime and become involved in CAPS.

Campos says he remains optimistic about the power of community policing to make neighborhoods like his more safe. He says that community policing can "absolutely" help reduce the homicide rate and that he saw its power at the peak of CAPS, when the program "had the resources [and] ways of pulling in the community."

"It's like building a better mousetrap," Campos says. "We don't need new or fancy methods for improving public safety, he argues, because the mousetrap "has already been invented."

"The philosophy of community policing should work," he says, "if that philosophy translates into action like it's supposed to do." 

This story was produced in partnership with the Chicago Reader.

The Most Dangerous Neighborhood, the Most Inexperienced Cops

The Most Dangerous Neighborhood, the Most Inexperienced Cops


The officers who patrol the Chicago’s 11th Police District face a daunting challenge. The district, which is centered around Garfield Park on the city’s West Side, has the highest murder rate in the city, and it’s rising fast. By late August the district already had more murders than in all of 2015, when it led the city with 48 homicides.

The officers of the 11th District stand out in another way. They are the youngest and least experienced police officers of any district in Chicago.

The average officer in the 11th joined the force 10 years ago; over a third of the district’s officers have less than five years on the force. Meanwhile, most veteran officers with patrol experience in the late 1990s — the last time Chicago’s murder rate was as high as today — work far from Garfield Park. Half a dozen miles to the north one of the city’s safest districts, Jefferson Park, has only three officers with under 10 years of experience. Over half the patrol officers are 20-year veterans.

The divide between the police officers who patrol Garfield Park and Jefferson Park reflect divisions that hold true across Chicago and in police departments across the country, where high-crime areas are frequently staffed with rookies while the veterans flock to safer districts. Policing experts say that the practice is commonplace, since senior officers usually get priority when they ask to transfer, though Chicago’s union-mandated transfer process exacerbates the situation, tying the hands of commanders in deciding how to staff their districts. And while some say that the divide has its benefits, citing younger officers’ energy and ability to connect with at-risk youth, there are also significant risks—to the safety of citizens and officers, and to police departments that already struggle to forge lasting connections in many communities.

“You’re putting your least experienced officers in the situations that really call for the most experience and best judgement,” says Sam Walker, a professor and policing expert at the University of Nebraska. According to Walker, younger officers are more likely to engage in overly aggressive policing, particularly if not given proper training.

A lack of experience can also have deadly consequences. Last year, a Buzzfeed News analysis found that younger officers are more likely to use force — a finding also backed by a 2008 study of 186 officer-involved shootings. In Chicago, a database of police shootings compiled by the  showed that the average officer who opened fire had about nine years of experience, compared to 15 for the department as a whole.

Three young Chicago officers recently came under scrutiny for their use of force in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Paul O’Neal. Body camera and patrol car footage released by the city showed two officers firing at O’Neal as he plowed past the officers while driving a stolen car. Moments later, after a short foot chase, a third officer fatally shot O’Neal - who was unarmed - in the back.

WARNING: Graphic content/language. The Independent Police Review Authority released video Aug. 5, 2016, from the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Paul O'Neal. This clip shows footage from a Chicago police officer's body camera. (Chicago Tribune/Youtube)

Body camera footage showed the moments before and after the fatal shooting of Paul O'Neal by the police in Chicago on July 28, 2016. INDEPENDENT POLICE REVIEW AUTHORITY

Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York police sergeant who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and has watched the videos, criticized the decision to fire on the car, pointing out that the suspect had not displayed a weapon. Superintendent Eddie Johnson quickly suspended the police powers of the officers who opened fire. All three had less than four years of experience at the time of the shooting.

The district where O’Neal was shot — the 3rd district — has the highest percentage of officers with under five years of experience in the city. Nearly 40 percent of the officers are recent hires. The three suspended officers were assigned to the nearby 4th district, where over 30 percent of officers have under five years of experience.

As Chicago grapples with its most violent year in over a decade, the burden of bringing down the city’s rising murder rate falls disproportionately on its newest officers. Among Chicago’s 22 police districts, the five with the highest murder rates in 2016 are also the five where officers have the least experience, averaging ten years on the force. By comparison, the five safest districts are staffed by some of the most experienced officers, with an average of 18 years of experience.

Experience of Patrol Officers by District and 2016 Homicide Rate SOURCE: CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT

Experience of Patrol Officers by District and 2016 Homicide Rate


Data obtained from the CPD through a Freedom of Information Act request show 7,300 officers in the Bureau of Patrol (not counting sergeants and other supervisors), accounting for over 60 percent of the entire CPD. Patrol officers are the backbone of CPD, responding to citizen calls as well as walking and driving through their assigned beats.

In the five districts with the highest murder rates this year over 50 percent of the officers have less than 10 years of experience, though those officers make up just 30 percent of all Patrol and only 12 percent of the officers in the five safest districts. Out of the nearly 400 patrol officers under the age of 30, more than half serve in the five districts with the highest murder rates, while just 22 serve in the five safest.

Meanwhile, veteran officers are clustered in safer districts. Officers with over 20 years of experience make up just 10 percent of patrol officers in the five districts with the highest murder rates, but 30 percent of the city’s safest districts.

Younger officers policing high-crime districts have been asked to play a central role in reducing Chicago’s rapidly rising murder rate. Under former superintendent Garry McCarthy, the CPD flooded high-crime areas with officers on overtime shifts in an effort to tamp down crime. Superintendent Eddie Johnson reconfigured the program in July, emphasizing the role of officers who serve full-time in high-crime districts and have greater opportunity to develop strong community ties.

The movement of veteran officers out of districts on Chicago’s South and West Sides exposes a challenge for Johnson’s efforts to encourage better community ties. Jeffrey Booker, a retired CPD officer who served for more than 21 years on the force, says “the police see themselves as separate from the community” in many South and West Side neighborhoods.

But the concentration of younger officers in higher-crime districts can have some advantages. Giacalone, the retired New York police sergeant, argues that “policing is a young person’s job” and that younger officers are often better able to connect with troubled young people than officers in their 40s and 50s.

Though the rookie/veteran divide is present in many police departments, Chicago does have policies that may leave its force even more skewed. The Chicago Police Department’s union contract allows officers to regularly bid for open positions in other districts. Bids for patrol officer positions are decided primarily by comparing the seniority of the officers, and officers can transfer using a bid once every 12 months.

That makes it relatively easy for officers to move and ties the hands of the department in terms of determining which officers serve in which districts. Giacalone notes that when he served in the NYPD, “it can take years for people to get transfers.” He remembers that NYPD officers sometimes jokingly called the official transfer form a “black hole.”

Walker notes that “the one virtue of the seniority system is fairness” since it reduces the power of favoritism, a longstanding concern in Chicago. He also points out that in some cities the introduction of a seniority system helped end practices where the worst officers were purposely assigned to minority neighborhoods.

Walker and Giacalone both argue that the risks of large numbers of younger officers can be offset by a strong contingent of sergeants and field training officers. These figures play a major role in shaping rookies after they’re assigned to a district.

The CPD’s training programs have been subject to serious criticism. The Police Accountability Task Force, which convened in the wake of the Laquan McDonald video release that led to months of protests on the streets of Chicago, declared in its report that the “CPD has consistently failed to devote adequate resources to training officers once they leave the Academy.” The report highlighted the need for increased in-service training and a robust field training officer (FTO) system - programs that policing experts like Walker have pointed to as vital for preparing young officers entering stressful environments.

Nationally, training reforms have been cited as a major component of broader police reform. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, convened by President Obama in 2014 following several high profile incidents where police officers shot and killed black men, emphasized training and education as one of six crucial areas for improvement in policing. The Task Force’s final report highlighted the importance of programs like fielding training officers, encouraging improvements to the existing model based on San Jose’s well-regarded FTO program. San Jose’s police department is less than one-tenth the size of Chicago’s, but it boasts nearly the same number of designated field training officers.

The police seniority system is deeply embedded in Chicago, but Walker notes that the seniority rules — alongside in-service training and supervision — “are the little details that really make a difference in policing.” Still, Booker, the retired Chicago patrolman, is more pessimistic about change: “there’s no formula that’s going to answer this — it has to do with the culture — the formal and informal culture of the police department.”

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Immigrant-owned Stores Face Tension in Wary Chatham

Immigrant-owned Stores Face Tension in Wary Chatham


CHATHAM — The once-thriving 79th Street retail corridor in Chatham is dotted with vacant storefronts, but of the shopkeepers who remain, some feel more welcome than others.

Immigrant business owners are common on Chatham’s main strip. Though the shopkeepers bring economic activity and jobs to the area, black customers and black-owned businesses complain the newcomers are taking money out of the community. The racial tension is fueled by economic gaps, cultural differences and language barriers, among other issues, residents said.

“They come to our neighborhoods and take advantage of a business opportunity,” said Michael Muhammad, a 39-year-old African-American who owns the Uniform Store, a small storefront at 79th Street and Eberhart Avenue.

“They come to a place [where] they know the fabric of the economic cloth is dead. They know we are not producing the way we should. They are unified and benefit from our disunity,” he said of immigrant store owners.

In June, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) announced the Greater Chatham Initiative, a public-private partnership to rebuild the business corridor and surrounding neighborhoods. The leader of that initiative, Chatham-raised Nedra Fears, acknowledged the tension, and said that bringing more black-owned businesses to the area could alleviate the problem.

“Criticism can be valid, but if you want to see change collectively, what are you doing to make that change?” she said. “What do we need to do to be able to make people believe that they can start their own businesses?”

Fears said the initiative will include programs that train and support entrepreneurs. Self-employment can “be a ladder for wealth,” she said, adding that there also should be programs for ex-cons.

Misconceptions abound

Interviews with shoppers and on the business strip reveal some deep-seated misconceptions.

For instance, some residents believe that immigrant business owners get tax breaks and have used them to buy up  commercial property, which prevents African-Americans from buying or renting in their own community.

“Black owners very rarely get business in our own communities,” said Randy Davis, who co-owns DGI Inc Help Center at 7910 S. Cottage Grove Ave. The business helps consumers expunge criminal records, repair their credit and deal with bankruptcy.

Chatham resident Raymond Noble, 41, said, "When you come over from foreign countries, you are able to get a lot of different amenities that the average person here cannot get in terms of loans.” 

But Omar Hamdan, a business owner from Jerusalem, refuted Noble's claim.

“People think because I’m from the Middle East, the government gives me [my merchandise] for free," he said. "They think I don’t pay taxes, and [so] I showed them the tax bills.”

Hamdan added, “I work hard. I pay $2,000 a month in rent for business here.”

Hamdan, 50, opened his first small business in Chatham in 1994. He now owns three small business along the strip, a dollar store and two cellular phone stores.

“It was a good opportunity. Because it was a good business, I don’t care which area [I opened my shop],” Hamdan said.

The father of five lives in southwest suburban Burbank and came to the U.S. in 1992. He says he was advised to open his business in a black community.

“I knew the history of black people. In our religion [Islam], we respect all humans,” said Hamdan.

Immigrant business owners in predominantly black communities are not uncommon, says C.N. Le, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

“Most of it is due to the fact that, quite simply, rents are lower in neighborhoods that are predominantly black,” he said. “Because of the legacy of racism, much of the black population has been segregated into low-income, disadvantaged areas. It just so happens that the rent and property prices for these areas are lower compared to other areas, so it basically comes down to a financial decision.”

Studies show immigrant business is helpful

Whites used to own businesses in these predominantly black areas but began selling them to new immigrants such as Asians and Muslims in the 1980s, Le said. Scholars call this process “racial/ethnic succession,” because many of the white business owners move up the supply chain and become wholesalers who sell to the new immigrant business owners. In essence, these new Asian and Muslim business owners became a "buffer zone" that insulates whites from their former black customers, he said.

Some studies have found that immigrant business owners can help revitalize struggling neighborhoods by bringing commerce and much-needed investments to storefronts on depressed commercial strips. But research, news stories and years of documented clashes also reveal serious tensions between African-Americans and the immigrant business owners who find untapped opportunity in black neighborhoods.

A storefront on 79th Street in Chatham. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

A storefront on 79th Street in Chatham. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

Some Chatham residents feel that immigrant owners profile them.

“Everybody looks at you like you’re a gangbanger. They always look at the negative point of view of our race instead of looking at what we are doing positive,” said 25-year-old Erik Bentley, a Chatham resident.

The cultural differences and language barriers can also foster distrust and dislike.

For the last seven years, Don Williams has worked at Top Collection, a clothing store east of the 79th Street business strip. His Pakistani boss, known as “Pops,” speaks very little English, and Williams assists him with translations when interacting with black customers.

“I understand both of them, so I try to relay the message of what they are trying to say to each other,” said Williams.

Hiring local black residents as employees can ease the tension. Hamdan said he has two employees, but that his businesses can’t support more — an issue that Fears hopes the initiative can fix by bringing more economic activity to the area.

“I welcome people who want to do business in our community, because collectively we will thrive,” Fears said. “We want people to be good stewards: I don’t care who you are. If you invest in the community, we want you to step it up, we want you to do a high-quality investment, we want you to maintain your property, we want you to have high-quality goods and services, we want you to be a good neighbor.”

Either way, the process will require more understanding and empathy on both sides, Le said: “The business owners have been trying to become more involved and integrated into the communities that they serve,” and customers have to try to be more understanding of the cultural differences and not immediately conclude that some unpleasant interaction is because the business owner is racist.

“We're here because we’re after the American dream, and when you get here and start working, you realize the American dream is possible,” said Faye Ellis, an immigrant from Colombia, who owns Grab 'N Go.

Before Ellis opened her business at 7906 S. Cottage Grove Ave., the storefront sat abandoned for two years.

“I don’t think it’s fair to resent us, because a lot of us come here with nothing,” Ellis said.

This report was published in collaboration with DNAinfo Chicago. Additional reporting by Adeshina Emmanuel.

6 People We Met In Chatham Tell Us How The Historic Neighborhood Is Changing

6 People We Met In Chatham Tell Us How The Historic Neighborhood Is Changing


Neat lawns and tidy bungalows line quiet residential streets in Chatham, a South Side neighborhood that, in some areas, still looks the part of a black middle class utopia.

Chatham represents the old bastion of black economic mobility in Chicago, where working class folk, political movers and shakers, business people and other professionals have formed the foundation of the tight-knit community since the 1950s. Yet the signs of decline are impossible to ignore, especially on once-thriving business corridors like Cottage Grove and 79th Street that are rife with empty storefronts and the types of businesses you’d expect to see in troubled urban communities: liquor stores, dollar stores, fast food joints, hair salons and payday lenders.

But if Chatham is anything, it is resilient. Despite its ailing local economy and high crime rate, despite the scores of residents and businesses that fled the neighborhood in recent years, the community still has a way of keeping people there—even luring new residents and entrepreneurs who see opportunity where others only see neglect. Though Chatham experiences more crime than some Chicago neighborhoods, it is not one of the city's most-violent communities. Between July 19 and Aug. 18, Chatham saw reports of at least 61 violent crimes, including 2 homicides, and just over 220 property and quality-of-life crimes such as thefts and property damages, according to a Tribune analysis of the city's data portal, making Chatham the 13th-most violent community in Chicago, tied with Chicago Lawn, in the past month.

City Bureau visited Chatham this month to talk to area business owners about the challenges and triumphs of doing business in Chatham, the forces driving change in the community, what Chatham needs to thrive and more. The first part of City Bureau’s Chatham series can be found at Chicago Magazine.

Darryl Townson, illustration by Daniel Rowell/Chicagoist

Darryl Townson, illustration by Daniel Rowell/Chicagoist

Darryl Townson
Co-owner of Dat Donut and Uncle John’s Barbecue // 63 years old

On a blistering Thursday afternoon early in July, a slow but steady trickle of customers flock to Dat Donut, 8251 N. Cottage Grove, eyeing the glazed confections behind the counter— including the famous “Dat,” a frosted behemoth bigger than a baby’s head. It’s a diverse slice of the South Side: regal middle-aged women in business suits and heels, testy young parents pushing strollers and marshaling children along, unhurried elders sporting fanny packs and visors, dreadlocked young men whose pants hang just below the butt, burly bus drivers making a pit stop before continuing their route.

Co-owner Darryl Townson has spent most of the day sequestered in his office, cutting checks for his employees at the famous doughnut shop, which he owns with his wife Andrea, along with a rib joint in the same building.

Dat Donut opened about 22 years ago in the building that once housed the popular Leon’s Barbecue. Townson started working for Leon’s founder, Leon Finney Sr., when he was in high school. In 1994 Townson opened Dat Donut in the same space. Finney died in 2008, and Leon’s shuttered two years after that. But in 2010 Townson bought the building and later opened his own rib joint to compliment the doughnut shop.

“Chatham is what I know,” says Townson, who’s worked in Chatham since he was 15. “Chatham is one of your middle-class neighborhoods within the city of Chicago on the South Side that [had] people [with] very close-knit families, people took care of their homes, people tried to stay stable in business based on the economy that was here.”

But Townson says he noticed a change in the area during the 1990s as newcomers moved in after public housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished and many of their residents dispersed around the city. The shift brought “a little bit of everything,” he notes, but some of it was bad, namely gang affiliations and crime.

“We do have an influx of young people that don’t seem to be going to school, don’t seem like they are looking for employment,” Townson says. “You do have the seniors that have stayed, but everybody now is getting… pretty scared to go out and do anything in the daytime because of what's going on in the streets.”

But that doesn’t mean Townson wants to take his business elsewhere.

“I have no reason to look anyplace else,” Townson said. “We definitely have the support of the community business-wise, and we don’t just serve the Chatham area, people come from all over for Dat Donut...I’m not looking to leave.”

Michael Muhammad, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Michael Muhammad, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

 Michael Muhammad
Co-owner of the Uniform Store // 39 years old

Michael Muhammad is one of four owners of the Uniform store, a small store at the corner of 79th street and Eberhart Avenue. He says he has witnessed scores of Chatham small businesses fail in the past five years.

“It is a revolving door for a lot of businesses, because small business owners start off with a lot of hope," he says, but don't succeed due to a lack of support. “Many young women have been opening up boutiques. But once their boutique opens, they do not have a lot of people walking into their stores.”

In comparison, he says, “When Family Dollar opened, they had a lot of people standing outside waiting on them to open, and the same thing with Food-4-Less and many other commercial businesses. But for us small black businesses or independent businesses, we have to work for our customers.”

Muhammad wants black people to come together and pool resources to take advantage of business opportunities in the area, something he says “our Mexican, Vietnamese, and our Arab brothers and sisters” do when they start businesses.

“They leave their communities and come to a place that they know the fabric of the economic cloth is dead, they know we are not producing the way we should,” Muhammad says. “They’re unified and they benefit from our disunity. They come to our neighborhoods and take advantage of a business opportunity. We have to unify, that’s the only way.”

Artemus Gaye, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Artemus Gaye, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Artemus Gaye
President and founder of The Prince Ibrahima and Isabella Freedom Foundation // 40 years old

About five years ago, Liberian native Artemus Gaye moved from an apartment in Rogers Park on the Far North Side to Chatham.

“I came here on the South Side mainly because of space,” says Gaye, who runs a shipping business out of his home. “I thought, ‘Educated black folks, why should they go to the suburbs?’ ... Could I find an area within the South Side that I can be comfortable and build as a community?”

Gaye lives in a five-room bungalow with his parents and daughter just west of Cottage Grove, on a quiet block where signs at each corner command passersby to keep their voices down. For security he keeps a pair of pit bulls in his backyard, which also houses a chicken coop that provides his family with a daily serving of fresh eggs.

Gaye, a scholar who holds a Ph.D. in Christian ethics from Loyola University Chicago, is a descendant of a West African prince named Abdul Rahman Ibrahima who endured 40 years of slavery in the U.S. before he was freed. Gaye’s home-based shipping business, named after the prince and his wife Isabella, caters to West Africans in Chicago who want to send things—“food, medicine, clothes, cars, anything”—back home.

Gaye has seen Chatham residents forced to leave their childhood homes when they can’t afford to maintain the houses their parents bought. Gaye, on the other hand, says he wants to hang around to make the community a better place. He’s looking to work on neighborhood projects with community groups and churches. Among those ideas: transforming a vacant lot on King Drive given to him by the city into a multi-purpose space for indoor soccer, dance classes and gardening.

“Until there's ownership from the grassroots, we won't have a better sense of security,” Gaye says. “The security here is not just about policing, but about the economic and the social; it's for our cultural and spiritual benefit.”

Gaye says he has tried to encourage fellow Africans living on the North Side to see Chatham as an opportunity to establish an African immigrant community by buying property, homes and businesses in the area. He’s encountered resistance.

“Africans for the most part have this fear of the city—of the South Side,” Gaye says. “I'm trying to break that, that's why I'm encouraging them! We're all concentrated in the Rogers Park area, for the most part, and Uptown. So you have a large Nigerian population, Ghanaian population, there. And then we have most people who tend to get very successful move to the suburbs.”

Gaye is resolute that Africans should be congregating in Chicago’s black middle-class neighborhoods.

“This is historic, to be in this kind of area,” Gaye says. “To be educated and invest time in our community—we can do that.”

Ebony Mosley, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Ebony Mosley, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Ebony Mosley
Owner of The World Is Your's Childcare & Learning Center // 38 years old

The facade of Ebony Mosley’s daycare is a flash of color, a broad yellow awning with a red picket fence and several cheery painted cartoon animals. Mosley has operated the center at 8026 S. Cottage Grove Ave. for the last decade, teaching and tending kids ages two to twelve from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Mosley attends the nearby New Life Covenant Church on 78th Street, but lives in the suburbs and has no plans to move to Chatham. She notes families moving into the neighborhood and quickly deciding to leave, and hopes to see new programs to counteract a dearth of job opportunities for Chatham’s teenagers.

“We need activities,” she says. “There's too much hanging out on 79th, that's why there's always something happening. They need more youth programs or youth centers, somewhere that these children can go to keep them from being outside getting hurt.”

She adds, “If more businesses were opening, there'd be better opportunities for them to find employment and help them stay off the streets.”

Mosley has an intimate window into others’ family lives, a responsibility she takes seriously. Because life can be rough for kids at home, she says, “I make sure they feel like they have somewhere to go or some kind of safe environment that they can come to.”

“There's a lot that I've seen in the last ten years that I've been here,” Mosley says. “Different things with children and their families, parents, mothers, boyfriends, husbands. Domestic violence, all sorts of different things. I'm always here to listen to them, be an ear, comb some of the kids' hair, I cut the boys' [hair], I buy them coats and clothes and hats and gloves, scarves, shoes—whatever I can do to help them, I just do it.

Stephen Kinison, illustration via Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Stephen Kinison, illustration via Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Stephen Kinison
Co-owner of CombatZone Fitness // 40 years old

Stephen Kinison is a personal trainer who lives in Edgewater and owns a martial arts studio in Chatham, right across the street from Dat Donut. He says the studio at has 200 members from 5-year-olds to people in their early 70s.

“We have an actual interaction and a relationship, and get a chance to see the children and the adults develop long term,” Kinison says, describing his relationship with the Chatham community. “You know, building a family and not just a consumer...I feel like I’m interacting and not just selling something; I’m giving something back.

He says he was aware of stigma the area faces, but given that there are businesses on Cottage Grove, he figured somebody was making money and maybe he could, too.

“I was kind of skeptical at first but now I can see it,” Kinison says. “It’s good people here and they love to see this [business]...You don’t have to go outside your community to find what you’re looking for. I have faith that we will continue to grow, and that’s pretty good for an area like this.

In an area rife with liquor stores, unhealthy food and crime, Kinison says a business like his is much-needed in Chatham.

“I feel like to be successful in martial art you have to have that balanced [way] of thinking right, eating right,” Kinison says.

Kinison says struggling property values and concerns over crime have convinced many homeowners that they should cash out “while they can and...move somewhere they feel is on the uprise.”

“I think this area is right on the fence,” Kinison says. “With a little bit more of community support it can be that middle-class area.”

Kinison emphasized that the fact that he's a black business owner matters to people in the area.

"I think it does, I think the neighborhood appreciated [that,]” Kinison says. “I got a lot of positive support from parents, children, and other business owners. I feel like they are surprised to see it.”

Anthony Hamdan, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Anthony Hamdan, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Anthony Hamdan
Co-owner of ABC Cellular // 46 years old

Anthony Hamdan commutes from suburban Burbank to manage one of his brother Omar’s three stores, a dollar store and two cell phone stores in Chatham. He’s been working in neighborhood for 16 years. Hamdan manages ABC Cellular, at 804 E. 79th St., and he says Chatham is a good community that lacks safety.

“We hear it from customers: they stole my phone, and they stuck me up with a gun,” Hamdan says. “A lot of them come in because they got their phones stolen and you hear that almost every day.”

He remembers a time when there used to be more police in the area, but says their presence has decreased. “They used to walk [around] a lot and come in here, but lately they cut them down,” says Hamdan.

Hamdan’s store has not experienced any crime in Chatham, but he says that a few years ago his brother Omar’s dollar store’s air conditioner compressor was stolen and the same happened to the restaurant next door. “They took the whole compressor,” he says.

Hamdan says he’s not involved in local politics in Chatham, but two weeks ago his brother went to the community police meeting. As for his personal safety, he says he feels safe walking around in the community because he has been working in Chatham since 2000: “I’ve been here for a long time. I know everybody, almost.”

This piece was produced in collaboration with Chicagoist
About the illustrator: Daniel Rowell is a writer and illustrator based in Chicago. You can follow him @danieljrowell.