The Chicago Bureau

(Top row from left to right)  Chris Brown, Mina Waight, Michael Walton II, (bottom row from left to right) Kristin Brown, Nanyamka Gallardo and Barbara Cruz share their stories and fears about Chicago violence in "Lost Friends." 2014, in Chicago. (Junru Huang/Chicago Tribune)

(Top row from left to right) Chris Brown, Mina Waight, Michael Walton II, (bottom row from left to right) Kristin Brown, Nanyamka Gallardo and Barbara Cruz share their stories and fears about Chicago violence in “Lost Friends.” 2014, in Chicago. (Junru Huang/Chicago Tribune)

By Suyeon Son
The Chicago Bureau

The day after recent Kenwood Academy graduate Kevin Ambrose was murdered, Mina Waight ran into a group of girls talking about the incident in the hall. She had barely spoken to them before, but they insisted it was true.

“My first reaction was to text him and say ‘good morning,’ so I could show them it wasn’t true, that it hadn’t happened,” the 16-year-old said. “He never responded.”

When the numbers are large, we forget the human connection. The number of homicides in Chicago is the lowest it has been since 1965. However, that makes no difference to Kristin Brown, then 14, who was crippled with confusion and terror as she watched the footage of her father dying on TV.

Now, she walks a little faster at night because for her, “safety is an illusion.” Christopher Brown still worries about his little brother Carl. Who says he won’t meet the same fate as Van, his friend who was gunned down?

Mina, Kristin and Christopher have all lost friends or family due to violence. Their stories are not unique stories, or even unusual ones. Yet fear, a byproduct of the offending numbers, both unifies them and shapes each one’s experiences of Chicago in a different way.

When the police never came

Kristin Brown resents the police.

“I don’t think black life matters to the police as much as it should,” the 19-year-old Columbia College student said. “I don’t think they care.”

In the last decade of her life, she’s lost her father, her cousin, her best friend and her sense of security. Her cousin’s killer never saw the inside of a prison, Brown said. The police never found the person who killed her friend. One day, she was walking home and called the police because she was being followed. They never showed up.

“They asked, ‘How do you know they’re following you?’” she said. “They said next time, I could just lie and say he’s chasing me so they actually respond.”

Brown said she suffers from anxiety. She’s haunted by suspicion that no one will come to her rescue the next time she’s followed, or that her older brother won’t pick up the phone like he usually does when she checks up on him.

“It’s at the point where I haven’t been able to sit down and just be able to breathe,” she said.

The aspiring journalist said she wished police officers were trained to be sensitive to the things that happen so city residents, particularly those in her Bronzeville neighborhood, feel like they matter. There’s empathy training at the police academy, but some critics have long argued it doesn’t go far enough to break any barriers between authorities and the everyman.

“These people that the police see on the street, people love them,” she said. “In my case, it was my cousin, my dad, my best friend.”

A community approach to policing

Mina Waight copes with tragedy by coaching herself to get from Point A to Point B. No gold jewelry allowed outside of the house. iPhone hidden, out of sight. The death of her friend Kevin Ambrose, who used to jokingly lie that his name was Kyle and helped her with her heavy bag at the lockers, rattled her. Fortunately, she said, it hasn’t prevented her from seeing improvement in her Bronzeville neighborhood over the years.

“I think what I want is already happening,” she said. “It’s a little rough, regardless, but most people don’t hang around outside anymore. That’s reduced a lot of things from happening in the neighborhood.”

Mark Iris, a political science professor at Northwestern University, knows the story extends beyond the changes in Waight’s community. Throughout his 20-year tenure as the executive director of the Chicago Police Board, Iris saw the organizational culture change with time, with a growing emphasis on community policing strategies since the late 1990s.

Though careful not to generalize, Iris said, some 15 years ago he had sent some students to do ride-alongs with the police. One of the students said she had asked the officer about community relations and community building, to which he said, “We don’t deal with the community, we deal with offenders.”

“That’s one officer for whom community relations was not a warm fuzzy concept,” Iris said.

Yet, since the city implemented of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) in 1993 –a program that initially many officers were not keen on, or even worked against–it has tried to build a joint method of deterring and reporting crime by harnessing the power of residents.

Though not the primary cause of the city’s decrease in crime in the last few decades, some researchers have found CAPS to be promising. In one evaluation of the program, a decade after its inauguration, 45.5 percent of the beats that practiced CAPS were considered successful.

“Twenty years ago, the homicide numbers were in excess of 900,” Iris said. “Now it’s 400-something. A 16-year-old today knows nothing about how dangerous the streets were in 1990.”

And as the violence continues to grip the city, many people have scattered to the suburbs, including close-in Cicero. But many of the same problems followed them because underlying issues of education and poverty couldn’t be erased with a move.

Still, Jerry R. Chlada Jr., first deputy superintendent of police with the Cicero Police Department, said he’s seen how an emphasis on community policing can dramatically decrease gang-related activities.

“I keep preaching that you are the eyes and ears of this town,” he said. “The police cannot do it alone. Citizens have to understand how important they are to what we’re trying to do.”

Since 2005, Chlada said the department has had access to resources to work more closely with the community to address the kind of fears Kristin has. The department holds community meetings, works with non-profit organizations like CeaseFire to bridge the forces and emphasizes that the police won’t refuse service to individuals just because they’re not legal citizens.

“Of course, it bothers me personally when we have homicides with lack of evidence or witnesses and there’s not much we can do about it,” he said. “What families have to understand is that we need cooperation. They need to step up, because we’re empowering (offenders) if we let them get away with it.”

But even with community policing, which demands that officers get out of their squad cars and actually walk beats to get to know the people who populate them, there’s risk.

Consider: A young black man from the South Side, at a meeting at Tribune Tower last year, spoke of the rippling psychological affect of just being stopped and asked a simple question or being requested to fill out a contact card. The high school student explained that such incidents can forever alter the perception of police as a dominating, even threatening presence, there just “to catch you,” rather than a force to protect.

Seeing a Chicago beyond violence

Christopher Brown, 22, lives on the South Side and has experienced his share of both racial profiling and violence. Once, it was a police officer threatening to arrest him for smoking on the platform of an “L” station, even as others around him smoked. Another time, it was his friend, Van, a “big brother to everybody in the neighborhood,” who died due to gun violence.

“But it is what it is,” he said.

Brown said he was more afraid of Chicago’s culture being buried underneath all the talk of crime and violence. A writer, spoken word artist and photographer, Brown said he has seen how his city has changed because of the music and art being pushed out. He wishes he could change the perspectives of those outside of the city–those who hear of nothing but the numbers.

“We have the entire world looking at our city like this is California in the ’80s or something,” he said. “It’s not that bad. People don’t get that. We have culture here.”

When asked, then, why he had chosen to tell his story of loss due to violence for a documentary, Brown said his was a story of a journey.

“When I did the ‘Lost Friends’ documentary, it was more so me telling them where I started from, where I’m at now, and where I’m going to be going,” he said. “I would love to make something positive out of where I came from.”

 

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