Cops to gang leaders: End violence, or else

August 30, 2010 (CHICAGO)

It could be called a new effort, but it's not a new concept. There have, over the years, been summits with and warnings to gang leaders to put the brakes on street violence, or else. The 'or else' usually means a full-court press by law enforcement - city, state, and federal - whatever court can mete out the stiffest penalties. That's the message from the surprise meeting.

One side sees some real potential in it. The other sees a lot of bluster.

When they arrived at the Garfield Park conservatory earlier this month, they thought they were headed to a routine parole meeting, but there was the superintendent of police with a message for the handful of alleged gang leaders.

"I told them a word they ought to get used to is RICO," said Supt. Jody Weis, Chicago Police Department.

RICO - racketeering - is the federal prosecution tool. Someone in the gang commits murder, and if the circumstances are correct then CPD and the feds together go after the gang as a criminal enterprise, targeting and taking ill-gotten gains and holding gang leaders criminally accountable.

"They don't like to go to federal court. They like to go to 26th Street and California because they walk out the door the same way they walk in," said Arthur Bilek, Chicago Crime Commission.

Taking a murder and proving up racketeering and identifying elements of a street gang as a criminal enterprise has certainly been done, but it's not a simple process. It is, however, a stick that some cities with established street gangs are trying to turn to.

Community activist Mark Allen calls the superintendent's meeting with so-called gang leaders an ambush and publicity stunt, and says that street gang bosses of today often don't have control over many who wear their colors.

"And for another element of the community that don't fear the police, who aren't afraid to die and some who think jail is a step up - what have you done to scare them? Nothing, but create an ever deep adversarial relationship and that's what we gotta put a stop to," said Allen.

But advocates of a coordinated approach with federal teeth say RICO is another tool in the fight against gun violence. But with the idea out there for public consumption if police don't deliver, that's a problem.

"It'll not only be a problem for the initiative problem, it'll be a problem for everything they do. You can't go after bad guys with guns with no bullets in it," said Bilek.

The U.S. attorney's office has used the RICO statute in a couple of major gang cases. One brought convictions in the case of a gang causing a lot of violence in Aurora. A second case involving the Latin Kings in Chicago in which 18 defendants - gang leaders among them - are awaiting trial.

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