'Hug-a-thug' warnings to Chicago gangs paying off, Chicago police say

February 25, 2014 (CHICAGO)

Under the department's custom notification program, a CPD commander finds out who is likely to either cause trouble or be the victim of it and goes to their home, sits down to talk, and lays out a choice. Choose to stay out of trouble, and the community will help. If not, jail time could be longer than expected.

"My message is this is about the community wanting to end the violence," Chicago Police Commander Barbara West said. West is commander in the Austin district where the intervention program started as a pilot six months ago. Since then, she's knocked on the doors of 29 active gang members to talk.

"There've been times when I've not been received, the doors not opened - slammed in my face, but there've been times when they actually invite me in to sit at the table and talk about this with them, and have a conversation," Cmdr. West said.

"And we're making a concerted effort to have family members participate in that conversation," Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said.

Police like what they're seeing thus far and are expanding their interventions to active gang conflicts. Two weeks ago, after a 14-year old boy was killed on the South Side in an apparent gang-related shooting, the commander of the Grand Crossing district went to the homes of some gang leaders in the Woodlawn neighborhood and warned them against escalating the conflict. In each intervention, the commander is accompanied by a community partner who offers the carrot - potential job contacts, housing needs, and maybe drug treatment.

"My gut tells me the community partners that we are working with are really willing to provide these guys with help and services they need to change their lifestyles," Commander West said.

Chicago police say there have been 60 of these interventions, and police say to date, none has been involved in any new felony arrests; seventeen have resulted in some form of social services assistance.

"It's early. It's early. And this is only preliminary stuff, but it's kind of exciting," Supt. McCarthy said.

Critics refer to the interventions as Hug-A-Thug, but McCarthy said there is no negotiation.

"It's not an enforcement strategy, it's an intervention," he said. "I don't care what people think. If it works, I will give them a hug myself."

One of the targets of the custom notification program was killed in a gang-related shooting weeks after police sought a meeting. Officials say he is the one who slammed the door on Commander West.

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