By Lynn Sweet and Frank Main
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is pursuing an ambitious plan to curb gang violence in Chicago through the mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples, but a Chicago Sun-Times analysis reveals that Kirk's proposal faces formidable hurdles.
Kirk has yet to offer more than a vague vision of how law enforcement and judicial officials would execute a massive bust -- which would strain police, judicial, jail and prison resources. Kirk's office says that at this early stage, his plan is very much a work in progress.
Still, Kirk has offered no details to justify the $30 million he said on Wednesday he would request from Congress to help bankroll the project.
In the past weeks, Kirk has been seeking input from federal law-enforcement agencies including the Chicago Police, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The scale of what Kirk is proposing is enormous.
For example, the Chicago Police Department's largest effort to take down an entire street gang involved the Maniac Latin Disciples. Police Supt. Garry McCarthy declared war on the gang in 2011 after a member allegedly wounded two girls in a shooting in a Northwest Side park. So far, the department has made 2,200 arrests of MLD members. Some have been arrested repeatedly.
Kirk's approach has not won an endorsement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel or Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), though both say more needs to be done to combat gangs.
Before going public with his plan, which would overwhelmingly affect African-American gang members, Kirk did not seek any buy-in from the three Illinois members of Congress who are black and whose districts would likely be most affected by the sweep.
The three Democrats -- Rep. Bobby Rush, Rep. Danny Davis and Rep. Robin Kelly -- are all critical of Kirk's idea.
On Friday, Davis told the Sun-Times that Kirk's plan is the "most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of in my life. I am totally amazed that something like this could come out of the senator's office." Davis said he "would have loved to have had some discussions" with Kirk to offer his input before the senator started talking about it in public.
Kelly told the Sun-Times on Friday, "While I agree with Sen. Kirk that we need to do more to crack down on gangs and other violent criminals, I don't think his plan is viable. Ending gun violence requires a more nuanced approach that includes creating access to jobs and job training, mental health counseling, mentoring and other social and community supports that offer young people alternatives to violence. It also requires passing commonsense gun control measures that keep guns out of the wrong hands."
Rush was the first to blast Kirk's plan, telling the Sun-Times on Wednesday that it was a "headline-grabbing, empty, simplistic" and "upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about."
The mayor, commenting Thursday on Kirk's plan, said gang crime needs to be addressed on multiple fronts: through social programs and a tougher law enforcement.
"It's not either/or," Emanuel said. "You have to do both."
In February, Emanuel launched his "Chicago Public Safety Action Community Fund," with a goal of raising $50 million over five years to bankroll a variety of programs aimed at reducing youth violence. So far, Emanuel has pledges of $41 million.
Experts are skeptical
Perhaps most important are concerns raised by experts who say the mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples may not be the best way to reduce gang violence.
David Kennedy -- the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York -- said Kirk's approach is built on a false premise that the Gangster Disciples is a monolithic gang.
Kennedy has been working with the Chicago Police Department since 2010 to reduce murders through gang "call-ins," in which gang members known for violent activity meet with law-enforcement authorities and community leaders and are given a tough "group accountability" message: Your gang commits another murder and the city will move to arrest everyone in the gang.
The call-ins focus surgically on gang factions that might involve dozens of members, but not thousands.
"The fact is that thinking about the Gangster Disciples as one criminal organization that should be held accountable for the actions of each of its members is not representative of how the streets are behaving," Kennedy said.
"They are not fully organized any longer," he said. "You get factions at the street level that fight with other GD factions that do business with rivals. You need to focus on factions, which the city is already doing with its gang violence reduction strategy."
Authorities in the Chicago Police Department and federal law-enforcement agencies privately say they would not turn down additional money to fight the Gangster Disciples, but the only approach that would work would be to prioritize the worst of the worst. Instead of trying to launch a sweep against 18,000 Gangster Disciples, they would, for instance, create a Top 100 list of the most active shooters or those known to be leaders of GD factions, one top police official said.
The DEA operates a local multi-agency strike force that could go after factions of the GDs, building federal conspiracy cases targeting their drug sales, weapon possession offenses and violent crimes, officials say. But that would require additional staffing, and the funding would be very difficult to get from Congress.
Every year, thousands of gang members already are getting locked up in Chicago. Putting 18,000 more behind bars would pose major logistical problems, authorities say. The Cook County Jail, which currently houses nearly 10,000 detainees, is almost at capacity and the hot summer months are expected to push crowding to the limit there. The much smaller federal lockup in downtown Chicago doesn't have room for all those gang members, either.
Kirk's search for answers
Kirk started looking for solutions to gang violence when he was a House member. Earlier this year, he was the only Senate Republican to vote for all of the most significant gun-control measures and co-sponsored a gun-trafficking measure to make it harder for gang members to obtain weapons.
After that, Kirk came up with the mass arrest plan of the Gangster Disciples, targeting them because, his team has said, he understood that the killers of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in a park near the Chicago home of President Barack Obama last January were tied to the Gangster Disciples. Hadiya would have turned 16 on Sunday.
The Sun-Times earlier reported that the Gangster Disciples have splintered into dozens of factions in recent years and Hadiya's killers were allegedly members of one such faction, called SUWU.
Kirk spokesman Lance Trover told the Sun-Times that Kirk "understands there are differing viewpoints on how to solve our gang problems and knows that by injecting himself strongly into the issue, he may take criticism, but criticism will not deter him from working to find an answer, because the simple fact is people are dying every single day due to gang violence."
"While Sen. Kirk knows the Chicago Police are doing everything they can to stop criminal activity being carried out by gangs, he wants to help them end this cycle of violence and be their top advocate in Washington. Sen. Kirk is creating a national bipartisan, bicameral coalition to push for a federal role in addressing gangs."