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Chicago's Cook County Battles Ongoing Gun Violence


While many Chicagoans celebrate the Cubs' World Series in this city, there is also a continuing tragedy and outrage in Chicago. Crime has been declining in the wider city for years, but more than 3,500 people have been shot so far in 2016. This is already more than the total number of shootings last year. Twenty minutes west of downtown is Austin, a neighborhood that was thriving a few decades ago, but it now has an unemployment rate of 21 percent and is among the most violent neighborhoods in the city.

DERRICK JONES: It's the area I grew up in, and I'm proud of the Austin area, but as things have been going on lately, it's like - it doesn't make sense. It wasn't like this before.

BERNARD CLAY: I mean, you wake up every morning, you hear sirens. It never used to be like that - every morning. It's akin to almost being in a war zone.

JOY WILLIAMS: The community need help. They need more jobs. They need to stop the violence. We need better police officers.

KEN BEACHAM: You know, it's no place now with the violence to be. It's no place to raise a child. It's just not. Innocent people die all the time.

SIMON: We spoke to Derrick Jones (ph), Bernard Clay (ph), Joy Williams (ph) and Ken Beacham (ph) yesterday morning in Austin on the west side of Chicago. We also met one of the area's elected officials, Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, who showed us around the neighborhood.

RICHARD BOYKIN: This looks like almost like a Third World country almost where you see all of these vacant lots and boarded up buildings and - look, somebody got killed on this corner here. There's a cross there, symbolizing somebody got killed there. On the right, there was a mass shooting there last year where five people were shot.

SIMON: Commissioner Boykin joined us here at WBEZ to talk about his seven-point plan to reduce gun violence. It includes parenting workshops and job training, which almost everyone supports, but most controversially, the commissioner favors much harsher penalties for being arrested with an illegal gun.

BOYKIN: I would support mandatory minimums, and I know I'd go against the grain of most liberals...

SIMON: That would - absolutely.

BOYKIN: ...Who say that, you know, this is another form of Jim Crow, if you will, or we're going to swell the prison population. Look at the numbers of people shot. If individuals are being killed just by virtue of the fact that they're sitting on porches or they're walking down the street, there's something wrong with that.

SIMON: As you yourself point out, Commissioner, you have some dispute on your side of the political spectrum from Democratic liberals who say you can't incarcerate this problem.

BOYKIN: And they're wrong. They're absolutely wrong. I would say this - you can't police your way out of poverty. I agree with that. So I'm saying you've got to provide the resources. But we - we must also say to people we're not going to allow you to take charge and terrorize our communities. That is wrong. This is a small group of individuals, from what I understand from the police chief, that is causing all this mayhem. The police department, they're solving maybe 20 percent of the homicide cases, and so they must get the help that they need from the FBI, from the DEA, from the sheriff's police, from other law enforcement authorities to make sure they protect these neighborhoods. Nobody would accept the level of carnage that we've seen on the streets of the west side of Chicago and parts of the south side if it were happening downtown Chicago or up north. Nobody would ever accept that level of death.

SIMON: I mean, I want to understand this. Does this mean that a 17-year-old kid who comes - who looks around for a firearm because he's scared - he's not a drug dealer. He just - he's scared to walk to school. Do you really want to put him in prison for three and a half years?

BOYKIN: I do, I do. And the reason why is because we have to set the kind of framework for that 17-year-old kid that if he's afraid, he can go to somebody, a parent, a mentor, a role model, and explain what is happening. And it's up to the authorities. It's up to us to make sure that that individual is protected. This is not a society where we want everybody carrying a gun to protect themselves. The kind of precedent that you set when you have a 17-year-old just pick up a gun because he's afraid is the wrong kind of precedent that we want to set.

SIMON: And how do you answer the concern that locking up more young African-American men will just exacerbate the problem because you'll be taking potentially, at some point, good parents, good workers, good role models out of the community?

BOYKIN: Look, I'm not for locking up more African-American males. I'm lock - I'm for locking up people who violate the law. Right now, there is no real deterrent effect in place. And so basically what you have is you have an individual caught carrying a gun illegally and the judge turns him back out on the streets. That's not what we want. Maybe if we send a signal, right, to Pukki (ph) and Ray Ray (ph) that guess what? There's a new sheriff in town, and the new law says that if you get caught carrying a gun illegally, you're going to jail for three and a half years. Well, maybe they'll think twice before picking up that gun illegally.

SIMON: Commissioner Richard Boykin of Cook County, thanks so much for being with us here in the studio.

BOYKIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.