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COVID-19 Restrictions Hamper Efforts To Tame Chicago Gang Shootings


People who've cut back on their activity during the pandemic apparently include criminals. By many measures, crime is down. But in some big cities, people continue shooting people. Chicago reports a 15% jump in gun violence compared to this time last year. And social distancing makes it harder to work against that violence. Here's Patrick Smith of WBEZ.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: Over the past two months, it's become clear that a lot of things can be done remotely with phone calls and video conferencing. But Terrance Henderson says preventing Chicago gang shootings is not one of them. Henderson is a street outreach worker walking the streets in some of the toughest parts of Chicago trying to separate young men from gangs. There are dozens like him here. Many are ex-gang members or ex-convicts. They rely on relationship building and face-to-face contact to intervene in violent street conflicts. Henderson says that's a lot harder now.

TERRANCE HENDERSON: You know, we don't engage guys the same way. We have no handshaking or high-fiving or dapping or hugging. You know, we just - we walk past. We speak. You know, we may toe tap each other, but we're not getting the everyday vibe of just being able to congregate with people.

SMITH: And the coronavirus has taken away other tools. There's no in-person counselling or drug treatment available, no jobs to dangle before gang members looking to change their lives. And Henderson says it's making it harder to intervene immediately after shootings to prevent retaliation. Normally, when there's a shooting in his part of Chicago, Henderson heads to the hospital.

HENDERSON: A person that's at risk, their most vulnerable state is in the hospital when something happens. You know, people don't really get it until it hits them directly. Like, these are the consequences for what you doing. If you like this, then keep doing what you're doing. But if you don't like what you're feeling and how you feeling right now, then you got to change.

SMITH: But the pandemic prevents hospital access. So guys like Henderson are lurking in hospital parking lots and turning to social media and phone calls to try to reach out. John Maki with the national group the Alliance for Safety and Justice says the challenges are not unique to Chicago.

JOHN MAKI: I think what this crisis is it's stretching us in ways that we've never been stretched.

SMITH: Maki says he's seeing antiviolence groups adapt and take on the role of Public Health Advocacy warning marginalized communities about the dangers of COVID and ways to stay safe. And he says groups that don't normally work together, domestic violence organizations and rape crisis centers are banding together to coordinate supplies and secure funding. Some antiviolence efforts have moved online with group counseling and job training happening on video conferencing.

And some antiviolence workers see reasons for optimism. During a recent online worker training session, Donnell Gardner shared the story of seeing two rival gang members pass each other as each was taking an elderly relative for COVID testing. Gardner had talked with both of these guys before but hadn't been able to get through to them now. They were face to face.

DONNELL GARDNER: So they saw each other. These guys used to be at two - they'd be at two right now right now until they saw each other. So they basically like, you know, looking at each other like what they going to do. Can't make a phone call to do something because that person got his older family with him and this person got his older family with him. So I actually sat back and watched them peace out with each other.

SMITH: Gardner wants to build on that moment to create a broader, lasting peace. That's tough to do while social distancing. But he's still trying.

For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patrick came to OU from the Dallas area and is now a senior. His major area of study is Broadcasting, with a Sports Management minor. He hopes to work in the broadcast booth for football or baseball games, either doing play-by-play or 'color' commentary.