Learning that Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis and various federal prosecutors had a “sit-down” recently with members of assorted street gangs couldn’t help but make me remember an old episode of Hill Street Blues, that 1980s cop-shop show that many believe was influenced by our fair city (even though its urban area was never specified).
In that episode, Jesus Martinez, leader of the Los Diablos streetgang (played by actor Trinidad Silva) had a one-on-one meeting with Daniel Travanti’s “Capt. Frank Furillo” character. After an initial round of negotiations in which the gang asked for firearms and body armor (with Furillo countering with an offer to print up t-shirts with the gang name on them), the two came to an understanding.
THE DIABLOS’ LEADER offered police some assistance with a case, in exchange for the police providing his mother with an escort whenever she wanted to go shopping (because, after all, the streets of the neighborhood are so bad, even the gang leader’s mama can’t go out in public).
Admittedly, that meeting on television was played up for laughs. Which is something I doubt was meant to occur with the meetings that have taken place in Chicago in recent weeks.
It was reported during the weekend how Weis, a former FBI agent (who did a stint as special agent in charge of the Chicago field office), and his former federal prosecutorial colleagues held a meeting at the Garfield Park Conservatory with those gang leaders, whom it seems didn’t take the message being delivered all too well.
The Chicago Tribune reported specifically that the gang members present “got up and walked out” of the meeting. How rude!
OF COURSE, THE message they were given was a rather blunt one, although anyone who has been watching the criminal proceedings surrounding former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (or any other federal defendant, for that matter) should realize its truth.
When the federal government decides it wants to “get” someone, it has a lot of tools it can use to break people. Basically, what the gang members were told is that law enforcement is prepared to use those tools to break them.
If any streetgang members didn’t realize how little one has to do to be involved in a conspiracy, perhaps they know now.
For as Weis put it during a press conference held Saturday (thereby ensuring him big play in the weekend news broadcasts on account of the lack of other news to cover the past couple of days), federal racketeering statutes can be used to allow “the law” to seize all kinds of personal assets, and not just those that belong to the person who is suspected of actually doing something that is legally improper.
WEIS SAID HE is prepared to go after the leaders of individual street gangs if police are able to trace back any specific incidents to members of that gang.
Which means we have the very real prospect of some streetgang leader’s mother losing what little she may have in the way of assets because some thug decided he couldn’t behave himself.
That may be cold. It may be harsh. Even somewhat callous.
But ultimately, it probably is the only type of thing that is going to gain the attention of those in streetgangs. Because those outfits exist so far outside of what many of us would want to call respectable society that it will take the legal equivalent of a sledgehammer to gain their attention.
WE’RE TALKING ABOUT people who feel so disenfranchised by our society that they’re not likely to be intimidated by the mere presence of a police car passing down their block – or one of those surveillance cameras erected on a streetlamp at the end of their particular block.
The only problem with this “tough-guy” approach is that I hope nobody thinks that it alone will reduce crime. Because the way to do that ultimately is get at some of the root causes of crime -- which are poverty and a sense of alienation that some feel toward our society.
Quite frankly, the solution to the problem of streetgangs and the crime they cause is to reduce any incentive that one might feel to want to join a gang. In too many urban neighborhoods, young people get sucked into the gang cultures because they fear the sense of being alone in this world outside of a gang more than they fear the chance of being arrested for some gang-related activity.
Some people have their hangups about the idea that Weis met with gang leaders, spewing out that old line about how one does not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the individual street gangs. Of course, trying to ignore them and pretend they really don’t have such influence in certain parts of our city hasn’t worked all that well.
SO I’M GLAD to learn that Weis was willing to deliver a tough message in person. I only hope it doesn’t have a Hill Street Blues-type ending.
For if I recall that particular episode, the gang leader’s help wound up doing nothing to ease tensions, and the police wound up shooting up a liquor store where hostages were being held.