Crime in Chicago is once again front-page national news. Increased levels of "year-to-date" homicide are up and part of the national outcry is about what (if anything) can be done about it. Over the past several months, Superintendent McCarthy has mentioned "gang audits" as one of the latest innovations in Chicago's efforts at curbing gang violence. But what, exactly, are these audits? And, can they reduce violence?
Chicago's high levels of homicide are driven by and large by disputes among and between street gangs. We've known this for decades. But most of our knowledge, understanding and tactics in dealing with street gangs have been stuck in the 1990s when Chicago gangs were seen as complex and hierarchical organizations with a clear chain of command and a commander-in-chief pulling the strings.
But gangs have changed over the past 20 years and so too should our ways of dealing with them. Once monolithic gangs in Chicago have crumbled and in their place have emerged (literally) hundreds of smaller, less organized and decentralized factions and crews. These crews don't play by old gang rules, nor do they respect old gang boundaries. But today's gangs are no less violent.
The decentralized nature and sheer number of gang factions makes understanding the context of gang disputes even more important when trying to craft intervention and prevention efforts. That's precisely what gang audits are designed to do.
In a nutshell, gang audits are a survey or census of a neighborhood's gang landscape -- which groups are present, where they hang out, and, most importantly, who's got conflict with whom. The audit emerges from a series of working sessions with law enforcement, community stakeholders, researchers and other gang experts. Audit participants, surrounded by a map of a community, pool together as much information as they can about recent shootings and gangs. The audits produce not only precise data on gangs and their activities, but also detailed social network maps of which gangs are actively involved in violent disputes and with whom. In other words, the audit group walks away from the table with a map of violence in real time Chicago. Just like geographic crime maps direct resources toward "hot spots," the logic of the gang audit maps the landscape of violence with the objective of directing intervention and police efforts accordingly.
The idea of identifying which gangs are actively involved in violence and directing efforts to those groups is not new. Indeed, at its most basic level the idea dates back to the Chicago Area Project of the 1940s. And, of course, any cop, outreach worker, or minster worth their salt can tell you what a gang feud is really about. What's new and innovative about gang audits is taking such local knowledge and piecing it all together in a systematic way. Beat by beat, district by district, and community by community, gang audits pool together the information that typically sits inside the head of a beat cop or a minster to create a system and a practice that lends itself to action.
So will the audits reduce gang violence? Nearly all social scientific evidence suggests that it is highly likely to succeed. In particular, a recent review of more than 11 policing experiments suggests that precision and data-driven strategies such as these are highly successful. Although it's still too early to tell if gang audits in Chicago will have similar success in driving down gang violence, preliminary evidence is quit convincing. Gang audits in Chicago began in 2010 as part of the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy (VRS) -- a program that explicitly used the audits to identify those exact factions in high-violence neighborhoods that were driving current violent conflicts. Once identified, community stakeholders and police held a series of meetings which put faction members on notice: "Your community needs the violence to stop and we'd like to help you and those in your faction: but everybody in law enforcement is going to be focusing on the violent factions in this area." Impressively, while homicide is up in Chicago almost 40 percent so far this year, in district 11 -- traditionally one of the most dangerous in the city, where the gang audits have been used -- homicide has actually decreased 38 percent.