Neutral Zones: Responding to Chicago’s Gun Violence

By Jazmyn Taylor

In 2014, the number of shootings in Chicago reached 2500 reported through the end of December, a 13% increase from 2014. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel so eloquently put it, “We have a gang problem,” as more than three-quarters of shootings in the city are attributed to gang violence. What we don’t seem to have yet is a gang solution, and with 2015’s summer drawing near, one begins to wonder how to quell the fire for this and future summers.

Chicago’s Custom Notifications program seeks to answer that question with an innovative approach: sending police officers door-to-door to speak with “at-risk individuals,” including known gang members, and informing them of the law, their rights, their resources, and the consequences for subsequent crimes (the program’s intention and procedures are described in the CPD issued Custom Notifications Directive). Early reviews of the program, which launched in 2013, deemed it successful based on the outcomes of 60 custom notifications interventions.


For summer 2014, CPD implemented a “summer surge” in which hundreds of officers work overtime to patrol the streets. With our shooting rate remaining high, we should look towards less aggressive, community based responses. Image Source.

However, Chicago’s gun violence rates are still extremely high and, as it stands, critics describe the Custom Notifications program as police showing up to citizen’s homes with informational brochures and thinly veiled threats. In a city where police-civilian relations are shabby at best, this cannot be the answer to issues of gun violence. Furthermore, the program has come under fire for its potential racism and abuse, and while the program’s directive states that both victims and perpetrators of violent crimes are notified, those who are not violent criminals are met with surprising, disturbing visits that lead them to wonder after the aims of the program. As stated in The Verge’s coverage of the issue, “The worry here is that, if you get picked up for shooting dice and smoking weed, you can be put a list that can be cross referenced. You’re now a marked person for law enforcement. Could that make things worse?” The most troubling issue with Custom Notifications program is that, intended or no, CPD is bringing fear and threat to neighborhoods already rife with struggle. This isn’t to say that those who routinely commit violent crimes shouldn’t be threatened with punishment; however, if the goal is to lower crime, instilling more fear and hostility towards police officers is not the way to go about it.

If we want to lower the number of shootings in Chicago neighborhoods and eliminate gang violence, we must focus not only on criminals, potential criminals, and victims as separate individuals. We must also look to community, and put stock in community-based programming and improvement. This will allow for the communities where gun violence happens more agency to play a part in dissolving gangs and to maintain resources for at-risk citizens in making better informed choices. As a middle-ground between the current custom notifications program and grassroots community initiatives, I propose the concept of Neutral Zones.

Essentially, a Neutral Zone would be a space in a pre-existing community center where community leaders would collaborate with police representatives in giving at-risk individuals information. The goal of the Zone would be to disseminate both general and specific (on a one-on-one basis) information to people who the police have identified as ‘high-risk’ as well as to at-risk youth. Improving police-civilian relations as another important goal in communities where the police are not only not trusted, but hated. This secondary goal ensures further safety of both civilians and police.

Similar to the current program, door-to-door information remains important. The program is right in sending a person along with the initial information; people are more likely to act when faced with other people rather than simply paper. As the current program’s failure lies in who knocks on doors rather than the mode itself, Neutral Zones would incorporate home visits in order to initially get information to high-risk individuals. Unlike in the Custom Notifications program, Neutral Zones would not be led by CPD; this overstates the dominance of police and would cause unnecessary tension in a space meant to help and not to threaten. Instead, community leaders such as pastors, teachers and principals would give direction. According to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, the Hawthorne Effect, or the idea that “people’s behavior improves when somebody in charge simply shows an interest in them,” governs the Custom Notifications program. This idea has precedent, but does not encompass instances when those in charge aren’t trusted. The Neutral Zone considers this and aims to eliminate that particular conflict while maintaining all necessary parties by moving trusted people into leadership roles and maintaining necessary players—such as the police, lawyers, and human services professionals—in alternate roles.

As a program that intends be recurring and accessible to the community, Neutral Zones would be open twice a month. It is important to allow both students and working adults to have the chance to attend, and for it be a community-building space. Neutral Zones would occur on the weekends, and would be open for 8 hours to accommodate a vast number of schedules. This also allows for legal and social services professionals to donate their time and services without time conflict. A bi-weekly model is ideal in appealing to community members because it isn’t an extreme time commitment. It also allows space for people to truly work towards alternative futures in conjunction with, and not coerced by, some authoritative force giving ultimatums. Neutral Zones then become an important part of re-imagining possibilities and allowing for individual agency.

One benefit of the Custom Notifications program is its insistence on specific information both about the consequences of subsequent crimes and in resources available to members of the community. The Neutral Zone would adopt this focus, but it would provide more than pamphlet information by recruiting social services and legal advice for people to talk to and ask questions.

For example, the Chicago Tribune interviewed 22 year old Robert McDaniel who was “puzzled” that he had a visit from a Chicago police commander though he has no charges of violent crimes and only one misdemeanor conviction, saying “I haven’t done nothing that the next kid growing up hadn’t done.” The Neutral Zone would recruit lawyers to do pro-bono work and explain legalities; Robert could use these resources to understand whether or not his visit from CPD was warranted and, if it was, how dire any following minor actions could impact him.

It is important to allow people—high-risk, at-risk, or otherwise—to be able to see and freely participate in their own information-gathering and be able to ask questions and, in essence, form a plan. Neutral Zones would allow for and facilitate such planning, putting community members not only in contact with human services professionals, but also with each other in a space promoting personal agency and positive community involvement in creating safer neighborhoods through making better choices with that agency. In the Neutral Zone, police officers, community members, past offenders, and at-risk youth can come together and work towards solutions for themselves and their families, and also for the community at large.


The BUILD organization provides precedent and current example for anyone wanting to make change starting with the community. Image Source.

Chicago is not bereft of community-based organizations, but it has not yet seen one that brings together police and community in such a focused way. However, we can still learn from previous programming in terms of structure and methods leading to longevity. Chicago has many youth-oriented programs aimed at prevention and extraction of gang-youth; BUILD Chicago currently services 3,000 youth in some of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods through “positive out-of-school-time programs” that serve as prevention initiatives during the times of day that risk is highest. Through providing on-site assistance and tools for school, social activities, and personal/career building, the program not only gives kids something to do instead of being out on the street and vulnerable, but gives kids useful tools that will allow them to know how to make better choices. And, based on BUILD’s most recent statistics, kids who have the choice to do better generally do. The BUILD program shows that creating spaces where resources are available in regular intervals allows for success. The idea of Neutral Zones aspires to the same fundamental goals, but is different in that it would be able to serve adults and youth together, so that families in which gang affiliation and violence has become generational can become successful and see each other become successful.

When disenfranchised people realize that their education and safety don’t matter, when their livelihoods aren’t taken into account, they begin to act like people who don’t matter. As we’ve seen in the recent conflict between Baltimore residents and Baltimore Police , this can often erupt and cause more harm to the community. For a long time, CPD’s tactics towards these groups—namely, fighting fire with fire—were fairly consistent and in line with the tactics of other police departments such as BPD. However, if those in charge show that they believe these people matter by collaborating with them on their own turfs in a setting such as a Neutral Zone, instead of simply showing up out of context to their front porches, CPD’s apparent desire to change the way they relate to and support at-risk individuals may prosper into the kind of success Chicago desperately needs.

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