Chicago (written by Judy Keen/USA Today) -- Estella Robinson doesn't want any more mothers to know the horror of losing a child to a bullet.
Her son, L.C. Robinson III, was shot and killed just after midnight Aug. 15 while he was standing on a corner chatting with a friend. He was 39, a carpenter, the father of four. No one has been charged with his murder.
Driven by gangs, drugs and guns, the bloodshed in President Obama's adopted hometown has resulted in a body count that exceeds the 312 murders this year in New York and 212 in Los Angeles, cities with populations dwarfing that of the Windy City. The toll here is up 25% from 2011: 391 through Sept. 23.
Last week, two men who had been beaten to death were found in the trunk of a car. The same day, a 17-year-old boy and a 33-year-old man were found shot to death. Those and others to be added to the official tally push the number of homicides in Chicago through September to the 400 mark for the first time since 2003. That year, 601 murders were documented here; annual totals have been in the 400s since 2009.
Jack Levin, a sociology and criminology professor at Boston's Northeastern University, says it's troubling that Chicago's murder count is rising while it falls in other major cities. In 2010, Los Angeles had 297 murders, the lowest since 1967. New York homicides have been declining since 1990, when a record 2,245 fell in the nation's largest city.
Everyone agrees it must be stopped. But how?
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy have deployed more police to the most deadly areas, sought help from federal agencies and swept up guns and drugs and the people who possessed them.
McCarthy says the pace of murders has leveled off since the first three months of the year. Police have studied the gangs and identified how they have splintered and demarcated their territories. This allows police to anticipate violence and retaliation, he says, and some drug markets have been shut down because of the effort. McCarthy is enlisting athletes, actors and musicians for an "anti-no-snitching campaign" - an effort to stem a widespread street culture that discourages cooperation with police.
"It's really troubling when parents are not in control of their children," McCarthy says. "The problem is much bigger than just law enforcement. We accept our responsibility, but curing it is going to take a heck of a lot more than just police work."
In a televised message to Chicagoans this summer, Obama urged people to "foster strong and safe communities, to be good role models, to give our children a deeper appreciation for the values in their own lives and the lives of others."
Despite her grief, Robinson is trying to think of ways to save another young man's life. "If you happen to see a kid that you can help, that's what we can do," she says. "These kids who are using guns think it's like on TV. They are lost. It's got to be in your heart to reach out to one. One."
Driven by gangs, drugs
Most of the dead and their killers are young black men. Many live in impoverished neighborhoods where gangs sell drugs and fight for territory and market share. An Economic Policy Institute study released in July found that 2011 unemployment among African Americans in Chicago was 22.6%. Only Los Angeles and Las Vegas had higher rates.
Levin says poverty is a significant factor in high homicide rates and also "affects the ability of the city and the state to fund policies and programs that effectively fight crime."
Levin says other big cities wrestle with the murder problem: New York uses zero-tolerance policing on juvenile crimes. Boston partners with community groups to provide community centers and after-school programs for youths. Those cities and Los Angeles "have taken a law-and-order approach, sending larger numbers of police officers to crime hot spots," he says.
McCarthy says similar efforts are helping here. Even so, he says, "between the number of gangs and the proliferation of firearms in the city, that's a recipe for disaster."
Matt DeMateo has lived and worked in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood for more than a decade. He's a pastor of New Life Community Church and program director of New Life Centers, a non-profit group that helps steer "gang-involved" youth through juvenile courts and the school system.
This is what his neighborhood is like: The dropout rate is about 50%. As many as 3,000 of the area's 90,000 residents are in gangs that feud and exchange gunfire regularly. If someone tries to leave a gang, its leaders issue an "SOS" order for them. "Smash on sight," DeMateo explains. "They come at you hard."
Rescuing young people is difficult and the success rate low, DeMateo says, but it can be done. He's trying to raise money to build a 24/7 facility where youth can play basketball, work on computers and stay off the streets. Money helps, he says, but "our strongest resource is people. Any one of us isn't going to fix the problem, even if we had billions of dollars and double the police."
Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, says money does help. "Simply putting more police on the streets might be one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce crime," he says.
In the past two years, the number of Chicago police officers has dropped by about 1,000, and the city now has between 11,000 and 12,000, including supervisors, says Patrick Camden of the Fraternal Order of Police. "You need the boots on the ground," he says. "Unless the community accepts that there is a problem and they work for the solution, nothing is going to change."
'They feel no one cares'
Mark Kalema, pastor of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in the city's South Shore neighborhood less than 5 miles from Obama's home, was 10 when dictator Idi Amin's troops arrived in his Ugandan village and killed his parents and 12-year-old brother.
A few months ago, five people were shot at the bus stop outside the church. "Almost every day there is a shooting here. I have some fears at night sometimes when the alarm goes off," says the priest, who lives on church grounds.
When he walks through his neighborhood, where many homes and businesses are vacant, Kalema tries to talk to the young men who are so often the victims and perpetrators of violence. "They feel, I think, that no one cares."
Sometimes they tell him they are sorry for what they have done, he says, "but I don't know if they are ready not to do it again. I wish we could listen to them more. The ordinary people, we can be the solution by talking to these young people."
Kalema invited his congregation to share ideas for ways to end the bloodshed. Most are longtime residents of the city's South Side:
Retired teacher Sharon Franklin says schools should have programs to reacclimate students who have been imprisoned before they're allowed back in classes.
Vernon Winstead, 75, says young fathers must be more involved in their families. "I'm very intolerant of fathers who do not come out and participate," he says. "At least walk them to school. At least read them a story once a week. There is no excuse not to do it."
Ned Dunbar, 78, volunteers with the non-profit group P.A.R.E.N.T.S., reading to young children and helping them learn to read. "If a child is successful in school, they have a chance to be successful in life," he says. "If they have not been taught by their parents, who may or may not be able to read themselves, what can they do?"
Raphael St. Vil, 49, who moved here from Haiti, wants to start a community center at Our Lady of Peace and teach young people art, music, etiquette, fashion design and whatever else interests them. He was robbed and knocked unconscious by a group of kids with a gun this summer. "We have to do things ourselves to help ourselves."
James Lockhart, 74, has a different view. "When there comes a time when the police can't protect you," he says, "you have a right to protect yourself. Get your gun and start shooting."
'A dead-end street'
That's not the answer, says Andre Thurmon, pastor of St. Mark International Christian Church. In July, he conducted the funeral of Heaven Sutton, 7, who was killed outside her home by a stray bullet.
"We need more community caring, more involvement, sterner rules," Thurmon says. He wishes cops would enforce curfew laws more aggressively and fine parents who let their kids run wild.
Mariame Kaba formed Project NIA three years ago to advocate for youth in court, get them back in school and help gang members leave that life. What they need most is jobs, she says. "Until we solve that problem in Chicago, I don't think we're going anywhere."
Garland Green is proof that change is possible. After high school, he joined a gang and sold drugs but says he never participated in violence. He landed in jail, then in a boot camp for offenders. He went back to school and now works as a line cook at Frontera Grill, one of the city's most famous restaurants, and owns a catering company. "I know firsthand that (gang life) is a dead-end street," he says.
Green, 40, has three kids who are too young to be told about his past. When they're older, he says: "I will tell them this is wrong. Period."
A few weeks ago his apartment was broken into and his TV stolen. A couple days later, he was robbed by two boys with a gun as he headed home from work. "Kids are not growing up with their fathers," he says. "There's no urgency to keep kids in school."
Green understands the allure of life on the streets, but he knows the dangers, too. "You're either rich, dead or in jail," he says. "To avoid that, education always has been and always will be the answer."