Connecting Community Members with the Research of the University of Chicago Crime Lab

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By Zeki Salah
Facilitator, Mutual Aid Collaborative

Chicago Peace Fellows hosted a conversation at the Firehouse Community Arts Center on June 3, 2022 to discuss community safety and crime data with the University of Chicago Crime Lab. The event was held as part of the Mutual Aid Collaborative’s Civic Leaders series, which is designed to connect alumni of the Chicago Peace Fellows with policy makers, academics, and community activists that are leading innovative work to promote community safety and prevent violence in their neighborhoods.

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At this event, the Peace Fellows met with Kim Smith, the Crime Lab’s Director of Programs, to learn about data that the Crime Lab collects and how it has been used to shape policy decisions. Members of the Lawndale community also came to attend the presentation and learn about how they can engage with the Crime Lab’s research.

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The Crime Lab’s presentation focused on the disproportionately high rate of gun violence in Chicago as well as the disproportionate impact of this violence on communities of color. In 2020, there was an increase in violence crimes, and homicides in particular, in Chicago. While other large cities such as Los Angeles and New York have lowered their homicide rates, Chicago’s rate of homicides has increased from 2010-2020. This violence also affects men of color more so than any other group: 80% of shooting victims in 2020 were Black and 86% were male. Black men also carry a dual burden of incarceration alongside gun violence victimization, with the percentage of Black men aged 20-24 being over five times greater than the percentage of white men of the same age group.

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Peace Fellows, the Crime Lab, and other members of the community spent much of their time together talking about the causes of this disproportionate violence and potential solutions. The Crime Lab noted that the majority of homicides were not motivated by money, gang interests, or other instrumental purposes, but were spurred by personal altercations between individuals. Members of the community attributed some of the causes of the increase in violence to the way incarcerated people are rehabilitated and to increased absences in schools after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Community members and Kim Smith of the Crime Lab mutually agreed that street outreach workers who work at personal level with community members are often successful in addressing these kinds of personal altercations and that there is a need for funding in this area.

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Meeting together helped Peace Fellows build connections between their own experiences and the data captured by the Crime Lab. In their presentation, the Crime Lab showed that 16,000 children became disengaged during the pandemic. Pamela Montgomery-Bosley began working as a violence prevention manager with youth after her son was shot and killed and spoke to her experience working with children in unstable homes. She spoke to her experience seeing children struggle with their home lives while finding some stability at school, but noted that schools are now having difficulty keeping children in classrooms. Kim supported this argument by citing Crime Lab data that over one in nine children in options schools, which are largely composed of students who were previously disengaged from school, have been involved in violent incidents. She also noted the increased rate of victimization and arrests amongst option schools students.

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Meeting with the Crime Lab showcased to Peace Fellows how data can give deeper insight into the disproportionate levels of violence in communities of color. Data can support personal experiences around issues such as violence and disengagement in school, giving them greater weight. This can enhance communications, donation campaigns, and grant proposals for grassroots organizations in need of resources. Kim encouraged Peace Fellows to request data from the Crime Lab to supplement their own work, noting that even if the Crime Lab does not have data around specific issues, a request could help direct future research.

The meeting between Peace Fellows and the Crime Lab worked to bridge the gap between the research of the Crime Lab and the members of the communities they study. Kim Smith noted that the Crime Lab often has difficulty connecting with grassroots leaders and sharing its data and that they are looking for ways to engage more with local communities. By connecting with the Peace Fellows, the Crime Lab will be able to better share its research and direct its focus towards interests that are guided by community input. This in turn will help the Crime Lab provide community members with a deeper understanding of the problems they are facing and offer potential solutions to the spread of violence.

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