CHICAGO – Several current and ex-gang members lashed out at Chicago's police chief on Thursday, calling his so-called "gang summit" initiative to crack down on crime a wasted effort that will have little effect on the streets of the county's third largest city.
After calling a news conference outside a park district building, gang members complained to assembled TV cameras about the ultimatum police Superintendent Jody Weis gave them at a recent meeting — that if gangs resort to violence, police will go after their leaders.
In response, they offered their own message to police: You're not playing fair.
"Is it possible for one person to micromanage a group?" Vice Lords gang member Jim Allen asked reporters, wearing a black baseball cap with the words, "Mess with the Best, Die like the Rest." "We will not be responsible for anyone's actions but our own."
Weis is facing mounting criticism for holding the unpublicized Aug. 17 meeting with reputed gang leaders, even though several police departments across the country have relied on similar approaches for decades to help reduce crime.
Some reputed members of gangs like the Four Corner Hustlers and the Traveling Vice Lords said they were surprised to see Weis there after being told by their parole officers to show up. Many were visibly angry, with some even leaving the meeting, which was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The police chief has defended the initiative with the support of Mayor Richard M. Daley and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who likened the tactic to his office holding parolee forums to warn people leaving prison that they'll be watched.
Weis told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his message was simple: "If you should resort to violence, we'll sharpen our focus on you and really, really make your lives uncomfortable. You have the ability to influence people within your sphere. You guys are in the position to stop the killing."
Weis said prosecutors at the Aug. 17 meeting threatened attendees that they could be charged under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act if killings were traced back to gangs with members attending the meeting. The federal law, commonly known as RICO, provides stiffer penalties for acts performed as part of a criminal organization such as the Mafia.
At Thursday's unlikely media event, activist Mark Carter criticized Daley and the police department, asking how gang leaders could be asked to take responsibility for their subordinates when city government leaders don't take responsibility for alleged misdeeds by their employees.
"Is the mayor going to be held accountable for the corruption that takes place under his watch?" he said at the news conference. "And the biggest gang in the city of Chicago is the Chicago police department."
Thursday's media event was attended by some participants who described themselves as current gang members, though others said they left gangs and are now community activists devoted to stopping violent crime.
Activist Wallace Bradley said the recent emphasis on gang leaders by police is misplaced, and instead, the focus of resources should be on saving those who want to improve their lives.
"Those of us assembled here, we go out and speak to 10 people and say, 'Don't do this,'" Bradley said. "If there are two who say they won't listen, we thank God for the eight who do."
But experts say Weis' tactic of meeting with gang leaders — whether formally with top administrators or at the neighborhood level — is just part of good police work.
At least 50 jurisdictions nationwide use the approach. In Cincinnati, Chief Tom Streicher Jr. attends similar meetings, and the Los Angeles Police Department has started using the approach.
Among the pioneers was the Boston Police Department. In the early 1990s when the city's murder rate hovered around 150 a year, the department launched Operation Ceasefire, which continues today.
Parolees and other alleged criminals attend meetings with prosecutors where they're warned of consequences and given jobs information. Police say it has helped cut Boston's homicide rate. Last year the department reported 49.
Still, criticism in Chicago has continued. Gov. Pat Quinn said that he didn't think meeting with gang leaders was "the way to go," and suggested, instead, that police should focus on going after guns on the streets.
Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti said Weis shouldn't have been there with reputed gangsters, saying his presence at the meeting "made them equal."
Some of the scrutiny could simply be because it was Weis' idea.
Since he took over in 2008, the department has been wary of Weis, a career FBI agent who continues to be seen as an outsider by many rank and file officers.
Weis noted the program hasn't incurred big costs and that if it doesn't work, the department will drop it. He said he thinks his presence at the meeting made it more meaningful and that attendees were chosen because of their influence.
Overall, Chicago's homicide rate has mirrored national trends and dropped significantly since the 1990s. It fell from a high of 943 in 1992 to 460 last year and has held steady in recent years.
But if residents and police need evidence that the city remains a dangerous place for officers — four officers were killed in the line of duty this year — they found it Wednesday morning. Two plainclothes officers were shot and wounded while serving a warrant on the city's South Side.
Weis said the next step is to determine if recent crimes can be traced to gangs at the meeting.
"I don't view it as the panacea to stop all crimes," he told the AP. "It certainly seemed like a worthwhile effort, even to try."
Associated Press Writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.