Chicago police use 'heat list' to prevent violence
The list contains 400 people from across the city who have been deemed by the department to be most prone to violence — either as a perpetrator or victim
By Jeremy Gorner
CHICAGO — Robert McDaniel was puzzled when the Chicago police commander dropped by his West Side home unannounced last month. The visit was cordial, but Barbara West's message was clear: Don't commit any more crimes or face the consequences.
Revealing that she had a folder on him back on her office desk, West told the 22-year-old that she knew his best friend had been slain last year in their crime-plagued Austin community. She cautioned that he could meet the same fate if he didn't change his ways.
McDaniel, who has multiple arrests on suspicion of minor offenses but only one misdemeanor conviction, learned to his surprise that he had made the so-called "heat list" with more than 400 others across the city who have been deemed by the department to be most prone to violence — either as a perpetrator or victim.
"I haven't done nothing that the next kid growing up hadn't done. Smoke weed. Shoot dice. Like seriously?" an incredulous McDaniel said while recalling the recent visit from police brass with a Tribune reporter.
With the help of mathematical analysis, Chicago police hope to home in on people it believes are most at risk of shooting someone or being shot themselves. The strategy calls for warning those on the heat list individually that further criminal activity, even for the most petty offenses, will result in the full force of the law being brought down on them. At the same time, police extend them an olive branch of sorts, an offer of help obtaining a job or of social services.
At least one criminologist said the department will have to take a long-term approach if it hopes to be successful with people who could be so deeply embedded in gang or criminal life that the threat of death or jail might not deter them.
The effort, funded by a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice, is formally known as Two Degrees of Association -- an acknowledgment of the importance of the interconnections among those involved in crime.
The department's efforts have been influenced by the work of Andrew Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale University whose research in the Lawndale and Garfield Park communities on the West Side found a homicide rate there more than three times worse than the Chicago average. The homicide victims in those areas, he learned, often shared similar backgrounds: lengthy arrest records, victims themselves of past shootings and arrests with others who also had been shot.
"If you hang around people who are getting shot, even if you're not actively doing anything, then you become exposed," Papachristos said in a telephone interview. "... It's just like sharing needles. It puts you at risk because of the behaviors of your friends and your associates."
Police officials said they came up with a heat list of about 420 names through a computer analysis, weighting numerous risk factors to come up with a ranking of people who in the worst cases were more than 500 times more likely than average to be involved in violence. Among the factors are the extent of a person's rap sheet, his or her parole or warrant status, any weapons or drug arrests, his or her acquaintances and their arrest histories — and whether any of those associates have been shot in the past.
"What we're trying to figure out now is how does that data inform what happens in the future," said Debra Kirby, chief of the department's bureau of organizational development, who visited some Austin homes of people on the list. "What happened yesterday may not be what happens tomorrow."
McDaniel, for instance, likely made the list in spite of his limited criminal background — misdemeanor arrests on suspicion of gambling, drug possession and domestic battery — because a childhood friend with whom he had once been arrested on a marijuana charge was fatally shot last year in Austin.
Interviewed at his Austin home, McDaniel said he was offended at being singled out by West, commander of the Austin police district. All the attention made him nervous because his neighbors noticed, leading them, he feared, to wonder if he was a police snitch. Two officers waited outside on the porch while the commander and a criminal justice expert spoke to McDaniel in his home.
"Like I said, I have no (criminal) background, so what would even give you probable cause to watch me?" said McDaniel, a high school dropout. "And if you're watching me, then you can obviously see I'm not doing anything."
A 17-year-old girl was shocked to learn she was among a handful of women on the list. Since police have contacted people only in Austin so far, the girl, who lives in the South Chicago neighborhood, hasn't been officially informed by police that she made the heat list.
The Dunbar Vocational Career Academy senior said she was arrested only once as a juvenile for mob action in the River North neighborhood.
"I'm not the bad guy," said the girl, who plans to attend college. "There's people out here doing stuff every day. And that (arrest) was years ago. I haven't been locked up ever since."
But the list proved prophetic in the case of Jacobi Herring, who was fatally shot this month as he walked home in his South Chicago neighborhood. The 21-year-old had just left a late-night party a few blocks from his home when he was gunned down at East 79th Street and South Yates Boulevard, an area known to residents as "Terror Town" because of its incessant gun violence and gang activity.
His uncle, Koland Herring, was not surprised to learn that his nephew was on the heat list, saying he succumbed to peer pressure in the neighborhood.
"He's not a hard-core gangbanger. He was never a shooter, burglarizing or stealing cars, anything like that," Herring, 49, said outside his nephew's home as friends and relatives stopped by to pay their respects to the South Shore High School graduate.
"Some of the people that he knew did. They're hard-core. And in order to get around and to be accepted out here ... you have to be around them."
Cook County court records show Herring was arrested only a handful of times, mostly on suspicion of trespassing and gang loitering. However, four others who were once arrested with Herring also made the list. In addition, another man who was once arrested with Herring was shot and killed in March in broad daylight. And Herring himself was shot in 2008 at 79th Street and Essex Avenue.
Herring's father, Floyd Redmond, recalled that the two had planned to attend the Bud Billiken Parade on the Saturday that Herring was killed.
"We talked about him getting shot all the time," said Redmond, 41. "I used to see my son hanging out, and I used to ride down on him. ... I feared for my son being out on these streets because I know what these streets are all about, man."
To kick off the pilot program last month in her district, West knocked on the doors of about two dozen people on the heat list in Austin over about a two-week period. Christopher Mallette of the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who accompanied West door to door, said not all of the people were home, so they spoke to relatives and left letters warning those on the heat list of the consequences of continued criminal behavior.
After West talked about their criminal records and the dangerous crowd they hang around, Mallette offered them a chance to obtain job training, substance abuse counseling, better housing options or an array of other social services.
Some were more receptive than others.
"Some of them ... acknowledged, 'You know what? He's a bad seed.' We had two or three people say, 'Thank you for doing this,'" said Mallette, who wore a bulletproof vest his first night out with West. "It's not a threat. We're giving you information. Not just the law enforcement information ... information that there's no excuses for anyone to be out there shooting and killing."
But Arthur Lurigio, a psychology and criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago, said the message could be a hard sell, particularly the warnings of a police crackdown if necessary.
"Young men entrenched in a criminal lifestyle are fatalistic and are generally undeterred by the prospect of future punishments," he said.
A Tribune reporter who later went to some of the Austin addresses on the heat list found out that a number of the people didn't live at those locations or were locked up.
For instance, Daniel Hill, 21, is serving two consecutive four-year prison terms for selling heroin. His mother, Bridget Hutcherson, said she never got a visit from West, but she wasn't surprised to hear that her son had made the list. She said he is autistic and started getting into trouble in his early teens.
"If you're selling drugs or you get convicted of selling drugs, it more likely is associated with a violent crime," Hutcherson, 38, said from her front porch.
Next door lives Yvonne Carroll, who identified herself as legal guardian to Terry McCoy, 20, who also made the list.
Carroll wasn't surprised to hear McCoy was singled out because he's in the Cook County Jail awaiting trial related to a 2012 armed robbery case. But she questioned the value of the list and wondered if police were merely profiling her son.
"They stereotype a lot of the blacks anyway," said Carroll, who is African-American. "The black community is not the only community that has violence. They have it in other neighborhoods, but ... they don't stereotype it like that like they do in the black community."
But police officials defended the list, noting that the names aren't chosen randomly.
As for McDaniel, in spite of his misgivings over being named to the list, he's considering taking Mallette up on his offer of social services, especially because he has a 2-year-old daughter and another child on the way.
But he insisted he doesn't belong on the department's radar.
"As far as them trying to make me a product of their work," he said, "I don't too much appreciate that."
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