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'Murder Epidemic' Alarms Chicago : Crime: The city that invented drive-by shootings during Prohibition is now plagued by them. Police blame gang activity.

June 23, 1990|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Mayor Richard M. Daley, top police officials and prosecutors gathered on a South Side street corner one morning earlier this month to watch as a wrecking crew began dismantling a weathered two-story building.

It was the former headquarters of the El Rukns, the city's most notorious street gang, an organization that after 24 years of dealing in extortion, drugs, weapons and murder had finally been decimated by prosecutions.

Yet, despite the dismantling of the El Rukn organization and of its headquarters, a wave of murders could make 1990 one of the bloodiest years in the city's history. Much of the killing is related to gang activity and involves drive-by shootings, a phenomenon that is old hat in Los Angeles but is just starting to catch on in a big way in Midwestern cities.

"Years ago, (gang members) used to ride on bicycles and have fist fights," said Chief John Townsend of the police detective bureau. "Now, they drive Buicks and Cadillacs and have gunfights with high-priced weapons."

So far this year there have been 375 murders in Chicago, and police are bracing for the summer months, when most homicides are committed. Not since 1974--when a record 970 people were slain in the city--have there been so many killings by this time of the year.

This year's figures, which one Chicago alderman said amount to a "murder epidemic," still compare favorably with Los Angeles, where 412 people were killed through June 14 this year. Los Angeles' record year for homicides was 1980, when 1,028 people were killed.

What has people so alarmed here is the rapid increase in the number of gang-related killings, especially drive-by shootings in which innocent bystanders sometimes are hit. From June, 1989 to May, 1990, Chicago had 334 drive-by shootings.

For a number of years, Los Angeles gangs have been branching out, exporting their members and drugs to other parts of the country. Neither the Bloods nor the Crips has established operations in Chicago--police say the strength of local gangs has prevented that--but their preferred means of exterminating rivals appears to be growing more popular.

In a historical sense, drive-by shootings are not new to Chicago. "We were the original," said Cmdr. James Fruin of Chicago's Area 5 police district, one of the hardest hit by gangs. He was referring to Prohibition-era gangsters--the kind who sported pinstripe suits, drove long black sedans and carried Tommy guns in violin cases. They also favored drive-by shootings, as any fan of vintage gangster movies knows.

But, after a long period in which this method of killing was relatively rare here, it now has become almost commonplace in some neighborhoods.

"This is the first time we've been inundated with it," Townsend said.

The level of violence is unrivaled by that of past generations of criminals, Townsend said. "They knew who they were after," he said of Chicago's classic mobsters. "They knew who was coming out of the restaurant or barber shop."

Police attribute the increase in murders to narcotics activity. Other Midwestern cities have seen similar increases with the arrival of crack, the smokable form of cocaine, but police here say crack is still not a major problem in Chicago. "Who knows what it is," Fruin said.

June has been a particularly bloody month. Thirty-two people were killed during the first nine days alone. A number of them were shot down in drive-by shootings.

Curtis Sims, a mechanic, was shot at 2:40 a.m. on June 8 as he left the home of his girlfriend on Chicago's South Side. Police say he was shot by two men driving past in a car because he wore a baseball cap cocked to the right side of his head. His assailants belonged to a gang whose members wore their caps tilted to the left, police said.

In all, 20 people were killed that week in the city for myriad reasons. An additional 122 people were shot or stabbed but survived, according to police statistics.

The increase in gang violence recently caused Police Supt. LeRoy Martin to assign 50 additional officers to the gang crimes unit and has led to calls for extraordinary measures.

Two Chicago aldermen have called for City Council hearings on the "murder epidemic" and urged that the city hire an additional 2,000 police officers to patrol neighborhoods "around-the-clock."

Because of the upsurge in violence, a Chicago state representative has introduced a bill that would allow the police to confiscate any vehicle in which an unregistered gun is found.

In some Chicago suburbs, residents who left the cities to escape such urban problems as gangs and crime are pressing the police to take strenuous measures to drive the gang members out.

In Aurora, a suburb particularly hard hit by gang violence, the City Council enacted ordinances earlier this month that would allow police officers to detain people displaying gang colors or flashing gang signs. The laws also allow the arrest of people who appear to be engaging in prostitution or drug trafficking without police officers' having to see them commit a crime. Questions about the constitutionality of the laws were quickly raised, but in some quarters the new laws were applauded.

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