Medill Newsmakers: Fighting gun violence in Chicago through research, youth programs

Crime Lab
Programs like Choose to Change are one of many ways the University of Chicago Crime Lab is reaching an underserved youth population. (University of Chicago Crime Lab)

By Elise Devlin
Medill Reports

More people were shot to death in Chicago in 2021 than in any other year on record, according to the Chicago Data Portal. Yet many Chicagoans are trying to combat gun violence through weaponizing this data and using it to kick-start initiatives and organizations where needed.  Kimberley Smith, director of programs at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and Kevin Doyle, founder of the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation, discuss their relation to gun violence and what they are doing to help the city move forward.

Video Transcript:

Hello and welcome to Medill Newsmakers. I’m your host Elise Devlin. Today we’ll be discussing a topic unfortunately known to many here in Chicago: gun violence. 2021 was the city’s deadliest year in more than a quarter century with nearly 820 homicides and well over 4,000 people that suffered gunshot wounds. This led to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker declaring gun violence a public health crisis.

Yet many are actively combatting this issue, including the University of Chicago crime lab. This research center partners with cities and communities across the nation to improve the public sector’s response to gun violence. They’re using data and research to design, test and scale programs and policies that enhance public safety, improve educational outcomes and advance justice. I spoke with the Director of Programs Kimberley Smith about current projects, research and how Chicago is moving forward. Take a look.

DEVLIN: If you could talk a little bit about gun violence in Chicago right now and what the crime lab is doing to try and help combat this issue.

SMITH: So we at the crime lab work with nonprofit organizations, the public sector and the civic community to really try and understand what is causing gun violence, what is already happening in neighborhoods around the city in terms of innovative programs and promising initiatives, and once we identify some of those really promising programs, we partner with organizations to rigorously evaluate the programs to figure out what’s working for whom and why. And then when we are able to determine effectiveness and the impact on outcomes, we work with the public sector to scale those programs. With respect to what’s going on right now in Chicago, what we’re experiencing is really acutely a gun violence crisis. When we look at data over the past couple of years, we see that there’s been a 60% increase in shootings and homicides, and almost 200% increase in carjackings, many of which have guns, so the acute crisis we are facing is a gun violence crisis. That is kind of important to distinguish because as we’re coming up with solutions and trying to understand what we can do to keep Chicagoans safe, it’s important to be clear about the thing that we’re trying to change.

DEVLIN: Now something that sticks out about you guys is that you talked a little bit about solutions. You use evidence-based solutions and programs and policies. Can you elaborate on what that consists of?

SMITH: Yes, so we, when we are trying to work with organizations to figure out which types of programs could be effective, one of the things we do is initially we do data analysis to understand “OK, who are we trying to engage with this program?” For example, following the 2016 increase in gun violence, there was a really concerted effort by many people in Chicago to come up with new solutions and try things that had never been tried before. At that time, we did some analysis to understand who is most likely to be involved with gun violence, who’s most likely to be a victim and who’s most likely to be arrested. And what we saw in the data was that 90% of the victims of gun violence are actually adults. The vast majority of the victims of gun violence in Chicago are over the age of 18. And that’s important because historically most of what the city has invested in in terms of violence reduction strategies have been geared towards youth and that we absolutely need for there to be much more robust investments in prevention and youth violence prevention, and we also need programs for adults because they are the ones most likely to be involved in gun violence. So we kind of saw a gap in services for this adult population, and we worked with our partners and a number of community-based organizations from across Chicago to scan the literature to figure out what has worked in other contexts and other populations to reduce violence involvement, and the things we identified were a combination of transitional job support, supported work as well as cognitive behavioral therapy, and that came from a scan of the literature and conversations with our partners. So that’s kind of a Cliff Notes version of some of our processes to work with partners to co-design these evidence-based programs.

DEVLIN: Yeah, thank you for that. And you’re talking about the process of working with your partners.What does the process of connecting with these partners look like?

SMITH: So, it looks like a lot of different things. We get inquiries from nonprofit organizations pretty frequently who want to be able to understand, “I have limited resources, and I’m trying to figure out how to use them to most effectively reduce shootings and homicides.” So that often will entail us doing data analysis to figure out, OK, where incidents are taking place geographically, what time of day, day of week, and we often do customized analysis for nonprofit organizations. We also recently built a tool in partnership with the city of Chicago. It’s called the violence reduction dashboard, and that tool makes available a lot of this data of where gun violence is taking place and who is involved, and the goal is really to make sure that organizations from media to other academics to community-based organizations, they have access to information that they can use to inform their decision-making. So that’s one example of the ways that we work with different partners across the city.

DEVLIN: How long did it take to create the dashboard that you’re referring to?

SMITH: It took a long time. I would say that the first version of the dashboard wasn’t a dashboard. It was a set of weekly emails that we sent to community-based organizations across the city, and it came out of work that we started in 2017 where we had that partnership with the Chicago Police Department to make sure that police commanders were using data more effectively. And out of that, a number of community-based organizations requested similar access to data so we began sending out these weekly emails to about 30 community-based organizations sharing data on where 911 calls were coming in and where victims of violence were located. And we got really good feedback when we started sending out those emails in 2017, but there was also a request for the data to be made more readily available to more organizations and people wanted to see many more visualizations than we were preparing, so that kind of kicked off the process to build the dashboard. So, I guess you could say it’s been a five-year process to get to this point, and it really started with those weekly emails to those nonprofit organizations.

DEVLIN: And now I’m sure there’s a ton of new research being found through the dashboard. Is there anything in specific that you, research that you’ve conducted and acquired really recently, that kind of sticks out to you?

SMITH: So, one program that we’ve evaluated that’s in the process of being scaled across the city that I might want to highlight is Choose to Change. So, it’s a partnership between two organizations, a children’s home and aid and youth advocate programs, and it’s designed to serve youth who are either disconnecting from school or who may be involved in the justice system, and it combines cognitive behavioral therapy with really intensive wrap-around support and advocacy. It’s an intensive program, it’s six months. And what we’re seeing is for youth who are participating in the program, they are much less likely to be arrested after the program has ended, and during the program, they are much less likely to receive disciplinary infractions at school and we’re actually seeing increased school engagement by about a week. So that’s a really exciting program that we’re building evidence around, and as I said the city is in the process of expanding the program and onboarding new partners to be able to deliver it in various neighborhoods, which we think is a really important aspect of the response to violence prevention. Doing so in a way that does not exacerbate the harms of the criminal justice system, and Choose to Change does really seem to be a program that can connect with youth and keep them safe and do so in a way that is restorative and supportive.

DEVLIN: That’s really great, and programs that you guys do like Choose to Change are so great in the general idea of trying to combat gun violence, but what else can we be doing better to try and bring awareness to this issue and try and help ourselves in trying to combat the issue?

SMITH: I think asking questions about, you know, what is happening in Chicago and being clear about, you know, in a world where we do have limited resources, how are those resources being used? Is the investment going to the neighborhoods where gun violence is most acute or where we know there are a lot of other barriers to thrive in communities such as a lack of access to the internet or lack of access to fresh food or lack of access to public transportation? These things are all interrelated and affect the city’s ability to actually respond to gun violence, and being really clear-eyed about the level of investment that it’s going to take to get at some of these root causes and making sure we’re holding folks accountable when they are making these investments and, you know, are they making those investments in the right places? Are the people who are in the most need of those resources actually receiving those resources? I think those are all questions that the public should continue to ask, and we’re hopeful that some of the data that we’re pushing out there will enable people to ask those questions and also be able to get some of those answers.

DEVLIN: Those who have lost a loved one to homicide say it can feel lonely not having others who have gone through the same thing. So, after losing his mother to gun violence, Kevin Doyle wanted to connect these people together and form a community. I spoke with Kevin about the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation, the nonprofit organization he started that hosts a bereavement camp and college scholarship program. The camp teaches kids coping skills and allows them to relate to others their age who are going through the same thing. Kevin joins us now to discuss the importance of forming this community and what it can do for those who have lost loved ones to homicide.

I know that you lost your mother in 1993, and I don’t want to restate or rehash everything but could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to start this foundation?

DOYLE: Yeah, you know it’s interesting, it kind of happened by chance. You know, I literally started my own business here in Chicago back in 2002 with my business partner. I had a lot of success in my business, and probably about seven or eight years into starting my business in the technology world, I had this thought of basically starting an organization that could provide college scholarships to high school seniors that lost a parent to homicide. Basically, when I was younger, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office had a scholarship. It was called the Save Scholarship, and it was started by Dick Devine, who was the state’s attorney at the time, and my sister and I were both recipients of that scholarship and it had such an impact on us. It was only around for a couple years, and then it’s kind of vanished, and I remember what kind of impact it had on me and so I thought, “Man, I had some success. I could hopefully be hope for other people,” so it started.

DEVLIN: You’re talking about starting this scholarship. You also started something called Camp Sheilah. Could you talk a little bit about what this is, and what you’re doing with kids who have been impacted by this same issue?

DOYLE: Yeah so, it’s interesting, so I talked about the organization kind of starting out as a college scholarship program, which we still do. But when we created a board of directors, it was like, “Hey, what else can we do? Can we have more impact?” So we started Camp Sheilah. Camp Sheilah is a three-day and two-night grief camp that is put on for kids that lost a parent or sibling to homicide. To be a recipient of our scholarship you have to have lost a parent, because when you lose a parent you lose an income. So literally the camp is for kids 7 and 17 who lost a parent or sibling to homicide. At camp, we also run a parent program. We had a parent that asked a couple years into running our camp. They said, “Hey, is there a camp for parents?” And I was like, wow, that’s a great idea because I remember even when my dad was going through this, he needed help. And so just being there for our community has been a great thing. But it’s a grief camp, and kids get together in groups four times throughout the weekend to talk about their story in a setting with other kids who have gone through the same thing. So it’s age-based groups. We don’t force kids to talk about their story. It’s challenged by choice so they can just be there and learn from other kids, but typically our alumni campers will kind of take the lead, and they’re kind of the leaders of the group. There’s a lot of turbo bonding that goes on, and I think that a lot of kids that come to camp didn’t realize that there are other people like them out there. Sometimes when this happens to you, you feel very alone, and I think one of the best things we do for kids is to give them an opportunity to make them feel like they are not alone in their grief journey.

DEVLIN: And now going back to that scholarship you mentioned, you and your sister received one growing up that really helped you guys out, and that’s kind of why you started yours. Is that the same idea behind Camp Sheilah and maybe realizing that having a support system like this one would have helped you when it happened to you?

DOYLE: Yeah, I mean again, because we created a board for the scholarship, we wanted to figure out how we could have more impact on the Chicago community. You know a lot of these kids have gone through loss already, so how do you choose who gets the scholarship and who doesn’t? And fortunately, because of our funding, we’ve never had that problem, which is a great thing, but the camp I think could impact more people so we’ve been able to help over the last 11 years over 250 families in and around the Chicago area, and a lot of these families have multiple kids, parents and all of those kinds of things, so we’ve really been able to do quite a bit in the Chicago community.

DEVLIN: That’s amazing, and you’ve been doing this for so long and you’ve been helping so many kids. Is there something that specifically stands out to you the most that helps them while they’re there?

DOYLE: I think it’s just like knowing that someone is there for them. I think we’re just there for these kids with a big heart and big arms to put around them and give them a hug once in a while. But it’s really an amazing opportunity for kids that thought that no one out there was ever like them and kind of going through the same thing. We also teach kids some coping skills that they can take with them when they leave camp weekend, which has been great. So, kids come back year after year and even myself for example, as crazy as it sounds, my uncle asked me one time if I get as much out of the camp as the kids, and I said absolutely. I’ve learned a lot about communities in and around Chicago that I never would have known anything about had I never done this. So, I’ve really been able to understand some of the social issues that we’re facing here in our city through the eyes of our kids, which has been just a huge education for me.

DEVLIN: Thanks to our guests for joining us to discuss the effects of gun violence in Chicago and specifically what is being done to aid those who have been directly impacted and to prevent violence in the future. I’m Elise Devlin for this week’s episode of Medill Newsmakers.

Elise Devlin is a graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @eliseedevlin