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Why Chicago's 'Gang Book' Is A Problem For Communities Of Color


In Chicago, a nonprofit linked to the business community has handed out a thick book to police stations and schools. It's known as "The Gang Book." The new edition is about 400 pages - mugshots, personal data including social media posts. In fact, you can buy it on Amazon for about 50 bucks. The nonprofit the Chicago Crime Commission says it's a tool for law enforcement, educators and communities. Our next guest says it's a problem.

Desmond Patton used to be a social worker in Chicago. He's now an assistant professor at Columbia University. Welcome to the program, Desmond.

DESMOND PATTON: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: So you have a copy of this book. Describe what's in it and what it's supposed to be for.

PATTON: So the Chicago gang book is a comprehensive guide that highlights gang activity in Chicago over the last six years since their last publication in 2012. And so it starts off with a comprehensive guide of gang profiles, highlighting and underscoring the 52 gangs that are in Chicago. And then it goes into some really well-done maps of gang activity and territories and boundaries in the city. It then has a new section that I think people are really excited about in terms of the role of social media and gang activity. And then it concludes with briefer discussions around suburban gang activity, cartels and drugs, gun trafficking. And then what I am most interested in is the directory for assistance to support those who are gang-involved.

CORNISH: What does it tell us about the growth or change in growth or change in style of gang activity in Chicago?

PATTON: I think the most innovative and newest part of the book is this contribution around social media. It highlights and underscores the ways in which gang-involved individuals have used social media to taunt one another and to amplify and to engage in violent activity both on and offline.

CORNISH: So give us an example. What you mean by taunt each other?

PATTON: Essentially arguments between rival gangs that are posted on various social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. And then you see the argument unfolding via conversations, the use of emojis and the use of images that are oftentimes used to display gang activity, to include hand gestures or to display guns as well.

CORNISH: So does this crack the code? What - is this useful in some way?

PATTON: So what I'm most concerned about is the lack of context around the social media chapter. And so in the chapter there are displays of public profiles. And while, yes, we can all access these public profiles via social media, does this aid in the prevention of gang violence or help support interventions in this space by publicly and forever having the profiles of young people that are currently getting involved? And so if they leave the gang or decide to go in a different direction, they are forever kind of branded and labeled in this social media section.

CORNISH: Like in a book of mugshots...

PATTON: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...But just also has your Twitter posts.

PATTON: Absolutely. And the same can be said for the rest of the book as well. The gang profiles - there are about 200 pages with alleged gang members. And they have their mugshot, their name and their nickname. And so there are tons of photos primarily of black and brown men that forever stamp them as a gang member.

CORNISH: But isn't this useful, I mean, to a school or to a police station to have this criminal Facebook, so to speak?

PATTON: I don't think it has to be public. I don't think it needs to be in a book that forever labels these individuals. And so to what extent is it actually helpful to label people who may be in a time in their life where they may be gang-involved but at some point decide to leave the gang or decide to have a different life? But if their future employer or future university finds this book and sees them labeled as a gang member, how might that impact their future life course outcomes? And that's what I'm most concerned about.

CORNISH: Desmond Patton - he's an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University. Thank you for speaking with us.

PATTON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.