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State deploying 30 ‘peacekeepers’ in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend in effort to prevent violence through de-escalation

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/23/2023 Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune
Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks with Chicago police Cmdr. Andre Parham, 15th District, before a pre-inauguration event for Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson outside Michele Clark Magnet High School on May 15, 2023. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks with Chicago police Cmdr. Andre Parham, 15th District, before a pre-inauguration event for Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson outside Michele Clark Magnet High School on May 15, 2023.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration will be sending a newly created team of street outreach workers to Chicago neighborhoods during the Memorial Day weekend to help with the city’s violence prevention efforts.

The workers are with the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Citywide Crisis Prevention & Response Unit, whose goal is to address street conflicts through mediation and de-escalation.

According to the governor’s office, the unit will send out over 30 workers — whom the state is calling “peacekeepers” — to various neighborhoods. The unit will work with community groups and various city and state agencies on the violence prevention efforts.

The announcement of the strategy comes ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the unofficial start to summer and a time of year when Chicago has historically seen especially high tallies of shootings.

The new unit also signals the approach that Pritzker and new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson have said they want to take in addressing crime in the city, which has seen an increase of gun violence since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Instead of solely relying on traditional law enforcement in fighting crime, Pritzker and Johnson have championed more holistic approaches.

The state’s crime response unit is one of the outcomes of 2021 legislation that set aside $240 million in state funding — much of which was left over from federal coronavirus relief funds — for violence prevention groups that specialize in mediating street conflicts and providing social services for people at risk of violence, either as a victim or perpetrator.

The governor’s office said $750,000 in state funds will be used for the strategy during the current budget year, which goes through June 30. The new unit joins other groups of street outreach workers tasked with mediating street conflicts, many of them on the South and West sides.

“The most important work we do is keeping our communities safe, and this is another important step towards addressing violence and conflict through research-based, community-focused approaches,” Pritzker said in a statement.

“In preparing for Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start of summer in Chicago, it is critical that we have as many stakeholders as possible at the table to ensure peace and safety on our city’s streets,” Johnson said in a statement released by the governor’s office.

The unit builds on another program launched by state officials called “Flat Lining Violence Inspires Peace,” or FLIP, which works with young people from neighborhoods that struggle with violence. Street outreach workers in that program receive a stipend and are trained in de-escalating conflicts.

The “peacekeepers” in the new unit receive training in areas including crowd de-escalation tactics and crisis interruption. State officials said the training is aimed at helping the unit respond to mass gatherings like the ones in downtown Chicago and along the lakefront last month in which hundreds of teens and young adults darted through traffic, smashed windows and got into fights and altercations that led to two separate shootings.

The governor’s office said the unit could operate throughout the summer, if necessary.

Through Sunday, Chicago had recorded 211 homicides, 17 fewer than the same time last year but an increase of 22% when compared with the same period in 2019, according to official Chicago police statistics, which do not include self-defense killings or others that law enforcement deems justifiable.

There were also 814 shootings — incidents where at least one victim was killed or wounded by gunfire — through Sunday compared with 890 last year, the statistics show. But this year’s shooting tally is 24% higher than the same period in 2019.

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