Austin homicides climb to 20 so far this year

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The number of people killed so far this year in Austin reached 20 over the weekend, with gunshots and other violent acts continuing to plague the West Side – with few arrests made in the deaths.

The youngest victim, 7-year-old Heaven Sutton, was gunned down in front of her home June 27 while she helped her mother sell candy and lemonade to their neighborhood.

AustinTalks covered Sutton’s memorial service earlier this month.

The oldest victim, 55-year-old Darnell Walker, was shot three days after Sutton in the 4900 block of West Washington Boulevard as he sat on his porch. Jamal Shepard, 39, was with Walker and was also killed June 30, the Chicago Tribune reported.

So far, June’s been the deadliest month this year in the West Side community with six homicides, according to the Redeye’s homicide tracker, which pulls data from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, the Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Breaking News Center.

And overall, 11 of the 20 homicide victims were 25 years old or younger.

During the same period last year Austin had 13 homicides from January to July. Five of those victims were under the age of 25.

Two individuals have been arrested in connection with Sutton’s death, but it appears only one other homicide this year in Austin has had an arrest, according to police data.

A man was arrested in connection to Maurice Matthews’ death, which occurred May 2, the Chicago Tribune reported. The  29-year-old was shot to death in an alley in the 1700 block of North Monitor Avenue as a result of a family argument, according to the article.

Of the 19 homicides before the weekend’s shooting, 17 are still open and have not had an arrest, AustinTalks found.

It is unclear if an arrest has been made in connection with the July 21 shooting of 19-year-old Akil Partee.

Neither Chicago Police Department’s news affairs office nor the police’s Freedom of Information office was able to provide AustinTalks with the current status of the 19 homicides that occurred in the community from Jan. 1 to July 5.

The Freedom of Information office referred AustinTalks to Chicago’s data portal of crimes dating back to 2001 to present to determine the status of each case.

Earlier this month, Chicago Police Department spokesman Daryl Beaty referred AustinTalks to a separate aggregate of data, the police department’s database of reported crimes called CLEARmap.

This dataset searches for crimes, but it goes back about four-months from the current date. There’s also about a week delay for crimes to show up in the set.

After combing through data, AustinTalks asked the police department if there were any changes to the statuses of the 17 unsolved cases.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Veejay Zala said, “If that’s what’s in the system, it’s probably still open.”

AustinTalks asked Zala if a reporter could speak with a West Side detective to obtain any public information about the open cases that could help lead to an arrest.

At the time of the request, AustinTalks knew of 16 homicides that had no arrest.

“They’re not going to talk to you about 16 cases. I’m sorry,” Zala said.

Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, which works to increase public access to justice-related information, said it’s not unusual for the public to have a difficult time determining homicide statuses, and that needs to “significantly improve.”

He said there’s a difference between “throwing data online,” which is what the police department has done, he said, and making it “accessible to communities.”

“The city is very far from making data understandable to communities,” Siska said.

Although only two homicides have seen an arrest, Windy Pearson, a West Side activist, said it’s not only the police’s responsibility to curb violence in Austin, which has been “going on for years.”

“Somewhere down the line, we’ve got to be the responsible parties to stop what’s happening in the streets,” Pearson said. “It is not the police’s responsibility to handle what’s going on in our streets when we know what is happening.”

She said the community should “take control of our children to save our own lives, and to save our community’s lives.”

Doug Low, executive director of Kidz Express, a facility that works holistically with youth to help combat the area’s struggles, agreed more people should be positively involved with Austin’s youth.

Kidz Express has worked to foster positive youth development at its current building, 342 S. Laramie Ave., for seven year and been working in the area for 13 years.

Low said too many kids lack self-esteem in Austin and other impoverished communities, which contributes to violence and other negative behaviors.

Building the youth’s self-esteem doesn’t happen quickly, though.

“It’s a lot of hard work, and it takes years and years of commitment,” he said.

“You are not going to make a difference in one year. You have to been in that community building trust.”

He said he and the other mentors at Kidz Express are “preemptors,” because they work with children when they are young about conflict management. When children don’t learn positive conflict management, anger can explode and turn into violence, Low said.

It’s a “really difficult lesson” to be teaching the children but a crucial one, he said.

In addition to youth conflict management, a way to combat some of the area’s violence is to provide more jobs for youth, Pearson said.

“If we don’t give our kids something to do and put some money in their pockets and stop acting as though they are invisible, this is going to continue to happen,” she said.

It’s also important to stop using “degrading” and “belittling” language when describing crime in Chicago, she said.

“I don’t believe in black-on-black crime,” Pearson said. “Crime is crime. Death is death. We need to stop using that terminology. It’s degrading.”

She said it’s upsetting how many people have died in the community, but there’s a way to take action.

“We need to change the mindset, and the only way that’s going to happen is if we start hitting the streets and change our community,” she said. “There is no one who is going to change that for us.”

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