The city of Chicago experienced a dramatic spike in fatal and nonfatal shootings in 2016. In response, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) created the Gun Crimes Strategies Unit (GCSU) with funds from the IPS initiative.
Today, the GCSU consists of experienced Assistant State’s Attorneys (ASAs) who are embedded in six of Chicago’s most violent police districts. Working side by side, law enforcement and prosecutors develop intelligence to identify the individuals driving most of the crime and build the strongest possible cases against them. GCSU prosecutors spend a significant portion of their time physically present in police districts to deepen their understanding of the conflicts and individuals who drive violence. ASAs also participate in daily intelligence briefings conducted by Chicago Police Department personnel, as well as weekly shoot reviews, to identify present and emerging conflicts affecting specific neighborhoods.
The GCSU ASAs vertically prosecute the cases coming out of these violent districts, with a dedicated team following the case from charging to disposition to ensure consistency and maximize the value of the knowledge developed during the investigation.
The IPS team has also set up an early alert system, which sends real-time notifications to GCSU prosecutors upon the arrest of a high-profile offender. Equipped with this knowledge, ASAs can collaborate with law enforcement partners to immediately gather open source social media intelligence on the offender, which provides a more comprehensive presentation at bond hearings. There is a 48-hour window between arrest and a bond hearing, so the early alert system enables prosecutors to gather critical information — such as an individual’s gang affiliation or criminal activity — for the defendant’s first court appearance on this charge.
The GCSU ASAs are cross-designated as Special Assistant United States Attorneys (SAUSAs) which allows them to bring charges in state or federal court. They work very closely with counterparts at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to address violence in GCSU districts.
The key to the GCSU’s success is the close collaboration between prosecutors and their partners in law enforcement. The creation and implementation of the GCSU has helped develop trust and foster cooperation between police and prosecutors, who have historically been siloed from one another. The GCSU model recognizes the importance of teamwork to address the persistent problem of violence.
Researchers from the University of Chicago Crime Lab are now assessing the effects of real-time notifications, vertical prosecution, and close police–prosecutor collaboration. While the Crime Lab is still conducting its final evaluation, preliminary findings are promising: between 2016 and 2018, arrests for enhanced gun offenses quadrupled in one district and nearly tripled in another, while gun violence declined faster in GCSU districts than in the city as a whole.
The IPS initiative has also enabled the GCSU to make more strategic prosecution decisions. In 2019, GCSU prosecutors were alerted to the arrest of an individual in a stolen vehicle who had previously been suspected of multiple shootings. When police discovered forged credit cards connected with the offender, GCSU prosecutors collaborated with the Financial Crimes Unit (FCU) to obtain bank and credit card records that were tied to the offender’s Uber account. Confronted with this evidence, the offender made a full admission to the use of forged cards. He was charged with a Continuing Financial Enterprise crime, a Class 1 felony punishable by four to fifteen years in prison. Since the GCSU had previously identified the offender as a major crime driver and were alerted to his arrest early on, they were able to invest the resources and the time necessary to tie an otherwise disparate case neatly together — and hold the offender accountable for the full spectrum of his conduct.
The early successes of the project have prompted the SAO to sustain the GCSU beyond the scope of IPS funds. It is now a thriving and growing unit.
Ashna Arora, Ph.D — Research Director, University of Chicago Crime Lab
Anthony Berglund — Senior Research Manager, University of Chicago Crime Lab
Shawn Condon — Grant Monitor, Cook County SAO
Ethan Holland — Assistant State’s Attorney and Supervisor, GCSU, CCSAO
Zach Honoroff — Associate Director of Violence Reduction Services, University of Chicago Crime Lab
Nicole Kramer — Director of Programs and Development Unit, Cook County SAO
Maureen McCurry — Assistant State’s Attorney, Cook County SAO
Patricia Pantoja — Assistant State’s Attorney, Cook County SAO
Marny Zimmer — Assistant State’s Attorney and Director of Policy, Cook County SAO