For months leading up to Zachary Fardon’s ascension to the U.S. attorney’s post in Chicago, the pressure has mounted over what his role would be in tackling the city’s crisis of gang violence.
Sen. Dick Durbin has minced no words demanding violent crime be Fardon’s top priority. Durbin’s counterpart, Sen. Mark Kirk, famously suggested the mass roundup of more than 18,000 Gangster Disciples would be a good start.
Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel — often under fire for the constant bloodshed — joined in this week, alleging federal prosecutors needed to charge more gun crimes in the city.
But behind the rhetoric and the headlines, it’s unclear what if anything Fardon could do to stem the violence that hasn’t already been tried.
“It’s very difficult to affect the homicide rate,” said Scott Lassar, a former U.S. attorney. “There are lots of guns available, no matter how many you take off the street. And when people have altercations over next to nothing, the result is they use a gun. That’s not something that more prosecutions are going to help solve.”
Fardon, 47, a veteran federal prosecutor best known for his role in the conviction of former Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges, was sworn in last week. Colleagues say his management experience and knowledge of the office — both its capabilities and limitations — will help him make key decisions on what kind of prosecutions to pursue, from long-term racketeering cases involving major gangs to quicker-hitting cases that can be used to go after the smaller gang fragments responsible for much of the day-to-day street violence.
Among his first moves, Fardon could simply try to boost the office’s public relations efforts on its gang and gun cases, which tend to get overlooked in the media as routine.
Ronald Safer, also a former assistant U.S. attorney, said Fardon is media savvy and will want to use the “bully pulpit” that the office carries to put out the word that the gang problem is job one. More frequent news conferences, even speaking directly to gang leaders and putting them on notice they are in the cross hairs, could be part of that effort, Safer said.
“He can’t flip a switch, but I’m sure that there are gang prosecutions in the works right now that he can highlight and publicize,” Safer said. “He has to put his own personal stamp on this — make it clear to the public and the community, ‘This is my priority.'”
Getting the message out hasn’t always been easy. The frustration was evident at a news conference last month when interim U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro — announcing a major gang takedown — was asked why his office wasn’t doing more to combat violence.
“Let’s be honest, you guys don’t cover those (gang) cases, particularly in federal court,” Shapiro said to reporters. “I don’t see you here. I don’t see stories about them, and that’s fine. I know there are other things that are perhaps of more interest.”
With a staff of about 125 full-time criminal prosecutors, the U.S. attorney’s office says it has long poured a large portion of its resources into gang prosecutions., including more sophisticated racketeering investigations that have dismantled the leadership of some of the city’s biggest and most violent gangs, from the Latin Kings to the recent takedown of a lesser-known but violent hybrid called the Hobos.
There are major cases pending at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse against the Sinaloa and Zetas drug cartels in Mexico, which pump vast quantities of narcotics into the Chicago area and provide the fuel for gang violence. Over the past five years, an average of 500 drug-related cases involving 1,000 defendants are pending at Chicago’s federal courthouse at any given time, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
For years, federal prosecutors have also collaborated with Chicago police and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office on which gun cases should be charged in federal court. The decision usually comes down to where defendants would face the stiffest potential penalties — federal or county court. In 2012, federal prosecutors charged 108 gun-related cases involving 157 defendants, above the 13-year average of 86 cases, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Police statistics show violent crime has dropped over the past two decades. Homicides in Chicago hit a high of more than 900 in the 1990s and this year are on a pace to fall well below 500. Still, Chicago lags well behind other large cities like New York and Los Angeles in the sheer volume of homicides. And the gun culture has continued unabated.
The reasons for the violence are too complex and entrenched to expect a new “sheriff” to ride into town and solve it, criminologists say. The homicides and shootings, the guns and the gangs are more the result of decades of festering poverty and societal attitudes about using violence to solve problems than they are about law enforcement, they said.
That’s something that often gets lost in the debate over solutions, such as the proposed three-year mandatory minimum sentencing law for gun offenders being touted by Emanuel in Springfield as the key to keeping violent criminals behind bars, said Arthur Lurigio, a Loyola University of Chicago criminologist.
“They are struggling to find an explanation to a problem that is not easily explained,” Lurigio said. “There are a lot of root causes that politicians can’t do anything about in short order and neither can the police.”
Safer said that when he led the U.S. attorney’s criminal prosecutions division, he would tell people — with only a slight hint of irony — that solving the gang problem was simple.
“First, solve the education problem,” said Safer, who helped lead the takedown of the Gangster Disciples and leader Larry Hoover more than two decades ago. “Solve the unemployment problem. Solve the housing problem. Then you will have gone a long way to solving the gang problem.”
Fardon is hardly the first federal prosecutor called upon to help take on city violence. In fact, City Hall has a long history of bringing in the feds — or blasting them — when it has felt public heat.
During his 21-year reign, Mayor Richard Daley announced numerous collaborations with the Justice Department to try to reduce crime, including in 2002 when Daley and recently appointed U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald told reporters of a major federal offensive against gun-toting gang members. But seven years later, Daley went on one of his more infamous tirades, mocking federal authorities for going after low-level political corruption while gang kingpins “drive the best cars, have the best nail shops” and never seem to get busted.
Last week, Fardon had been in office just hours when Emanuel, speaking to another newspaper’s editorial board, was quoted as saying the U.S. attorney’s office had a “horrible” record of prosecuting gun crimes compared to other large cities.
A mayoral spokeswoman on Friday downplayed the comments, saying Emanuel has already spoken to Fardon about the gun issue and looked forward to working with him.
Lassar, the former U.S. attorney, emphasized that with limited resources, it makes much more sense for federal authorities to concentrate on big-picture cases.
“They’re not going to prosecute the 19-year-old who’s selling crack on the corner,” Lassar said.