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UPDATE : Crack Reaches Chicago, Worse Late Than Never

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Years after major American cities began grappling with a nationwide epidemic of crack cocaine, Chicago police finally are acknowledging the existence of a crack problem here.

The highly potent, smokable form of cocaine, which was linked to drastic increases in violent crime when it appeared in other cities, has infiltrated 24 of 25 police districts in Chicago, which had been seen as an anomaly among major cities because of the relative scarcity of crack here. Now the cocaine derivative is being blamed for a sharp increase in homicides in the city, with Chicago possibly set to break its previous 1974 record of 970 homicides.

BACKGROUND: Crack was rare on Chicago’s streets as recently as three years ago. In 1988, the year the police made their first large crack arrest, the drug was found in just two police districts.

One theory was that local cocaine and heroin distributors kept crack out because they feared that once Chicagoans developed an appetite for it, upstart crack dealers might cut into the established drug trade. But some police officials credited luck and Chicago’s geographical location at the center of the country for the relative absence of crack in Chicago compared to other large cities.

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Before crack could spread to Chicago, they reasoned, the cocaine-linked death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias in 1986 had caused the media to focus attention on the dangers of the drug, squelching much of the public appetite for it.

The lag time also allowed officials to prepare, so that when the first large crack operations did begin to appear here in 1988, the police were not caught unaware and could quickly stamp them out.

Prepared or not, police now are grappling with a large-scale crack problem. Chicago’s hardest-hit communities have developed a siege mentality as they cope with drug violence.

Interestingly enough, while Chicago police talked of the relative scarcity of crack on the streets, the city’s more hard-pressed suburbs have been inundated with it, beginning as far back as 1987. Police offered no explanations for that occurrence.

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The crack phenomenon was largely restricted to coastal cities when it first came to the attention of federal law enforcement agencies in 1984. It spread quickly in the mid-1980s to heartland cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and Kansas City and had already started to filter down to rural areas by the time police first noticed its presence in Chicago.

EFFECTS: Each of the cities in which crack gained popularity saw alarming increases in drug-related violence, with murder rates shooting up as high as 50%.

The Los Angeles-based Crips and Bloods street gangs played a major role in spreading crack to a number of Midwestern cities. Previously, authorities have said that the gangs had not established Chicago footholds because of the dominance of Chicago’s own fearsome home-grown gangs. Now police say the Crips have set up operations here. Although the full extent of the Los Angeles gang’s activities still are being investigated, there are fears that its arrival might presage even greater street violence.

While testifying at a Chicago City Council hearing last month, Police Commander Robert Dart said Crips gang members had established links with local gangs and were operating in 13 Chicago suburbs and in one Far North Side neighborhood in the city.

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“They are pitching cocaine,” Dart said, “and they are tied in with four major Chicago gangs.”


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