Dave McKinney and Frank Main, Chicago Sun-Times, March 7, 2014
Both Jermalle Brown and Douglas Bufford were gang members hired to play a small role in helping combat violence on the South Side through a program hatched by Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration.
Paid $8.50 an hour with taxpayer funds to hand out anti-violence pamphlets in their South Shore neighborhood, the two low-income teens were part-time foot soldiers in the governor’s $54.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a program he once described as “a comprehensive and concerted effort to keep our young people safe, off the streets and in school.”
Quinn launched that program a month before his 2010 election as an answer to gun carnage in the city — even though murders that year, Chicago Police would later disclose, dipped to a nearly 50-year low.
But instead of embodying a bold new way to fight bloodshed on the South Side, Bufford is now dead, and Brown is charged with his murder, putting a dramatic and deadly new blemish on the one-time Quinn showpiece, which was pilloried last week in a report by Auditor General William Holland.
At the same time they were on the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative payroll, Brown, then 19, and Bufford, 16, allegedly broke into a Grand Crossing home in July 2012 with one other man and announced a robbery in what Chicago Police believe was a gang-related crime.
It’s not clear, based on court and police records, what happened next. But Bufford was fatally shot in the back of the head with a shotgun, and Brown and an associate now face murder charges tied to the shooting.
The statement from Grant Klinzman, a Quinn spokesman, said: “It’s critical to have strong anti-violence programs for at-risk youth that provide mentorship and job training in order to reduce the risk-factors associated with violence. Community organizations must provide meaningful opportunities for our youth to keep them off the streets. That’s why today CJIA [Criminal Justice Information Authority] partners with programs that focus on preparedness for future employment and job training.”
While Quinn may not have been aware of Bufford’s death, his administration certainly knew about it two weeks after it happened, according to a series of emails within the now-disbanded Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.
Just days after the fatal home invasion on July 25, 2012, Bufford’s murder was brought to the Quinn administration’s attention by an incredulous South Shore activist, prompting the now-defunct state agency charged with administering the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative to scurry into damage control.
“First, let me begin by expressing my utter disbelief [t]hat your agency would spend money trying to make scholars out of young adults who terrorize our neighborhoods daily,” South Shore resident Gina Olson wrote in an email to an official in the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.
“So many youth going away to college this year could not find jobs for the summer. But some conglomerate of organizations in South Shore employ people like the guy in this link with our tax money,” she wrote, alluding to an attached online news report that featured Brown’s booking photo. “I’m furious about this.”
Olson went on to ask the state agency why it was allowing government grant money to go “to hire thugs and criminals to do positive outreach in my community. Are you out of your minds?”
The decision to hire Brown and Bufford belonged to the Black United Fund of Illinois, a nonprofit that Quinn’s administration put in charge of doling out $2.05 million in Neighborhood Recovery Initiative funds to an array of community groups in South Shore. Former Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th) recommended the group to the Quinn administration.
The same day that Olson’s email arrived within the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, the agency’s then-director, Barbara Shaw, reached out to two Black United Fund of Illinois officials and learned that the teens were part of the Mentoring Plus Jobs program, a component of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
In a brief interview Thursday with the Sun-Times, Talmadge D. Betts, senior program officer for Black United Fund of Illinois, said the teens’ hiring was made at the “staff level,” and he offered details about what the teens were hired to do.
“They were getting skills, and they were getting those skills by handing out information, positive messages, engaging with people in the neighborhood related to those positive messages that were on the materials they handed out,” Betts said.