CHICAGO — John Bertetto’s research on gang networks is complicated.
The officer’s work outside his normal duties at the Chicago Police Department involves spiderweb diagrams, lengthy white papers and many hours of looking into the effects that law enforcement can have in the chaotic and ever-changing world of street gangs.
But there was nothing complicated about the death of Demario Bailey in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood in 2014.
A stick-up crew picked Bailey and his brother, Demacio, out as they walked to Johnson College Prep for Demacio’s basketball practice, a time of day when no buses are available. Four teens held up the pair and demanded Demacio’s jacket. Demario put up a fight.
“I think he probably thought something like, ‘It’s winter time and you’re not going to take my brother’s jacket,’” Bertetto said.
That’s when the gunshots rang out and the 15-year-old boy was fatally hit. Demacio lived.
There are no algorithms that can predict an act of violence so random, Bertetto, an 11-year department veteran, knows. But in a case so apparently simple, there also may be a simple way to prevent future acts of violence: Get the kids a safe ride to school.
“I remember hearing that Demario’s mom had said she would commit herself to getting kids safely to and from school,” Bertetto says. “And I thought maybe I could help too.”
A colleague at the department offered up a used SUV for cheap—Bertetto just needs to raise a bit over $5,000 to buy the vehicle—and the officer will hand it over to Johnson College Prep, the school Demario and his brother were on their way to when Demario was cut down.
“I’ll let them choose the best way to use it,” he said of the school, which he hopes will use the vehicle to transport students to and from extracurricular activities when buses aren’t used.
Bertetto has just a few more hundred dollars to go.
“This is just one possible solution to a specific problem,” he noted.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the department is not directly involved in Bertetto’s fundraising efforts. Like the social network and gang network research the officer engages in outside of his regular duties at the department, the project to get an SUV for Johnson College Prep is entirely extracurricular.
Bertetto’s path to police work came later in life than some. He started as a patrol officer at 28 after working unsatisfying jobs that utilized a master’s degree in business administration. His father and brother are members of law enforcement in California, and Bertetto grew up with a sense of duty and service that became even more apparent after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I made the decision after 9/11 that if I was going to become a police officer I wanted to do it in the city that I had fallen in love with,” he said of Chicago.
He took the first entrance exam he could and started out working overnights on patrol in the Eighth District, a stretch of territory with plenty to keep cops busy in the West Englewood and Chicago Ridge neighborhoods, among others.
“I wasn’t shocked or intimidated by anything that I saw,” he says.
Bertetto worked the streets and started seeing patterns, and began to think those patterns could be used to prevent crime and predict who does what, goes where, and chooses to engage in violence, he said.
Bertetto has worked with West Point, George Mason University, and Argonne National Laboratory as part of his research—all of which is focused on gang structures and some of which is aiding in the development of software for law enforcement to better “map and understand street gang structure so that we can be more efficient in how we combat them.”
While that helps Bertetto and others fight gangs who are selling drugs and weapons on the streets, the officer’s research work wouldn’t necessarily apply to the foursome of youths—all of whom are awaiting trial for Demario’s murder—who stuck up the teen for his brother’s jacket.
“They saw another opportunity to rob someone,” Bertetto said.
Plain and simple.
After meeting with Delores Bailey, mother of Demario and Demacio, Bertetto saw an opportunity of his own. Following her son’s murder, community members rallied to donate two vans for Delores to use in order to get kids safely to and from Johnson College Prep for after-school activities. The only problem: There was such a need and so much driving to do that Delores was contemplating quitting her job just to drive.
“The thought that her loss would be compounded by her quitting work to drive other students—it’s so noble but it would be wrong for us to let that be the legacy of her loss,” Bertetto said. “Looking for a vehicle to donate to the school in her son’s name, it seemed like the simple and right thing to try to do.”