by Mick Dumke
It didn’t look promising at first. Once again, hundreds of people were gathered in a Chatham church to talk with police superintendent Garry McCarthy about fighting crime in their neighborhood. And once again, a half hour after the meeting was supposed to get under way, the police chief was nowhere to be seen.
“The last time, the superintendent was running a little late,” Roosevelt Vonil, president of the Greater Chatham Alliance, told the audience in a bit of an understatement. “But we’re used to the police running a little late, aren’t we?”
That got people laughing, even if they were bothered that there was reason for such a joke.
In recent years, the proud, prosperous south-side community has struggled with what many longtime residents describe as a sharp increase in both the volume and brazenness of crime—repeated break-ins, robberies in the middle of the day, open drug dealing, and high-profile shootings. Residents say the police haven’t been able to keep up with it.
That's why hundreds gathered on a Saturday morning last summer to hear McCarthy answer their questions—and why they were irked and insulted when he kept them waiting more than an hour before finally blowing them off altogether.
Embarrassed McCarthy aides later apologized for what they described as “a scheduling error that should not have happened.” They reached out to Vonil to set up a new time, but he wanted to wait a little, until tempers in Chatham had cooled.
In the intervening months, the neighborhood continued to be hit by violence, including a shooting outside a bakery at 5 PM one Saturday last fall that left three people dead. In the last month at least ten other people have been shot in Chatham, and some longtime residents have told me they’re thinking about moving out of the city.
But last Saturday the Greater Chatham Alliance tried to call a do-over with the police superintendent. At 20 to noon—40 minutes after the scheduled start—Vonil announced that McCarthy had arrived. “So put your guns away, put your marijuana away," Vonil joked. "I don’t care if the ordinance passed.”
McCarthy appeared at the front of the church, smiling, his graying hair and mustache neatly trimmed, wearing a dark suit and red tie. Without making any reference to his previous no-show, he grabbed a wireless mike and paced back and forth at the front of the pews, preaching his views of policing.
“We have an unacceptable level of violence and it’s been going on too long,” he said. While cops can’t address the poverty and family crises at the root of violence, “This is a police problem . . . and I’m accountable.”
This sort of personable, straight-shooting approach has become McCarthy’s trademark, and it generally wins audiences over—even when he’s not actually saying much beyond the company line. And so he answered residents’ questions with things he and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have stressed before: we’re redeploying police from desks to the street; police are waging a "ground war" on drugs, corner by corner; despite perceptions that crime is out of control, overall numbers are down dramatically from years past.
But McCarthy also knew when to speak plainly and talk tough. When asked what residents could do to help, he looked at the audience as if weighing whether they could keep a secret. “I’m going to get into trouble here," he said, "but don’t let your children sit on the porch next to high-ranking gang members. That’s where I’d start.”
It was a smart response—it was undoubtedly good advice, and even if it sounded frank, it was unlikely to offend anyone at a community meeting in a middle-class neighborhood.
Not everyone was happy with all of his answers, of course. Some residents have noticed that the crime statistics distributed at community policing meetings don’t always match what’s posted on the police department website. But McCarthy shot down the suggestion that someone could be cooking the books. “You can’t hide bodies,” he said.
The superintendent promised that he's committed to old-school beat patrols, which allow officers to get to know the area and people they police. But he dismissed the idea that the police force is understaffed, even though it’s shrunk by 1,200 officers in the past five years.
Given the city’s budget picture, he said, “It would be irresponsible for myself and the mayor to say we need more officers.”
That brought on a disappointed silence. But McCarthy kept assuring the audience that he'd put cops where they're needed, and he left to spirited applause.
Afterward, Vonil said he thought the event went well. “There were some people who thought we should ask much tougher questions, but I thought it wasn’t the time, when we’re trying to build a relationship.”
McCarthy struck Vonil as committed and candid. “If he’s not, I’ll tell you, the mayor’s got one of the best messengers out there.”
Even if he is, that’s probably still true.