What a robbery in Edgewater says about the police staffing debate, part one of two



Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy say Chicago doesnt need more police officers
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy say Chicago doesn't need more police officers
The jewelry store robbery was just the latest sign of trouble in the neighborhood—and a disturbing illustration of why police staffing has been one of the most passionately debated issues in Chicago and beyond this year.

Just before 2 PM on October 8, a thin white man and a Hispanic woman with strawberry-blond hair stepped into the Bryn Mawr Jewelry Company. The store is next to the Red Line station on a busy stretch of Bryn Mawr, one of the main commercial thoroughfares in east Edgewater and the center of the neighborhood's revival over the last 20 years.

The couple asked to see a ring and a pair of watches. A store employee took the watches out of the display case. By the time he looked up, both of the supposed customers had pulled out guns. The employee was led to the back, where he was bound to a chair with duct tape.

One other employee was in the back of the store, talking with a client on the phone. The blond woman brandished her gun and told the employee to hang up. Before the line went dead, the client on the other end heard the second employee shout, "Oh my God!" The client called police.

Under threat of being killed, the second employee buzzed a third man into the store, an African-American with tattoos on his arms and neck. The three grabbed cash and a box of loose diamonds and fled out the back door.

By this time the first of more than two dozen police officers were racing to the scene. They went quickly to work. Barely an hour later they arrested one of the suspects, the woman with the blond hair, as she was leaving a tanning salon a couple blocks away. The men allegedly stole a car at gunpoint and fled to the Ravenswood neighborhood to the west, where police apprehended them later that afternoon.

A couple weeks after the robbery, store owner Scott Freeman tried to keep it in perspective. "It was completely random—none of them even lived around here," he says. "It's the city and things do happen."

In fact, a positive development has come out of the incident: police officials have resumed foot patrols along Bryn Mawr that were suspended earlier this year because of staffing shortfalls. Some business owners, longtime residents, and the alderman have credited the visibility of the beat officers with turning the area from a seedy pocket of drug dealing and prostitution to a thriving commercial district that includes popular restaurants and cafes.

As Chicago residents cope with another violent year, heated discussions are under way across the city about whether we have enough police officers in the right places.

It's a conversation that's also happening nationally, though with a different tenor. President Barack Obama has continued to fund COPS, a program launched by Bill Clinton to encourage community policing and help keep officers on the street. Chicago was awarded one of the biggest grants of 2012, $3.1 million, to pay for an estimated 25 police officers.

Obama's opponent isn't such a fan. Over the summer, as he tried shoring up his credentials among small-government conservatives, Mitt Romney criticized the president's spending on public-sector employees. "He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers," Romney said. "Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

In Chicago, though, it's not merely a philosophical argument about the size and role of government. While violent crime has dropped nationwide, our city has made headlines for a jump in murders and shootings this year. Though robberies and other crime totals are down, earlier this week Chicago exceeded the homicide total for all of 2011.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel made police staffing an issue during his campaign. He touted his work at implementing the COPS program and promised that as mayor he'd put 1,000 additional officers on city streets, including hundreds of new hires in blighted areas.

"Research suggests that each 10 percent increase in the size of the police force reduces violent crime by 4 percent and property crimes by 5 percent, meaning that each extra dollar spent on policing can generate up to $8 in long-term savings," Emanuel's campaign website declared. "More cops on the street also can create better relationships between law enforcement and communities. Police officers will become a presence in the neighborhood, rather than only available in response to emergencies."

Since taking office, Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy have announced the redeployments of scores of police from desk to street duty. But there are now 400 fewer cops on the payroll than a year and a half ago. Officers are retiring and the city hasn't hired enough to keep up, because doing so is expensive.

The police department launched an initiative this summer to entice officers to work overtime to fight violence. Yet McCarthy says Chicago doesn't need more police. He notes that since a spike in violence during an unusually warm winter and spring, the rate of bloodshed has slowed; in October, for instance, 36 people were slain, down from 44 in 2011. According to the police chief, that’s the result of a sophisticated new approach to tracking gang activity and a recommitted "ground war" on drug corners.

"There's no studies that show that more cops means less murders," McCarthy said. "It's what those officers do."

In 2010 Chicago had the most police officers per capita of any of the nation's biggest cities—as well as the most murders, according to a study earlier this year by the Chicago Justice Project.

Still, it's not clear what Chicago's strategy is for determining police deployment, and for years officials have gone out of their way to keep the public out of the loop.

During City Council budget hearings last week, one alderman after another urged McCarthy to find ways to hire more cops. Several, including Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Rick Munoz (22nd), asked the superintendent if he could share a copy of the analysis conducted to determine how many police were enough.

"I'm going to have to check with counsel on that," McCarthy said. "I don't think we've finished it."

An aide leaned over and spoke in his ear before the superintendent resumed speaking.

"Yeah, it's not an analysis—it's a process," McCarthy said. "We don't have a document that says this is what we need based on that. It's looking at it and feeling that we have the right numbers in the right places."

It would be jarring to know the department had no formal way of determining how to deploy 10,500 officers, except that it might not actually be true. For example, an employee of a consulting firm headed by former police chief Terry Hillard claims he's conducted "a Patrol Staffing Analysis and Review for the Chicago Police Department Bureau of Patrol."

At the budget hearing, aldermen argued what Mayor Emanuel did during his election bid—that the mere presence of police helps keep the peace.

"Just by being on that corner where those calls are coming from is preventing something from happening, just by your presence," said Munoz.

"Alderman, I think you're about 90 percent there," McCarthy told him. "It's not just being there—it's what they're doing while they're there. If someone wants to rob somebody, they're not going to do it in front of the policeman. They're going around the corner. But if the policeman stops that person walking by and finds the gun, he prevented the robbery."

On the other hand, if there aren't any police around to do anything, somebody could still get robbed.

Click here to read part two.

Add a comment