City officials say they're committed to community policing, just not to funding it

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police brass promise theyre going to revitalize community policing in Chicago--but it's not clear how.
  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police brass promise they're going to "revitalize" community policing in Chicago—but it's not clear how.
One of the first matters to come up at last week's community policing meeting in west Humboldt Park was the trouble brewing around the corner of Thomas and Springfield—serious trouble.

"Some new guys popped up over there and the other guys didn't like it," said H.T., a Vietnam veteran who's lived nearby for 27 years. "There was a shooting over there an hour ago."

Captain Roger Bay knew just what H.T. was talking about. Bay, one of four cops at the meeting, recalled that police cleared out a drug operation on the same corner last spring, arresting the "main characters" and posting 24-hour sentries for several weeks. But now some of the dealers were back on the street, and in the meantime others had tried to move in.

"The guy shot today is not from around there," Bay said.

Bay has been taking notes at west Humboldt meetings since being assigned to the 11th police district a couple years ago. His presence is notable. It's typical for up to five police officers to stop by beat meetings in other parts of the city, but appearances by supervisors are rare, and often the officers who show up are different from the month before because their assignments shift so often.

That obviously makes it difficult for residents to work with police on problem solving and crime prevention, which is the whole point of community policing, including Chicago's version of it, known as the CAPS program.

So it was good news this week when Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy promised to "revitalize" community policing in Chicago. "The strength of that philosophy within the Chicago Police Department and in our communities is more critical now than ever before," Emanuel said.

He could have been referring to the disconcerting fact that police were only able to clear a quarter of the city's 506 homicides last year, largely due to a lack of cooperation from witnesses in the neighborhoods.

The mayor and police chief went on to say that the CAPS central office, responsible for coordinating community police efforts since the 1990s, would be dismantled, and some of the resources would be shifted into police districts. District commanders will now have the responsibility of shaping programs to meet the needs of the neighborhoods they serve.

Of course, most of this had been announced previously, yet aldermen, police, and community leaders tell me they still aren't sure how it's going to work.

Some of the other claims simply don't add up.

"We have the same budget, but it's applied differently," Emanuel said of the new approach.

Except that's not actually true, assuming your guide is the city's official budget. It shows that funding for CAPS-specific work will be cut by more than 40 percent this year, to about $2.6 million. In contrast, the budget for drug enforcement is up 20 percent, to $28.4 million.

The mayor and police chief rightly emphasize that community policing isn't supposed to be an isolated program but a philosophy guiding how the department functions. Key to the approach is what McCarthy calls "beat integrity"—making sure that officers patrol the same areas consistently.

As he told aldermen a few weeks ago: "We're setting up a method of operation that relies on real community policing—the same officers in the same beat every single day so they know who Ms. Jones's kids are and who Mrs. Smith's kids are, because they're two totally different groups of kids."

Unfortunately, Chicago doesn't have enough officers to keep them on the same beats for years or even months at a time. The city certainly doesn't have enough to allow some officers to focus on crime prevention while others respond to 911 calls and emergencies, which was the original design for CAPS. That's one of the reasons CAPS evolved into a bureaucratic program instead of a strategy guiding the entire department.

In the short run, at least, doing preventive, community-based police work would almost certainly require more funding at a time the city's finances are already in rough shape. Not that it's any consolation, but other cities are struggling with the same issue—places as wide ranging as Anchorage, Indianapolis, New Haven, and Kalamazoo have cut back community policing as their budgets have shrunk.

In the long run, the investment saves money by increasing efficiency and lowering crime.

Residents can't afford to wait. In west Humboldt last week, the conversation turned to the neighborhood's central unyielding issue—what can be done about the guys selling drugs on the corners, other than watching them cycle in and out of prison. Everyone agreed: there's got to be a better way.

"It's got to be something that puts money into their pocket, because that's why they're out there," said Annlouise Bishop, who's watched the drug trade unfold in front of her home on North Homan the last two years.

The residents decided to reach out to neighbors, Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., and a local alternative high school to start formulating some plans. Captain Bay said he would be right with them.

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