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Cops 'n' neighbors: community policing in Beverly-Morgan Park



Eighteen months ago, the 22nd Police District on the southwest side became one of five prototypes for CAPS, the city's new community policing program. No longer would officers be pulled routinely off their beats; instead, they'd stay put while emergencies were answered by roving "rapid response" cars. The beat officers' duty was to establish and maintain close links with the neighborhoods they protected.

The success or failure of CAPS--for Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy--rides as equally with the citizenry as with the police. On beats where CAPS is anemic, it's because the neighbors have taken "a laissez-faire attitude," says Dennis Lesniak, 22nd District commander. Where the program is prevailing, de facto leaders have taken charge. And no piece of turf has been energized like beat 2213, the two-square-mile area of central Beverly-Morgan Park where John and Michelle Presta live and work.

"The Prestas are catalysts," says Lesniak, "and we use them as an example for other people in the district to follow. Without their kind of commitment, CAPS is going to founder."

The monthly beat 2213 public meeting at the Ridge Park field house was where the Prestas first emerged. When CAPS was launched these meetings were sorry affairs. Attending were a full complement of police--some beat officers, a sergeant, a neighborhood relations officer, a few plainclothesmen--and fewer residents than cops. "From our end there was me, my wife, and a woman named Dorothy Riley," relates John Presta. The meetings were "pretty useless," says Michelle.

The Prestas, who operate a small neighborhood bookstore, concluded that the public wasn't showing up because handbills advertising the meeting were being poorly distributed by the police. The Prestas took over the publicity. They cadged lists from a couple of home-owners' groups and augmented them with the names of people who had applied to 19th Ward Alderman Ginger Rugai for permits to hold block parties. Eventually the Prestas set up a system of 40 block captains, covering about one-third of the beat, who take fliers door to door. In addition, Michelle mails out some 40 announcements to people she knows are interested.

"We also use our bookstore to get out information about the meetings," she says. "We talk to our customers, and while we don't shove a flier in their faces, we do press the point that they should come."

One hundred people turned out for a couple of Ridge Park meetings last spring, after two gang-related murders had galvanized the beat. But even during quiet times the crowd reaches 50. The meetings begin at about 7 PM, when Dorothy Riley, a retired sales consultant, asks everybody, cops included, to sit in a semicircle. This facilitates discussion, she says, adding that it's been hard for the officers to stifle an impulse to move up front.

The police make announcements and present the neighbors with a map detailing robberies, burglaries, auto thefts, and drug arrests from the previous month. Most of the evening, however, is taken up by residents airing their concerns. These have ranged from drugs and the intrusion of the Black Disciples street gang on the beat's east end to more mundane matters; in September, two mothers rambled on and on about their kids' stolen bikes.

"We hear about a lot of problems at the meeting, such as where the drug houses and abandoned cars are," says Harry Desch, an officer who works beat 2213 daily from mid-afternoon until nearly midnight, "but because we're on the beat we usually know about them already. Still, these meetings aren't the usual police bashing. People aren't yelling, 'I called 911 and no one came!' It's nicer than that. People direct questions at us and listen to what we say."

The neighbors feel they get action in return. When informed that kids were painting a viaduct with graffiti and throwing rocks, Desch, partner Larry Stankus, and a third officer made several passes by the site. "That cleared things up," says Stankus, "and at the next meeting they actually applauded us." The September meeting ended with a march past a drug house just as some tactical officers swooped down to make arrests. The raid was coincidental, says Desch, but the marchers were delighted.

The Prestas operate their bookstore in a modest commercial area at Walden Parkway and 99th Street, hard by the Rock Island railroad tracks. After several stores had been broken into last March, Michelle rose at the beat meeting to ask why the officers who walk Western Avenue three-quarters of a mile west couldn't swing by her business strip as well. "One cop said it couldn't be done," recalls Michelle, "so I said I was going to start a petition." The next day 99th and Walden received coverage.

Lesniak says the new focus on beats has made his officers "more committed, more entrepreneurial. Where we used to put out brushfires, now we try to see why they started and make sure they don't happen again." Indeed, policing has changed for Desch and Stankus. Rarely leaving their beat, they have gotten to know its denizens better, through the meetings and through just being around. They can refer nonemergency matters, such as abandoned cars and uncollected garbage, to other city departments by filling out a form they carry, an interagency notice that's considered a key to CAPS's effectiveness. "You're like a city official," notes Stankus.

Beverly-area activism against crime predates community policing and even the Prestas. In August 1991 an intruder killed Ruth Ellen Church, the retired food editor of the Tribune, by suffocating her with a bra in her home. The murder stunned the community. "Until recent years we hadn't locked our doors," says Sue Connaughton, a Beverly housewife. "I couldn't remember a murder. This was a wake-up call." An alarmed Connaughton took the lead in forming a safety committee of the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA).

Not long after, the consulting firm of Booz Allen & Hamilton happened to issue a report recommending that community policing--a trend among cities from New York to Seattle--be tried out in five Chicago districts. When Matt Rodriguez became superintendent in April 1992, he identified community policing as the centerpiece of his administration. But while he weighed which districts would be designated pilots, he was also thinking of closing seven stations, a Booz Allen suggestion to make the shift in strategy affordable.

"We had it on good authority that one of the stations they wanted to close was the 22nd District," recalls Connaughton. The station, housed in a small building on 111th Street that has no lockup, had been shuttered for four years in the early 1970s, and there were fears it might be sacrificed again. "We felt that if we lost the station, we'd lose the foundation of the neighborhood," says John Presta. By now, the Prestas' store had been burglarized a couple of times and they'd both joined the BAPA safety committee. The committee, demanding an open police station and a chance to experiment with community policing, gathered 15,000 signatures and staged a demonstration that blocked the street in front of the station. One Friday hundreds of southwest-siders flooded the City Hall switchboard with save-the-station pleas.

In the end, all the existing stations were kept open. And in April 1993 the 22nd District became a CAPS pilot, along with the Austin, Marquette, Englewood, and Rogers Park districts. The 22nd received 25 additional officers, and all the beat officers were given three days of training in community policing.

Connaughton now chairs a CAPS advisory committee that assists with crime-fighting campaigns throughout the 22nd District. A court-watch subcommittee has 150 volunteers who follow local cases to court, both to demonstrate local outrage and to support victims. "When we're dealing with drug houses or gangbangers, we pull our volunteers off different beats, so no one is recognizable to the defendant," relates subcommittee cochairman Peggie Haggerty. Haggerty says prosecutors tell her the court watch is influencing outcomes. In one case she cites, a man charged with throwing two Molotov cocktails into the house of a family that had griped about gang activity (on beat 2213, as it happens) was so cowed by the community showing before trial that he pleaded guilty.

A liquor store owner named Tom Gibbons had been campaigning for years to arm the foot patrolmen on Western Avenue with beepers. Through CAPS he got Ameritech to furnish the officers with a device that flashes them a written message. This summer the device enabled a foot patrolman to catch up with a man who had stolen $50 from a gas station attendant.

John Presta heads a district-wide citizens' patrol whose volunteers cruise the streets on weekend nights and alert the police to trouble. "You're not to get involved," says Presta. "You don't get out of your car and intervene, regardless. We're the eyes and ears of the police, not the hands and feet." The most active patrolling, organized by the Prestas, takes place on beat 2213. They go on duty together once a week, using the phone in their car to report to the police everything from busted streetlights to what they take to be gang activity. "I enjoy it," says Michelle. "We have a scanner, and it's neat to see what's going on around here that we don't know about. It gets a little bit boring if you're driving around for four hours and nothing's happening, but then we stop for coffee. We have fun."

One balmy Friday evening in late August the Prestas put together a "unity rally" at tiny Graver Park, beset by gangs and drug dealing. About 100 CAPS supporters, many of them parents with their kids, showed for speeches then lit candles and walked the adjacent streets, paying special attention to a couple of drug houses. Recently the Prestas led some marches around Saint Margaret of Scotland Church, blocks infested with Black Disciples. "Down with drugs, up with hope," the marchers chanted, as gang members taunted, "Up with drugs, down with hope."

"It's tough," concedes John Presta. There are limits to what CAPS can accomplish. Desch and Stankus say having to fill out forms leaves them backlogged and that community expectations are often unrealistic. "When people tell you they've seen some gang members hanging around with guns, they expect you to take action," says Desch. "But they don't understand that you can't just knock the kids up against a wall and lock them up. Some of the kids might have guns and some might not--and they all have rights. We can disperse kids who are congregating, but they'll be back. We can arrest kids for bicycle theft or selling a nickel bag, but they'll probably get off and return to the corner. I'm all for the community being involved, but they have to realize this is a slow process."

Some aspects of CAPS have yet to catch fire in the 22nd District. A letter sent out recently encouraging local churches to participate in the program brought a disappointing response, and the turnout was low for the first of a series of teen meetings. Although the monthly meeting on beat 2213 has caught on, on other beats it's a dead event, says Lesniak.

Yet CAPS showed enough potential in the 22nd and in the other prototype districts (notably in crime-plagued Englewood) to persuade Rodriguez to begin gradually extending it last May to every district. Beats have been reconfigured, 120 more CAPS officers will be hired in 1995, and in some districts beat meetings are now being set up. Victims of lesser crimes, such as bad checks and hubcap theft, are being dealt with by phone and mail, sparing beat officers for graver matters. The Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, a longtime proponent of community policing, is designing a new training program for police and community members that's designed to heighten their skills at collective problem solving.

Before CAPS went into effect, a consortium of academics tracking the strategy found that patrolmen were initially ambivalent about it. "They thought they'd lose their ability to define what the problems were," says Wesley Skogan, a political science professor at Northwestern who leads the consortium. "Now I'd say the officers have found their worst fears were unjustified." A consortium report released in July noted that beat meetings are too often run by neighborhood relations officers, with beat patrolmen sitting silent. Nevertheless, Skogan says the beat meetings have "by and large been productive, although too many citizens still define a situation by what the police are going to do for them."

Last Thursday, Mayor Daley chose Saint Margaret of Scotland Church in beat 2213 as the site of a press conference in which he announced increases in police manpower and lauded the CAPS program. He noted that the day before, a foot patrolman acting on a tip from a woman he'd met walking his beat had arrested a suspect in the murder of an owner of Army & Lou's, a popular restaurant in Chatham. "Most crime can be solved when the community gives information," Daley said.

Charles Ramsey, deputy chief of patrol and codirector of CAPS citywide, says it will be five to ten years before the CAPS program pays off. "There are so many reasons we're in the fix we're in with crime--a school system that's in shambles, broken families, joblessness, racism," says Ramsey. "CAPS can be a catalyst for change, but we can't do it alone." In 1993 serious crime in the 22nd District fell by 19 percent, the largest decrease of any district in the city, but this year the crime rate dip, powered by a burst of murders that Lesniak says are heavily gang- and drug-related, has leveled off. Lesniak says it's too soon to interpret the crime rate as a measure of how well or poorly CAPS is working.

Some recent developments have been heartening. On February 1 Mark Hamilton, 29, pleaded guilty to killing Ruth Ellen Church and was sentenced to 80 years in prison. John Presta believes that in beat 2213 crime continues to drop. "Violence is getting less and less," he reports. "Soon we'll be down to burglaries and stolen cars on the west side, although the gangs still rule east of Ashland. There were some serious shootings over there recently.

"The police can't control things on their own," Presta says. "If we're going to solve things in the city we need 100,000 volunteers instead of more cops. The way I see it, you've got to get involved where you live or you won't survive."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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