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Ron Holt was leaving the press conference when he nearly stepped into the path of a briskly marching Garry McCarthy, the Chicago police superintendent.
It was just a few minutes after McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with the cameras rolling, had declared a renewed war on drugs—and let everyone know that its success depended on members of the community claiming dangerous corners from gangs.
"Nobody here gets a pass," the mayor said.
Holt had not been introduced or asked to speak even though he heads the office charged with coordinating collaboration between police and the community. Nor had any of the neighborhood volunteers who’ve been serving for years as liaisons between residents and the police.
In fact, neither the mayor nor the police chief even mentioned the city’s 19-year-old community policing program, known as CAPS.
Still, Holt perked up at the approach of his boss.
“What’s up, soop?” Holt said with a smile.
Whatever was up didn’t involve Holt or CAPS. McCarthy extended his hand for shaking as he made a beeline for a group of police and aldermen a few feet away.
It was the latest sign that the city’s existing community policing program isn’t in the sight lines of the year-old Emanuel administration, even as the mayor pressures the residents of high-crime neighborhoods to do more.
“What you saw is indicative of the relationship between the superintendent and the director of CAPS,” says Jimmy Simmons, who for 15 years has served as a community policing facilitator in the west Humboldt Park neighborhood where the press conference was held.
He says he wasn’t at the event because no one told him about it beforehand. To Simmons, that shows how little the mayor and police chief know about the people and communities they’re challenging to step up.
“The beat facilitators are very upset that they haven’t heard from the CAPS director or the superintendent or the mayor,” says Simmons. “If this thing is going to work, they've got to work with us. But the mayor doesn't know who we are.”
By most accounts, CAPS has been deeply flawed since Mayor Richard M. Daley rolled it out in 1993. Community policing is supposed to be a philosophy guiding the department, not just a program, but critics have long said CAPS is mostly about PR for the mayor and police brass.
But it’s also provided a structure for citizens to exchange concerns and ideas with the officers who patrol their neighborhood. At a recent meeting I attended in Simmons’s beat, discussion turned to the best ways to displace heroin dealers who were setting up shop in an alley behind family homes at seven each morning, when the fewest officers were on duty.
Yet the city keeps reducing its investment in CAPS and, it would seem, community policing itself. Long gone is the notion of having police walk beats to get to know the people in the neighborhood—there aren’t enough to go around, as the number of officers on the force has dropped by more than 1,000 in the last five years.
In the meantime, the budget for the CAPS office has been slashed repeatedly, from about $9 million in 2000 to roughly half that this year.
If the Emanuel administration has any plans for CAPS, it’s unclear what they are. Neither Holt nor the police department's press flack responded to my request for comment.
Even if CAPS continues to disappear, somebody needs to connect with the people who’ve participated in it. Activists like Simmons have been working to protect their homes since long before Emanuel or McCarthy were on the scene.
Simmons recalls a time in the mid-90s when a group of young men got creative about their sales techniques on his block. “They’d set up a basketball hoop in the alley or the street to make people think they were playing ball,” he says.
When cars pulled up, they’d quickly make an exchange.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get these motherfuckers out of here’—pardon my language. We didn’t disrespect them. One day, we just moved the hoop. And that was the end of that—just the fact that a group of us cared.”
Simmons is hoping the mayor and superintendent care enough to make a serious commitment in his community, because he’s heard promises before.
“They’d do something in the past," he says, "and then when it quiets down, they’d go somewhere else.”