Chicago's crime problem: A matter of "perception" | Bleader

Chicago's crime problem: A matter of "perception"

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Its hard to improve perceptions of crime in neighborhoods struggling with it every day
  • TODD DIEDERICH
  • It's hard to improve perceptions of crime in neighborhoods struggling with it every day

Faced with anger, alarm, and bad press from the latest outbreaks of violence, the Chicago police superintendent pulled another old move out of the political playbook Tuesday.

“We’re having a perception issue,” he told a group of downtown professionals.

That would be Superintendent Garry McCarthy, though it’s easy to get confused, since he sounded a lot like his predecessor, Jody Weis.

Weis, you'll remember, is the one whose “muddled” leadership McCarthy has been dismissing throughout his first year in office, much as Mayor Rahm Emanuel rarely misses an opportunity to remind us what kind of a mess he inherited from Richard Daley.

McCarthy's point was that overall citywide crime continues to drop, even though our escalating shooting and homicide counts are splashed all over TV screens and front pages.

He's making a familiar argument. During a bloody stretch in 2010, Weis noted that overall crime was actually going down and blamed “the 24-hour news cycle” for creating the impression that violence was out of hand. But Weis wasn’t enough of a politician to sell the idea to politicians or the public, and Emanuel promised to dump him as he campaigned for office. Weis walked away instead.

McCarthy came in vowing to end the nonsense. “We can reduce crime, we know how to reduce crime, and we can do it without the unintended consequences of ‘heavy handed’ policing that we’ve used over the last few years,” he declared a year ago. He promised a “transparent” police department that would forge good relationships with the community.

Yet McCarthy and Emanuel haven’t made much of an effort to reach out to longtime community leaders, and they’ve been anything but transparent when it comes to the most basic information sharing. For a year they’ve held press conferences to talk about all the police they’ve supposedly moved to the street or the beat, even as the number of officers on the force has plummeted by 300 on their watch.

They’ve noted that it’s not the size of the force but how it’s used that makes a difference.

But this narrative of turnaround and accomplishment has been rudely interrupted by a 35 percent jump in homicides and 11 percent jump in shootings in the first five months of the year. So they’ve been zooming in on the perception issue.

For weeks, the police department’s news affairs office has been working hard, with Emanuel, McCarthy, first deputy superintendent Al Wysinger, and other officials making a dramatic announcement or two a week to highlight the busts of street-corner dealers. Last week they announced that they’d found four guns, $3,700 worth of heroin, and counterfeit one-dollar bills in the homes of a suspected gang member. “The gang member was not present at either of the locations,” said the last line of the press release, “but Chicago Police are continuing their investigation.”

Despite the PR push, the police have actually made slightly fewer drug arrests through early June than they did a year ago, from 16,709 to 16,598, though arrests for low-level pot possession are up.

But the real problem with the perception approach is that it doesn’t do much for people who are actually victimized by crime—and who don’t believe they can depend on the public safety system for help. I myself have called 911 a couple times in recent weeks and had no one pick up, and I hear similar stories from residents around the city. A few weeks ago my colleague Jerome Ludwig couldn’t find anyone to report that his home had been burglarized. Patrol officers in violence-plagued and drug-infested neighborhoods can’t keep up with the calls for service they get, and residents at community policing meetings vent that they sometimes call 911 only to watch squad cars roll down their streets without so much as slowing up. Often when the police do stop, it only brings a temporary halt to the dealing.

“I’ve seen you guys come,” a longtime resident told police at a west Humboldt Park community meeting recently. “But they go and stand on another corner and watch while you’re there and then get back to business when you’re done.”

And now police brass are having to acknowledge that the size of the force matters too.

They can’t come out and say they need more officers, because there isn’t any money to hire them. The police department’s budget was slashed this year—an act that’s politically unthinkable in all but the most desperate financial times. In fact, Rahm Emanuel has been boasting for years that as a Clinton staffer he helped push through funding for thousands of police around the country. He has to find another approach now in Chicago.

And so Monday night first deputy superintendent Wysinger sent out a department memo announcing “Violence Reduction Initiative 2012”—that is, a new policy of inviting cops to work on their off days for overtime pay “in an effort to reduce the public violence incidents throughout the city.”

It’s not just open to anyone. To qualify, officers need to have shown a sufficient level of “activity” in the last five weeks in three of five areas: they must have issued at least five parking tickets, cited five motorists, handed out five contact cards to suspected gang members, made three arrests, or rounded up two curfew violators.

“Officers assigned to this program will be expected to respond to calls for service, especially in-progress and disturbance calls,” Wysinger wrote. “Personnel will be expected to initiate and generate activity during their participation in the program.”

In other words, some good stats need to come out of this expensive experiment.

It’s not clear where the money will come from. The mayor says there are funds available, but the police overtime budget was also cut this year, from about $33 million to $29 million.

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