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CAPS Versus Cops

Frustrated with the city's alternative policing program, some residents are looking elsewhere for help.

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By Ed Finkel

Feeling besieged by gangs and drug houses in her northwest Austin neighborhood, Jean Jackson participated in Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meetings for three years. And Jackson did her part. She says she observed gangbangers selling drugs and gave police detailed information about where their drugs were stored. She also recorded the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles. But the drug dens were never closed, and now she blames the police. "They would say, 'Just give us a little more time to work on it,'" she says. "But there was never any action. In fact, it got worse."

So last October Jackson and others affiliated with the Northwest Austin Organization began boycotting CAPS meetings and taking matters into their own hands. They approached the city's corporation counsel, which uses nuisance abatement laws to pressure landlords with repeated arrests on their properties. Later they showed up in court to testify. After shutting down several problem buildings, Jackson and her neighbors in the 25th Police District weren't sure whether it was worth going back to CAPS. "We're having so much success this way, it's like, what's the point?"

While police are directed to help residents pursue such strategies, Jackson says, "They haven't followed their own program. They have no interest in following it. They're just interested in doing their police work: 'You tell us what the problem is, and we'll try and do something about it.' I think they had the right idea with CAPS--they just didn't know how to work it."

Residents in other neighborhoods on the west and northwest sides have sought alternatives to CAPS for much the same reason. "A lot of times they say, 'We made these arrests, we did a sting,' but they've never been able to say, 'This hot spot has been shut down,'" says Donald Stone, volunteer chair for the West Garfield Park chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN has been working with police in the 11th District. "Their response is that the police are doing their part, but the community needs to do its thing."

Stone remembers one neighbor who repeatedly called police about a drug house next door. Gang members eventually figured out who was calling the police and broke several windows of the neighbor's house. "They say, 'You could start little patrols' and all this stuff, but these older people are not going to be out there until 12, one in the morning, patrolling and relaying stuff to the police," Stone says. "It's too dangerous. This is not a joke."

Police spokeswoman Gail Mangrum insists most beat officers are "using all the tools" to fight crime, actively soliciting input from community residents. But she acknowledges there may still be some resistance among police who are not used to relying on laymen. She also points out that it's hard to change any bureaucracy. "We've got, what, 13,000 of us?" she says. "But I would venture to say that for every one who's dragging his heels, you've got three or four who are working on alternative strategies."

"I think the CAPS program is working well for those who want to work with it," says 11th District commander Claudell Irvin. "The first thing you have to get out of people is fear. Those cookouts, marches--it all shows other people that there are some people who are really concerned here, and then they come out and get involved."

But Warren Friedman, executive director of the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, says some beat officers fail to reach out, even sending the wrong signals with simple actions like body language. "The most common story is crossed arms," he says. "They just sit there quietly with their arms crossed. Or they come in and say, 'We've got to get out of here quickly.' Or the police lecture people and blame them, saying, 'If only they'd take care of their kids.' That doesn't make you warm and fuzzy toward working with them."

The Northwest Neighborhood Federation has worked outside the CAPS process to get several buildings cleaned up in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood in the 25th District. Relations between the community and police hit a low point in late spring when then-commander John Pappas failed to show up at a meeting with activists. According to members of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, Pappas had threatened to arrest them if they picketed an alleged drug house because state law prohibits demonstrating in front of a private residence.

But Luis Supulveda, a member of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, reports that there has been some improvement since July 29, when Pappas was reassigned to the 17th District and Thomas Walton was installed as the new commander in the 25th. Walton has already met with Supulveda's group on several occasions. "He knows how to interact, to deal with people, to negotiate," Supulveda says. "He's 100 percent willing to work together."

Supulveda says the previous problems arose because different officers attended the meetings and police failed to provide progress reports even when the same officers did show up. So residents began contacting the law department on their own. In some cases, they went directly to the buildings department, which can help pressure landlords by finding code violations.

"A lot of times, the problems with crime are related to the condition of the building--it's the 'broken windows' theory," says Dawn Bode, supervisor of the corporation counsel's six-attorney drug-and-gang-house enforcement section. Yet even in Belmont-Cragin, she says, the police proved instrumental in achieving the community's goals. "A lot of our response was based on information and help they provided to us. We're really an extension of CAPS."

Walton hopes disgruntled residents haven't soured on working with the police, even if they've stopped participating in the official CAPS process. "If the community and the police don't work together, both the community and the police lose," he says. "The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy is one of the ways we work in a partnership. CAPS is an official program of the department. But we will respond to concerns as they're expressed in various forums by various individuals. It might be the community going forward; it might be the police going forward."

Residents shouldn't wait for police to engineer alternative strategies, says Archon Fung, a doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped write the fourth annual "Community Policing in Chicago" report, published by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (copies are available at 312-793-8550). "What's stopping the police is that it's not a common police strategy," he explains. "Organizing residents to go to court, calling building inspectors, calling up a lawyer at corporation counsel--that's really not what they teach you at the academy. Citizens are right that it would be nice if police led them in this direction, but then some of the burden has to be on citizens too."

"Sometimes solutions don't need the police," echoes Friedman. "Since CAPS started as a police thing, a lot of people have been brought to feel like the police have to be involved in all problem solving. And I think that's really untrue and unhealthy."

Northwestern University political science professor Wes Skogan says the police sometimes have good reasons for seeming unresponsive--ranging from lack of resources to protecting undercover investigations. "The bad reasons are that they're driven by their own priorities and aren't interested in being responsive to citizens."

Citizens seldom decide to operate outside CAPS, "but certainly, in a few cases, that's what the community has seen fit to do," says Justine Lovig, a project manager at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research, another collaborator on the "Community Policing in Chicago" report. "In the best-case scenario, the police are very knowledgeable about the array of city services and other resources that can be made available to the community." When relations break down, she says, it's "far more frequent" that police are responsive but residents "either don't trust the police or don't feel like working with them." In the case of the 25th District, however, Lovig believes residents "had a difficult time finding a way to actively engage with the police. It's relatively rare that relations between the police and community end up getting that antagonistic."

Stone wishes his neighbors in the 11th District were more incensed over gang problems. "They're getting tired of it, but not so tired that they're willing to rebel against it and demand the city do something about it," he says. "Why don't people bang on the door of City Hall until something happens? Some people just see it as a way of life. But it doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be that way."

As for Jackson, she's decided to give CAPS another shot. The Northwest Austin Organization has ended its boycott--for now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Donald Stone photo by Dan Machnik.

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