By the numbers Chicago is the new murder capital of the nation, having surpassed New York, a city nearly triple our population. Though our murder rate is apparently down from last year’s huge increase, any way you look at it the number of murders and nonlethal gun violence is at an intolerable level and we are still groping for solutions.
Gang warfare and violence continue unabated, claiming the lives of innocent men, women and, tragically, infants and children such as 6-month-old Jonyiah Watkins and 15-year-old Hadiyah Pendleton. The situation led one alderman to issue a plea to the gangs to shoot only each other and leave the innocents alone—we have not heard such pleas since the Capone-era days of gang warfare. Is this what we have come to?
We know a lot about the sociology of the street gang and its claims on turf—an issue that was exacerbated when the CHA housing projects were torn down and the large, centrally controlled gangs broke down into smaller, younger and even more turf-sensitive groupings that grew more violent.
But beyond turf there is the issue of the narcotics trade, which has turned traditional street-gang “brotherhood” into a business providing an even stronger glue and motivation to join the local gang and “protect” its turf by any means necessary.
We can easily locate the most crime-ridden neighborhoods and “hotspots” and have made stabs at policing them more effectively. What we have not yet done is (a) provide more police, (b) begun to build trust that will develop a better interchange with the communities that practice a code of silence regarding crime and (c) most important of all, establish genuine community policing. Although all these are interrelated, I will take them up one by one.
It has been known for some time that we should have a minimum of 1000 additional police for this city, which apparently has not happened because of budgetary constraints. It has also been long known that Chicagoans are willing to pay more taxes for improved police (and fire) protection. There has, however, been a failure of political will on the 5th floor of City Hall and in the City Council. Both must muster up enough courage to end their taxophobia on the issue.
In the interim we need more and better redeployment from low- to high-crime areas. This, however, is highly unpopular politically because those lower-crime neighborhoods will put up a stink that could translate into votes. Again we have a failure of political courage.
To make up for the above failures a number of tactics have been tried that have not worked very well. First a couple of police “flying squads” were broken up to send more cops into the neighborhoods. Then as “flash mobs” and other groups of miscreant kids terrorized the Magnificent Mile, Gold Coast, CTA vehicles and other affluent areas, the need for those flying squads to provide quick response became obvious.
More recently new rookie police have been dispatched to walk beats in the hotspots, but, like the flying squad members who did so, they were not properly trained to gain the trust and work in concert with neighborhoods. (Mayor Rahm Emanuel once falsely referred to this move as “community policing,” though it bore little relationship to the genuine thing. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “beat representative” or CAPS program came a bit closer but still was not the genuine article.)
One minimally good note was struck recently when sworn personnel were relieved of clerical and similarly routine work that civilian workers can handle. This practice has been recommended in police manuals for decades. But there are simply not enough sworn personnel to meet the true need.
The well-known Sicilian code of silence is called “omerta.” Sadly enough both neighborhood residents and the police practice it here. It is unlikely that neighborhood residents will become more open unless police join them in a new code of honesty.
Chicago’s top cop, Garry McCarthy and his predecessor Jody Weis made regular pleas to folks in high-crime neighborhoods to bring information to the police as the only way of really getting at the roots of crime in their communities. They have even brought in sports heroes, clergymen, community leaders and other role models to urge people to go ahead and snitch as the honorable thing to do. But the code has not broken—it’s only been chipped away a bit. There remains too much fear of and enmity to the police.
Alderman Danny Solis of the crime-ridden 25th Ward proposed a sophisticated, internet based system for citizens to report crime and presumably perpetrators; a system that would completely (perhaps) conceal the identity of the caller or provider of information. I don’t know how practical this might be but it’s an idea worth examining.
Chicago has its share of brutal cops, racist and corrupt cops—maybe more, maybe fewer than a lot of other towns—but they certainly don’t represent the police force as a whole. That’s a given—but we do have a systemic corruption problem.
Studies have shown that most complaints are lodged against 5 percent of police for misdeeds ranging from rape to torture to other forms of brutality to outright crime, as we well know. But everyone from fellow officers to top cops to states attorneys to City Hall participates to some extent in covering up for these miscreant police. It’s been going on for generations, but only recently was it formally exposed by a judge.
In covering up they tarnish the image of the 95 or more percent of honest cops who do their best to get the bad guys and make this a safer city. Second, and more importantly, everyone in law enforcement knows full well that the cooperation of local communities is key to controlling crime in the neighborhoods. But the citizenry is fully aware of the cops’ code of “omerta,” and therefore practices such an unwritten code itself.
Had there been no such code, Jon Burge, who ran a torture mill in his precinct station with the tacit silence of the state’s attorney’s office under Richard M. Daley, would have been brought to justice decades ago
The same code seems to be at work with the compliance of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in covering for a nephew of Daley’s who seems the likely killer—albeit perhaps accidentally—of David Koschman in 2004 when the Daley nephew was not even questioned.
The code had never come under legal scrutiny until former bartender Karina Obrycka brought a case against the police and the city for their efforts to disclaim responsibility and for trying to reduce charges against an off-duty cop, Anthony Abbate, who jumped the bar at Jesse’s Shortstop Inn in 2007 and beat the barmaid unmercifully for no reason at all. The episode was caught on surveillance tape and went viral.
Abbate was eventually convicted of felony battery and fired, but police and prosecutors tripped over each other’s shoelaces, first pretending Abbate was not a policeman, in a Keystone Kop effort to reduce his charges.
On Nov. 14, 2012 the department and the city were found guilty of the coverup and practicing the code of silence. This is apparently the first time the code has been found illegal in federal court—a major milestone. While the city says it will appeal, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordained that Police Supt. Garry McCarthy would end the code of silence—a major admission and promise.
If that promise is broken, bonds to the neighborhoods will be broken as well. Neighborhood folks might well ask why they should risk snitching on neighborhood criminals if the police won’t snitch on each other—including those who brutalize neighborhoods.
In essence, community policing is a way of the police relating to neighborhoods in a new, respectful and cooperative way. It requires commitment and training. It is not necessarily popular with lots of policemen who agree with the sentiment expressed by one of their fellows who complained, “I’m a cop, not a social worker.” Well, the best cops have as much to learn from the field of social work as they do at the firing range.
True community policing remains a proven and effective way to both solve crimes and actually to prevent it. It constitutes a genuine partnership with a neighborhood based on trust built over time between long-term beat officers and neighborhoods they serve. It takes training and commitment.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice manual, “Establishing and maintaining mutual trust is the central goal of the first core component of community policing—community partnership. Police recognize the need for cooperation within the community. In [the past] fight against serious crime the police have encouraged community members to come forth with relevant information. In addition, police have spoken to neighborhood groups and worked with social agencies and taken part in educational and recreational programs for school children…. So how do the cooperative efforts of community policing differ from the actions that have taken place previously? The fundamental distinction is that in community policing the police become an integral part of the community culture and the community assists in defining future priorities and in allocating resources. The difference is substantial…”
Here, on the contrary, many community residents see the police as more of an army of occupation than a partner in solving crime and bringing criminals to justice.
Embracing and training for community policing is not a simple or easy task. It requires a degree of restructuring the police department as well as permitting a great deal of decentralization and autonomy to those officers working with both individuals and organizations in the neighborhoods to which they are assigned. Are we ready for this kind of change in a city whose police have long been so political?
There is now a large body of work on community policing, with success stories in places ranging from Macon, GA to Los Angeles. Here in Chicago we have tried many approaches and run through numerous police chiefs without solving major problems—and in some cases exacerbating them. Doesn’t today’s level of violence suggest that we need a radical new approach to policing?
That we start building genuine trust between the neighborhoods and those sworn to protect them—fully understanding it is a two-way street?
Absent that change and that trust, we will be mourning the Joniyahs and the Hadiyahs until our tears run dry.