Eyes on the Street: Community Policing in Chicago

Officer Patti Black is driving down Lowe Street on a gorgeous day in one of the nation's most dismal neighborhoods. The neighborhood is Englewood, the city is Chicago. In a small park on one side of Lowe Street, children armed with crab apples are playing war, chasing each other around the park, pausing to pick up more crab apples, then chasing each other again.

Across the street, however, a scream of terror rises from a row of federally subsidized apartments as Officer Black passes on routine patrol. A 17-year-old girl runs out of a building, blood dripping from her arm, and chases down the squad car. "My momma and my sister jumped me . . . and beat me . . . with a broom . . . and I'm pregnant," she says between gasps for air.

Officer Black, a decorated cop and a strong proponent of the city's new community policing initiative, gets out of her car to talk to the young woman. She calms the girl down, gets more details on the domestic crisis, and asks the teen to think about whether she might want to move out of the house. All in all, it's an unremarkable event, one that Black will almost forget to report at the end of her shift. But what happens to the officer next is much more informative and may reveal a good deal about why some criminal justice experts consider the model established by the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) to be the nation's best hope for reforming law enforcement policy.

While Black stands on the sidewalk, a 12-year-old girl circles her, playing with everything on the officer's belt but the gun and handcuffs. She slides Black's long, heavy flashlight out of its holster and carries it off to show friends. Officer Black, a tough-talking, sweet-faced 37-year-old, shows remarkable patience. When she's done with the injured 17-year-old, she steps away to talk to the girl with her flashlight, who, as Officer Black already knows, is one of seven women and children recently victimized by a rapist on Lowe Street.

A few weeks earlier, Black had gathered an informal block meeting to tell residents that at least half a dozen women had been attacked by a masked, knife-toting man who had removed air conditioning units from windows and climbed into apartments while the occupants slept. A few days later, one of the women who attended the meeting called Black to identify the alleged rapist, a 16-year-old boy who lived on the block.

"Do you still want to come to court with me Friday?" Black asks the girl. "I really need you."

"I don't know," the girl giggles. "I feel bad for him."

Black, who by now knows not only the girl but also her family and neighbors, shores up the youngster's confidence and talks to others on the block about ensuring that the 12-year-old testifies. The officer wonders later whether she would have the same influence in the neighborhood were it not for community policing, which keeps her in the vicinity of Lowe Street so steadily that she has become almost as familiar as some of the local drug dealers. She wonders if she would have caught the rapist at all under the police department's old operating model, which emphasized arrests rather than intervention.


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WHAT IS IT?

In the late 1960s, the federal government sponsored experiments encouraging police officers nationwide to spend more time in the communities they protected and served. The movement never caught on, but it did capture the interest of several important academics who continued to study and write about "neighborhood team policing," as they called it then. By the mid-1980s, a new generation of college-educated police chiefs had risen to power, and they began turning to what they had learned in college. At the time, crime rates were skyrocketing all over the country, cities were setting annual records for homicides, and politicians needed a new brand of public policy to offer frustrated residents. San Diego, Portland, Edmonton, and Newport News were among the first to implement versions of community policing, and before long it seemed as if every police chief in every city was trumpeting a neighborhood-oriented approach to the job.

Today, community policing is ubiquitous. Like welfare reform, everybody's got to have it, even if no one knows exactly what it is. The popular image is as oversimplified as a Norman Rockwell painting: Community policing means officers stay in one neighborhood, and maybe even get out of their cars to walk the beat. And instead of responding to 911 calls all the time, they listen to people's problems and try to solve them with common sense, creativity, and community service.

In fact, most cities that claim they have instituted this style of reform have made only halfhearted attempts, invoking the spirit without putting any muscle or money behind it, implementing it only sporadically, or sampling it in safely selected neighborhoods. True community policing remains for the most part an ideal: a system built from the bottom up in which preventive problemsolving becomes more important than making arrests, a lively partnership in which police take their orders not from headquarters but from local residents. Effective community policing must be more than Dirty Harry suspended from the force and replaced by Andy Griffith. It requires not just new rhetoric but a wholesale change in police training and operations, a giant makeover of community service systems and a fundamental change in the way City Hall bureaucracies interact with police.


CHICAGO'S HOPE

In most big cities, the thought of such a revolution is preposterous. The overmatched and much-maligned Los Angeles Police Department might sooner have officers flying from one crime scene to another via personal jet packs. But in Chicago, city officials brag that they are closer than anyone to realizing the true vision of community policing. After a two-year pilot program in five neighborhoods, the program is up and running citywide, it is strongly backed by a well-entrenched mayor, and it is designed with a heavy emphasis on grassroots participation. It still isn't Mayberry R.F.D., but it's not business as usual, either.

Community policing in Chicago means more than officers going on foot. When it works, officers get to know their beats and the people who live on them, and residents are encouraged to report not only crime problems but also pressing community issues such as abandoned vehicles and neglected children. The police turn the complaints over to the appropriate city departments, and they expect their reports to be answered quickly and efficiently. Neighbors, for example, might (and often do) complain to police about abandoned buildings. After drug dealing and gang violence, it is one of the most commonly reported problems in many city neighborhoods. Mayor Richard M. Daley has reorganized large sections of his bureaucracy to help city agencies better interact with the police department. The police department now has a branch responsible for forwarding complaints about abandoned buildings to the city building department and dogging the department until demolition procedures begin. Bureaucrats in the building department know, presumably, that Chicago's powerful mayor considers these requests a priority. Police, city officials, and some residents say the system handles those sorts of everyday neighborhood concerns better than ever, and it is here that community policing has shown the most potential.

City officials believe this approach will make residents feel as if they can play a role in solving their neighborhoods' problems. The plan is so progressive, so grassroots, that some local disciples of Saul Alinsky are still a bit stunned to see stiff-necked Chicago backing it. If community policing truly works, some local believers say, its emphasis will be not on crime so much as neighborhood activism. Residents, organized around police beats and meeting monthly to discuss their problems, might very well ask police to look into a series of rapes or robberies, but they are more likely to discuss trash that needs picking up, abandoned cars that need towing, and youth who need activities to keep them off the streets. From there, the neighbors might go on to talk about neglected parks, meals for the elderly, and other concerns unrelated to law enforcement. Top police officials say they are willing to engage in this less-than-exciting work ("social work," as some skeptical beat officers sneer) because they believe it will cut crime and reduce fear over the long run, thus making their jobs easier.

To some, Chicago's community policing is the most progressive experiment in police reform in years and a model that might help liberals find an angle all their own on crime and social order. But there's still ample cause for skepticism. While there is evidence suggesting that crime and fear of crime are declining around the city, and the statistics look especially good in the districts that pioneered community policing, even many CAPS supporters say it's too soon to declare the program a success.

Meanwhile, some cities--though not Chicago--have been forced to pull back from reforms because 911 response times fell while officer assignments focused more on neighborhood relations than on emergencies. And some criminal justice scholars worry that community policing could lead to widespread civil liberty abuses as officers, already overworked, and now taking on larger responsibilities, become so independent and so deeply familiar with their beats that they abuse their powers more frequently. Officers trained to strictly follow rules might respond poorly to a more casual approach, and they might interpret their new freedom as an invitation to take matters into their own hands. Before community policing can be declared an outright success as either a deterrent of crime or a facilitator for neighborhood social services, these problems must be addressed.


THE BEAT GOES ON

To get a sense of how community policing works, I interviewed beat cops and residents in two Chicago neighborhoods: Englewood and Rogers Park. Englewood, on the south side, is one of the city's poorest and most crime-infested neighborhoods, inhabited almost exclusively by African Americans; Rogers Park, at the city's northern edge, is a diverse area with dozens of ethnic groups, residents of almost every income tier, and far fewer violent crimes than Englewood.

The Chicago Police Department assigns officers to beats for a minimum of one year. Officer Black has been driving (and occasionally walking) the same grid in Englewood for three years now, and wherever her cruiser cruises, cries of "T-Bone" rise in the air. "Hey, T-Bone, what's up?" "Yo, T-Bone, how do you like my new bike?" She won the nickname because her last name, before her divorce, was Thibeault, which sounded enough like the steak to stick. Though she is white in a predominantly black part of town and a cop in an area where gangs dominate life, she has carved a relatively comfortable place for herself. Domestic disputes are more easily resolved and fights more easily avoided because neighbors know her. She works hard to remain in the favor of those on her beat, including those she has arrested time and time again.

For one thing, she rarely writes tickets. While we are out on patrol one night, a car rolls through a four-way stop sign without even pausing. The driver sees the police car, puts an upturned palm out his window and shouts, "Sorry, T-Bone!" Black just shakes her head. Another time, she spots a man who is wanted for a parole violation. He does not run when Black approaches. "You were supposed to pick me up yesterday," the man says, and the officer admits she forgot. The man doesn't want to start serving his sentence right now because he's not appropriately dressed, so he and Black agree that she will pick him up the next day. The officer is so familiar with the parolee and his family--and outstanding warrants are so common here--that Black is confident he'll keep his word. She understands that respect and goodwill benefit her more than force. Once, when a suspect resisted arrest and began punching her, neighborhood gang members rushed to her defense and helped subdue the man.

The cat-and-mouse game played nightly on Black's beat is an interesting one. The crack-selling gang members expect her to be around, and as a result they don't often keep drugs or weapons in their possession. Black knows this, so she watches but usually does not come down hard until she witnesses a drug deal or has information that one of the gang members has been involved in a crime. She does, however, demand that certain rules be followed, among them: Alleys must be kept clear of trash; loitering is forbidden in front of schools, businesses, churches or anywhere neighbors have complained; and gang members are not to spit on the ground ("It's a sign of disrespect," she says) when police drive by. Black says, and neighbors agree, that prostitution and drug dealing have slowed on her watch. Many abandoned buildings have been demolished and most of the abandoned cars now get quickly removed. She admits, however, that some of the same problems have increased on adjoining beats where her fellow officers have not been so vigilant. As a result, it's impossible to say whether crack dealing or any other crime has really been reduced or if it's merely been pushed elsewhere. Overall crime rates are down slightly since the community policing pilot began three and a half years ago in Englewood, but its status as the second deadliest neighborhood in Chicago has not changed. The Englewood neighborhood, 6.1 square miles with a population of 100,000, or roughly equal in size and population to Cambridge, Massachusetts, often endures five shootings in a single night. During the first eight months of 1996, 43 people were murdered, compared to 47 in the same period last year.

Black's neighborhood connections can be particularly helpful after a shooting. She'll frequently receive calls from witnesses willing to identify a perpetrator. But in many ways community policing in Englewood is not so dramatically different from traditional policing. Black spends little time working with the city bureaucracy on trash-filled alleys or abandoned buildings; most of that work is handled by civilian employees and desk officers in the department. She does attend monthly beat meetings, but most of her important contact with residents comes on the street during routine patrol, where an informant might ask to be frisked or handcuffed to avoid the appearance that he is freely cooperating. Black still spends most of her time driving, watching, and waiting, the same as always. The difference with community policing is that she is confined to a smaller area, and she knows who belongs there and who doesn't.

"Before, I'd be flying all over the district, from one end to the other," she said. "I think the quality of the work we do has improved because of the rapport we have with the people. We've solved a couple of murders this year because we knew who to talk to. If you're just a face, that won't happen."


BUILDING TRUST

In Chicago's Rogers Park, Officer Joe Cannon has also spent more time talking to the people on his beat and less time arresting them--and he, too, believes the investment in social contact has paid off. Unlike Officer Black, who attributed the successful identification of the Englewood rapist to her neighborhood connections, Cannon couldn't think of any dramatic examples in which community policing helped him solve or prevent a dramatic crime. But the 28-year veteran of the force is still persuaded that community policing is an improvement on the old response-based system. He appreciates the fact that his department no longer judges him solely on the number of arrests he makes and that it rewards him now for meeting with residents, reporting problems, and suggesting solutions. "Every day you go out there and you see people washing their cars or mowing their lawns or playing with their kids," he says. "If they see you and know you, they trust you." The officers who can't cope with the new, slower routine--and there are a few in his district--are assigned to response teams, which continue to handle the bulk of 911 calls. But most officers have adapted, and new recruits are more likely to embrace community-service-based policing because they're being trained to understand its principles. "We were all willing to give it a chance," he says. "We're police officers. We got into this work because we like working with people and we'd like to see things get better. If you can show us that this will make a difference, we'll do it."

Yet Cannon's experience illustrates one of the main challenges that must still be overcome: smoothing the relations between the community and the police. The same day I rode with Cannon, he attended a beat meeting at a small recreation center in Rogers Park. The turnout was poor, with only about a dozen residents compared to 15 police officers, and the residents were mostly white, unrepresentative of the neighborhood's diversity. Several members of the audience I spoke to had never heard of community policing prior to the meeting. A 46-year-old purchasing agent from the neighborhood told me he wanted to get involved sooner but was never informed about meeting times. One woman at the meeting asked officers to explain the difference between a beat and district; another asked whether she should use a whistle when she wants to summon police.

Police, not residents, led most of the meeting. They reported on areas seeing heavy gang activity and asked people who lived there to phone the district and provide license plate numbers from suspicious vehicles. They also provided details on two rapes in the neighborhood and promised to distribute sketches of the suspects as soon as they could. After less than 30 minutes, the officers departed while residents continued discussing more specific concerns, such as graffiti and efforts to remove pay phones frequently used by drug dealers. Sonny Hersh, the resident who led the meeting after the officers left, remained optimistic. "The police were separated from the community for so long," he said. "They only saw the bad guys, not any of the good guys. I've seen a big difference with community policing. There are some older officers who didn't want to change, but for the most part they're a dying breed. I think most people see that it works. There's never enough police officers, unfortunately, but for what they have to work with, it's reasonably effective. The whole thing's evolving, but it does work."


DOES IT REDUCE CRIME?

Wesley Skogan, a professor at Northwestern University, has monitored CAPS since its inauguration in 1993 as a pilot program in five neighborhoods. The city of Chicago, according to Skogan, has always been strongly resistant to reform of any kind. But Skogan says Chicago, to the surprise of many, is one of the few cities attempting substantive reform in the organization of its police. Other cities have confined community policing to a select group of volunteer officers and kept the experiment small, so it wouldn't disrupt the larger organization. Even where the small-scale experiments worked, most cities had no plan to expand them.

Skogan names several keys to Chicago's success. First, the program was designed and implemented by City Hall, not the police department. Eight out of the top ten problems neighbors cited in beat meetings had nothing to do with crime, Skogan said. "Neighbors are concerned about a whole broad range of human service problems--trash, junked cars, abandoned buildings, speeding," he said. "In the past, the response would have been that those are not police problems. Now Chicago has organized its department so those are police problems."

Second, Mayor Daley has made the reform effort enough of a priority that his department heads know they had better cooperate with police and take care of the reported complaints. Skogan says community policing failed in New York because that city had three mayors and five police chiefs in ten years. Almost every mayor in the country expressed interest in community policing five years ago because crime statistics were increasing and politicians needed new rhetoric to offer frustrated citizens. But only Chicago and a few other big cities, including Portland (Oregon) and San Diego, have had leadership willing to make the commitments of funds and institutional change required for successful community policing. In Chicago, the police department also avoided one of the problems of community policing by creating a separate rapid-response team to handle 911 calls so beat officers could concentrate their efforts on neighborhood services.

The bottom line, of course, is how much--if it all--community policing lowers crime rates. Last summer, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority published Skogan's evaluation of Chicago's pilot program. Skogan's study found that crime had dropped slightly in most of the neighborhoods under study, though it did not determine conclusively whether community policing had been the cause. Skogan asked 1,500 Chicagoans how community policing had affected them after its first full year of operation, and the results were mostly positive. Most residents said they had noticed more police activity. At the same time, they reported being stopped less often by police. In Englewood and Austin, residents said police had become less abusive while people in Morgan Park, Rogers Park, and Marquette noticed no change. In four out of the five neighborhoods surveyed, residents had grown more optimistic about police, saying the department had become more responsive to their concerns. In all five neighborhoods, residents reported a very small improvement in perceived crime fighting, but Skogan found similar results in two neighborhoods not operating under the CAPS model, leaving the question in doubt. For the most part, residents did say they felt safer.

But that still doesn't answer the question of whether crime--actual shootings, thefts, and assaults--were reduced because of community policing. Once again, blanket summaries are impossible. In Marquette and Morgan Park, major crimes were reduced but no more dramatically than in non-CAPS neighborhoods. In Austin, Englewood, and Rogers Park, however, major crimes did drop more dramatically than in comparison neighborhoods, prompting Skogan to say that community policing might have been responsible. In Englewood and Austin, drug- and gang-related crimes declined significantly while they increased in comparison neighborhoods. "This shows," Skogan said, "that if you mount a serious program, it can have an effect."


THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION

Skogan's study also revealed a serious concern, however. He found a clear correlation between the effectiveness of citizen organizations and physical improvements in each neighborhood, suggesting that progress might be stunted in places where there is not a serious community outreach. He highlighted the problem by noting that less than a third of all residents in Englewood, Marquette, and Austin were even aware of the city's community policing program. In Rogers Park and Morgan Park, half of all residents knew about CAPS, but the percentage did not appear to be increasing over time. Skogan also noted that police were assuming leadership of some neighborhood beat meetings to the exclusion of residents, and that citizens and police "had very different ideas about problem solving." As one might expect, police emphasized police action to deal with neighborhood concerns while residents stressed community organization. Adversarial encounters between police and citizens occurred in four of the five pilot districts.

Meanwhile, Warren Friedman, executive director for the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, complained that his nonprofit group was expected to lose its $2-million-a-year city contract for organizing community members because city and police officials believed police could do the outreach themselves. Friedman insisted that Chicago's model worked because residents were trained in how to help police, and without that training community participation would disintegrate. "There's too much turnover in the community," he said. "You can't just do a onetime training and expect to have the capacity for partnership."

Friedman noted that cities had been experimenting with community policing for 15 years, but deep community participation had rarely been developed because cities didn't believe community organization was an important goal or expense. But without a strong and stable corps of volunteers communicating and working on their problems, police won't be nearly so effective. And the hope that these community organizations might grow and begin working to improve large patches of the social fabric will soon be forgotten.

Even the police department's top community policing officials admit that public relations and community outreach, particularly in non-English-speaking neighborhoods, have been the weakest links in their operational chain. Barbara McDonald, co-project manager for CAPS, says officers have been reluctant to embrace the marketing arm of their job. Chicago police have always had exemplary arrest rates, she said, and it never made residents feel any safer. Now police are learning that they need a broader approach to crime--preventing it as well as solving it--and that this approach won't work unless police and neighbors work in partnership. But McDonald insists the city can accomplish that without the ongoing support of Friedman's Alliance for Neighborhood Safety. Now that a tie has been established between the police and the residents, the department believes it can step up its own public relations efforts to strengthen that connection.


ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS

David Bayley, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany, says Chicago's community policing experiment has been the most heavily scrutinized model in the country. And while the experiment has shown promise so far, there are still countless ways it might fail. For one thing, unmotivated officers might find it easier than ever to slack off now that the department affords them time to get to know the neighbors and work out creative solutions to their problems. Out on patrol, they have fewer calls to answer and reduced accountability. Vigilante cops, meanwhile, might be more tempted to flout the rights of a perceived troublemaker if they feel they are working under less scrutiny and at the behest of community groups.

Bayley, the author of Police For the Future, says the ultimate success of community policing still depends on the outcome of a fight for the hearts and minds of police officers. In Houston and New York, the commitment never grew strong enough and the reforms collapsed. "This is really a very interesting moment in American policing and we're on the bubble in terms of where it's going to go," he says.

John DiIulio, Jr., professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University and director of the Center for Public Management at the Brookings Institution, remains skeptical of claims that community policing has helped bring down nationwide crime rates. To some extent, he says, community policing was oversold in the late 1980s, offered up as a way to provide more safety for less money as neighbors did much of the work for police. But in truth, he says, community policing requires increased manpower and much more money. After all, a certain number of officers must still be assigned full-time to emergency response, homicide, juvenile crime, and all the other indispensable bureaus. In addition to that core, the department must establish a strong street presence with officers walking beats, visiting schools, interacting with social service agencies, and attending meetings. "The fact of the matter is that America has many fewer cops than we need to do community policing," he said. "We're already trying to do more with less. Now we want to do more and better with less, and it just doesn't work." Having said all that, DiIulio adds that he considers himself a "booster" of community policing, which he sees as a move in the right direction for law enforcement. "Marginal improvements are still improvements," he says.


A QUALIFIED SUCCESS

Chicago's 13,500 police officers have adapted to reform as well as could be expected. About 9,000 of those cops are members of the patrol division, and community policing for them has become an essential way of life because the police department has left them no choice. The city's residents, however, have not done so well. Most of the residents I interviewed, including those who had almost daily contact with police, had no idea that the department had undertaken a massive change in organizational behavior. They remained both uninformed and uninvolved--and in a system that relies on community participation, such a lack of communication might prove fatal. Neighborhood activists worry Chicago will revert to old-fashioned policing if community participation slips--and it seems far more likely to slip if the city closes its contract with the local nonprofit group that recruited, organized, and trained residents to get involved. In order for the reform to work, law-abiding residents must feel that there is a social movement afoot, that it's catching on, and that if they join it they might actually improve their neighborhoods. Criminals, in turn, have got to notice that police become much more effective when they have the eyes and ears of neighbors working for them.

Community policing has attracted many followers because liberals and conservatives can both stand up proudly in the name of public order. For conservatives, community policing represents individual responsibility and a blow against big government. For liberals, it symbolizes the deinstitutionalization of crime fighting in favor of a more humane system built on collective action. Though it's too soon to bet the precinct house, community policing can work for residents of the ghetto as well as the penthouse district. It can attack both crime and the roots of crime. Already, police in Chicago can proudly point to falling crime rates and a growing sense of safety in many neighborhoods. They can even argue that they have established a foundation for neighborhood participation that might eventually grow into a powerful web of organized citizen action. But unless residents become more aware and involved, Chicago's reform will begin to look like no reform at all. The community will disappear from community policing, and Chicago will be right back where it started, with cops chasing robbers and everyone else locking the doors and shutting the blinds.

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