Aldermen speak out on police response policy
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Some Northwest Side aldermen expressed concern about the Chicago Police Department’s new policy that will use the 311 city service to handle all calls involving non-emergency crimes and not dispatch officers when the victim is not in danger.
Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy announced that the Police Department Alternate Response Section will handle the reporting of crimes for situations that do not pose a threat to the victim or do not require medical attention and crimes that will not be resolved by dispatching a beat officer.
Since the 1990s the Alternate Response Section has been staffed by light-duty officers who can be reached by dialing 311 rather than 911 to answer police inquiries and complete reports by phone.
The section is expected to handle about 30 percent of all calls, doubling from 74,000 last year to 151,000 this year, according to the department. The change is expected to free up the equivalent of 44 officers per day for patrols.
The 311 service handles all non-criminal calls for service, but some criminal reports will now be sent to the center, including vehicle thefts, fraudulent checks, criminal damage to property, garage burglaries, thefts, obscene phone calls, threatening phone calls without any imminent danger, animal bites, simple assaults and recovered vehicles at an auto impound yard.
“We continue to evaluate our department to ensure the best use of our resources,” McCarthy said in a statement. “Victims will continue to have their reports handled by sworn officers, and these officers will still dispatch an officer if they perceive that one is needed. Otherwise, the report will be handled over the phone, allowing officers to remain on patrol and ready to respond to emergency calls.”
Alderman John Arena (45th) said that he questions how the policy would work in practice. “If you get home and it looks like somebody just left your home, I would at least hope that they would sweep the area,” Arena said. “There are scenarios that could arise when this could put some people in jeopardy by not sending the officers. There is so much uncertainty and a gray area here about how you make that judgment call about when to send the officers or not.”
For instance, there could be an instance in which a burglar is hiding in the house, Arena said.
Arena said that he understands what Mayor Rahm Emanuel is doing. However, he said, “There are so many things happening with this and there are too many questions at this point.”
Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) said that she is concerned about the new policy but that she supports the move.
“A lot of people, especially out here on the Northwest Side, do not even call the police for minor crimes,” Laurino said. “I’m sure that we are doing this in order to increase efficiency, and we will eventually work this out.”
Aldermen also commented on Emanuel’s plan to reassign about 200 police officers from administrative positions to area saturation teams that focus on preventing gun violence after the department determined that some administrative duties should be handled by civilians and not sworn personnel.
“This all came from a report by the inspector general in which he identified that there were 200 officers that could be reassigned to those teams and then be filled with non-badged officers,” Arena said.
“Today’s move is another effort to target gangs and guns in particular areas with every officer we have available,” Emanuel said in a statement.
The department is moving 60 officers, with 30 going to Area Central and 15 each reassigned to Area North and Area South, joining a contingent of officers in each area. The moves will be complete by the end of March, according to the city.
“This organizational change will result in more effective policing and the goal of reducing violence from gangs and guns,” McCarthy said. “By moving officers to area headquarters, they will be empowered to travel across districts while still cultivating trusting relationships within the communities they serve. Their responsibilities will now be filled by civilians, which provides the department more flexibility and additional resources to areas that need them most.”
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (36th) said that the only solution to crime problems is to hire more officers. “We will have more police officers in those saturation units, but now the citizens will have to come down to the station and you will have less officers dealing with those calls,” Sposato said.
Sposato said that the department has had units similar to the saturation teams in the past but that they were disbanded. “All we are doing is reassigning guys from one area to the next,” he said. “I don’t know what the happy medium is. We are doing what we can with what we have, but I think the solution is more officers.”
Sposato and Arena both said that the department should hire 1,000 more officers.
“The big problem is that we are playing catch-up and we are reassigning and juggling the officers to the street because in my mind we don’t have a full-strength force,” Arena said. “The most important thing we have to deal with is the gang issue because it can spiral out of control and what we need is stopping these 15-year-olds from getting hit by bullets. If 1,000 more officers could accomplish this, then I am all for it.”
Alderman Timothy Cullerton (38th) questioned whether it is feasible to hire more officers at the expense of raising property taxes.
“That would be devastating to some of the people on the Northwest Side,” Cullerton said. “We have new families and seniors who, if they got their property taxes increased, it would really hammer them.”
“Right now the police are doing all that they can and I don’t think that there will be any more coming out here for us, but I think that to address some of the issues out here we need to go after some of these illegal conversions,” Cullerton said. “Gang members sometimes get into these buildings and they threaten the landlord or intimidate the building owner.”
Laurino said that many officers are retiring and that replacing them takes time. “It’s a time-consuming process and we don’t have the funding,” she said.
Alderman Deborah Graham (29th) said that if the intent of the Police Department is to minimize call response time in order to address violent crime, “then you would be hard pressed to criticize this effort.”
Graham said that the shift of the officers and the use of the 311 system to report nonviolent crime is a step in the right direction. “We continue to do what we can to get more police, but it’s not really a policing problem but a community problem,” she said. “People need to call the police and make those reports.”
“All officers are trained to do police work, whether they have been pushing papers for 20 years or not,” Graham said. “If you can get civilians to push papers, then I think that that can work.”