Chicago police officers walk along Cottage Green Avenue during foot patrol on April 30.
Photo credit: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT
Chicago police officers talk to a man during a foot patrol on April 30.
Photo credit: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT
Flashlights in hand, the five rookie Chicago cops were walking along a darkened stretch of the gang-infested South Side neighborhood on a recent night when their radios crackled with a call of a battery in progress.
One behind the other, the five jogged the next block over, joining up with four other young officers already huddled around a man who said the two mothers of his children had just duked it out.
"Can you pull someone over if you're walking?" asked the man, surprised to see all the officers had arrived on foot.
"We're still the police, right?" one officer replied. "Absolutely, we can pull someone over. If they don't stop, we'll call (for a squad car)."
Fresh from the police academy and three months of street training, up to 16 rookie cops a night patrol some of the city's most dangerous blocks on foot as part of a new initiative that is a throwback to the department's days of old.
Superintendent Garry McCarthy calls it a return to community policing, but it also is designed to beef up the police presence in tough neighborhoods and give the new cops a taste of life on the street.
The effort started off modestly less than two months ago with only a couple of dozen officers, but McCarthy has hopes of significantly increasing the numbers by adding newly minted cops to the foot patrols as they complete the academy and field training.
Department officials wouldn't allow a Tribune reporter to shadow the rookie cops, citing safety issues. But after learning where the foot patrols operate, the newspaper spent several nights observing the officers at work at 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue as they walked a 16-square-block area that took them into the East Chatham, Chatham and Grand Crossing neighborhoods. The foot patrols also operate in the area around 63rd Street and King Drive in the Woodlawn community.
The officers walk in pairs or sometimes in packs of four or more, chatting up passersby and employees in liquor stores, barber shops and other businesses. Working nine-hour shifts from evening into early morning, they write parking tickets, check for squatters in vacant buildings and occasionally pop out of dark gangways or dimly lit side streets. The foot officers also write up a lot of "contact cards" to keep a record of the names, addresses and phone numbers of those they routinely stop.
Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago, believes that cops walking the beat make citizens feel safer -- and lead to improved cooperation from residents.
"By changing the perceptions of residents about safety in the neighborhood, they become more willing to cooperate with the police in solving crimes, leading to lower crime rates," he said.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, has voiced concerns about the safety of the rookie cops on foot patrol in some of the most violent neighborhoods. Yet those are the same areas where an influx of veteran officers working overtime on their days off have been added -- in squad cars and usually just a few blocks away.
Lurigio said there's no research to suggest that foot patrols are any more dangerous than working in squad cars.
The reaction of residents to the patrols has been mixed. Some feel safer, others have already grown weary of their presence, particularly those who feel hassled by the officers' actions.
Several said they often see the foot officers ordering people up against walls to search for narcotics or weapons. At least one individual was seen using his cellphone to record a video of his confrontation with officers.
Andre Perkins, 43, who runs a weekly outdoor cookout for the poor along 79th Street, complained that the area was already heavily patrolled by police and that the arrival of the foot officers has brought only more problems for even law-abiding residents.
"How can we feel safe in our community when people are telling us to get off the corner?" he said. "They're just a modern form of martial law."
Aaron Givens, 34, a barber at Image 79 Salon on Cottage Grove near 79th, believes those opposed to the foot patrols just don't like the police. He welcomed the added patrols given the number of shootings and robberies in the area.
"I really feel their presence," he said while cutting a customer's hair. "It's been a lot safer. You can really tell the difference. ... You don't know when the police are coming around alleys and corners on foot."
Ron Albert, 59, who manages Lil's Something Kool Kocktail Lounge, a retro 1970s-style bar on Cottage Grove, said the nightly visits by officers give his largely female clientele comfort as they walk to and from their cars.
"When you're out there (on foot), you hear things, you smell things," he said. "You see things you'd never see (in a squad car)."
As pedestrians crowded 79th Street on a recent Friday evening, five officers on foot showed no signs of slowing down -- veering off the thoroughfare onto a dark, quiet stretch of South Ellis Avenue.
As they walked down the block, two of the cops stayed on one sidewalk, pointing their flashlights into gangways and between parked cars. The other three roamed across the street, shining flashlights on a boarded-up building.
"Thank you gentlemen! Have a great weekend!" a man out of view shouted to them from an apartment building.
Minutes later, the officers came to a halt after spotting across the street a stray dog, at times chasing its tail. It didn't appear aggressive, but the officers took no chances. One drew his gun, and another grabbed his Taser. The group followed the dog down the street briefly before it disappeared into the night.
Near midnight, another group of foot officers saw a couple engaged in a sex act inside a black SUV parked in the 7900 block of South Ingleside Avenue, an area known by police as the turf of the Bar None Crazies, a faction of the Gangster Disciples.
The woman, described by police as a known prostitute, and her john were handcuffed. One of the cops, a female officer, put on rubber latex gloves to search the woman for contraband.
"Please, please, I'm just trying to go home," she pleaded repeatedly while on the verge of tears.
The officers called for backup and placed the two under arrest.
"I've never processed anything like this before," one of the officers told his supervisor on the scene. "But hey, it's a learning experience, right?"
Copyright 2013 - Chicago Tribune
McClatchy-Tribune News Service