Following the most violent January in more than a decade and the high-profile slaying of a 15-year-old high school band majorette, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his police chief moved closer than ever Thursday to reintroducing the very police strategy they dumped when they took over in 2011.
Emanuel said he would move 200 officers off desk duty to bolster the size of roving teams aimed at suppressing outbreaks of murderous violence that have been on the rise in the city for more than a year.
Disbanding such large teams was one of several moves that Emanuel's hand-picked police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, took nearly two years ago. Instead, McCarthy said, the department would put in place a strategy that called for more officers on neighborhood beat patrols and less reliance on those so-called "saturation teams" that he said alienate communities without making them safer long-term.
In addition to disbanding those large units, McCarthy combined several police districts. That included closing the Prairie District that encompassed Harsh Park in the North Kenwood neighborhood where 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot Tuesday afternoon while hanging out with schoolmates.
The combined changes gave McCarthy the ability to redeploy scarce resources to parts of the city he considered more dangerous. But the events of this week show that tragedy can strike anywhere, and calibrating how and where to stretch those resources is difficult in a city with a deeply entrenched culture of violence.
A community leader in the neighborhood where the student died greeted the latest initiative with skepticism. Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said when their neighborhoods were absorbed into other police districts last year, they told police officials it would create more problems than it would solve.
"The police we had, the beat cops that we knew were all replaced and the commanders we had relationships with were all gone. So I had to laugh today when I heard Mayor Emanuel say he is going to put 200 more cops on the street, because that is the same thing we were promised a year and half ago," Malone said.
The neighborhood lost dedicated tactical teams, as well as a commander and beat cops who knew the area well, according to a homicide detective with several years of experience on the South Side. The district was absorbed into the Wentworth District, headquartered at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue, an area farther south that historically has had a higher violent crime rate than the Kenwood-Oakland community.
Emanuel insisted his new revisions to policing strategy were not a reversal of course but rather a fine-tuning aimed at saturating areas where trouble is brewing--"before a flame becomes a fire, to put it out."
While McCarthy kept a smaller force of "area teams" in place after the 2011 change, law enforcement sources critical of the broader disbandment said that the remaining teams were too small to be effective. When implemented, Thursday's announced changes would return the saturation team force to about 400 officers, nearly as many as the 450 dedicated to such patrols at the height of their use in the last decade.
A police supervisor familiar with Emanuel's latest plan said some of the returning officers would even be picked from the rolls of the old saturation teams.
The distinction between the saturation strategies Emanuel and McCarthy say they want to engage in now and what they did away with in 2011 is lost on some longtime investigators who had worked with similar teams created in 2003. Those efforts were modeled after a technology-based system called Compstat that McCarthy built his career running years ago in the New York City Police Department.
In the Chicago version, which was called the Deployment Operations Center, police added large units to tamp down violence after crime analysts pinpointed likely violence hot spots.
Last decade, those saturation teams were used in violence hot spot areas that were pinpointed by crime analysts in the Deployment Operations Center, and homicides dropped by 25 percent the first full year the system was in place in 2004. And the murder numbers stayed roughly flat for several years.
The new vision of saturation policing that McCarthy is now describing appears to differ little from the old one he criticized. "Don't burn down the city to save it," he said last summer, describing the approach under former Mayor Richard Daley and a succession of police superintendents.
On Thursday, however, McCarthy sought to draw a distinction between then and now, arguing that the old saturation teams could be assigned anywhere in the city whereas his new ones would be permanently tied to specific sectors of the city and would have "geographic accountability."
The head of the police union said retirements and a lack of new hiring amid tight budget years has reduced the size of the force well below what is needed to keep the streets safe.
"No matter how City Hall slices the numbers or spins this issue, the fact remains we have less officers on the street now than when the mayor was elected," said Mike Shields, head of the Fraternal Order of Police.
At the news conference announcing his new plans, Emanuel said "you don't ask the taxpayers to pay for additional cops until you make sure you're using every cop on the payroll today effectively."
The uproar over Hadiya's death, coming near the end of a month that proved the deadliest January in Chicago in more than a decade, threatens to focus an unflattering light on a prolonged surge in violence that coincides with key policing strategies Emanuel signed off on.
Emanuel found himself defending his policing strategies after focusing much of his crime control efforts in recent weeks on the national furor over gun control following the December school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Emanuel urged public pension funds to dump investments in makers of assault weapons, such as the rifle used in Newtown, then called on banks and investment houses to financially punish gun manufacturers who resisted reforms aimed at keeping their products out of dangerous hands.
At the same time, his police force has been showcasing its success in illegal weapons seizures in a series of made-for-TV news conferences, complete with tables full of firearms.
In doing so, however, Emanuel is targeting a controversial class of firearms that have little to do with the mayhem on Chicago's streets, including the death of Hadiya.
Federal crime data show that 97 percent of all shooting deaths in Chicago involve handguns.
The number of homicides in the city rose 16 percent in 2012 over the previous year, and since the turn of the calendar Chicago police have been holding a series of news conferences to showcase their success in confiscating illegal guns.
The highlight at the most recent event Monday was a display that included just shotguns and hunting rifles, several with badly rusted barrels and missing parts. Moments before the news conference began a police officer added one more weapon to the table, a 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun, the only semi-automatic handgun on display.
Details of Emanuel's redeployment plan were sketchy, but an announcement from his office said civilians would be brought in to replace officers who would be moved from administrative duties to the street.
A police spokeswoman said the change would be complete by March but would be implemented in stages in order to avoid disrupting the administrative and clerical work now being performed by sworn personnel.
Although some police officers are assigned to desk duty because of physical or medical issues, the spokeswoman said that all 200 who are to be redeployed were classified as ready for street duty.
This is not the first time that Emanuel has sought to pry desk-bound officers away from in-house station duties and into beat cars.
On the campaign trail before his 2011 election, Emanuel frequently pledged to add 1,000 cops to the streets. Once in office, he claimed to have hit that goal, though he was forced to acknowledge that hundreds of the new officers on the street had actually already been there but had been reassigned from special units like the saturation teams he disbanded.
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