With Mayor Emanuel’s budget all but guaranteed city council approval, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy had no need to sell residents on his proposal to consolidate several police districts, including the 19th and 23rd. Despite petitions and complaints, the closings and mergers were in effect a done deal. Instead, his appearance at a community forum Tuesday night in the Lake View High School auditorum, 4015 N. Ashland Ave., on the eve of the city budget vote, was aimed more at dispelling rumors and misconceptions.
“There are two things people don’t like: the way things are and change,” said McCarthy, who just celebrated his sixth month on the job. While people might feel uncomfortable with the way he’s reorganized districts, the superintendent insisted the restructuring was not a cost-cutting measure (though it will save the city millions) but rather an effort to create a more efficient and accountable police force.
“The mayor asked me that very question: Would we want to do what we’re doing if there was no financial impact? And my answer was yes,” McCarthy said. “I’m looking at the best method to reduce crime and deliver services to the public. I think the first thing is to figure out the best way to use the resources we have at our fingertips right now.”
In that spirit, consolidating the 19th and 23rd Districts, which together run from the lakeshore to the Chicago River and between Lawrence Ave. and Diversey Ave., will free up 20 officers from administrative duties, resulting in more officers on patrol. “Police officers on the street is what stops crime,” said McCarthy.
During a question and answer session moderated by Brian Daley, former president of Roscoe Village Neighbors, McCarthy was repeatedly asked whether the consolidation would result in a reassignment of officers or a decline in responsiveness. “Are officers on a beat in 19 going to stay there? Yes. We’re going to keep the same cops on the same beat. It goes to accountability. They get to know the good kids from the bad, the places where issues need addressing. My commitment is to keep cops where they are. We’re not going to take your cops and put them somewhere else.”
Citing current statistics, McCarthy noted that the 19th District ranks nineteenth out of Chicago’s 25 police districts in terms of the number of officers and the 23rd ranks dead last; the consolidated district will rank third.
Still residents of the 19th District remained skeptical that losing their station at Belmont and Western wouldn’t somehow translate into slower response times. One attendee proposed the following scenario: An incident breaks out at DeVry University, 3300 N. Campbell Ave., just a “hop, skip and a jump” from the former 19th headquarters, but officers are now responding from the 23rd station, during a Cubs game.
McCarthy, showing growing impatience at having to reiterate a point he’s stated repeatedly, replied: “We don’t respond from a station house. We’re not firemen.” The emotional attachment residents have to the structure at Belmont and Western (which will continue to serve as a lock-up for arrestees), is misguided, according to McCarthy. “That building does not provide the protection.” It’s the officers, who, as previously noted, are not being shifted from existing beats.
One thing that does affect response times: “Too many calls for service and not enough cops in the district. You can’t put 10 pounds in a five-pound bag,” McCarthy said.
Actual calls that have come into 9-1-1: My kids are fighting over the remote control; my 13-year-old refuses to go to school; my son won’t eat. “We have to handle these calls because they’re considered family disputes,” McCarthy explained. “That doesn’t make sense. It boils down to setting up the department to do what we need to do.” If officers weren’t constantly chasing after these non-emergencies, they would have more time to address pressing issues in the community, he said. “What we receive are quality-of-life complaints,” said McCarthy, pointing to excessive noise as an example. “Those are things cops should be doing proactively. If they’re not chasing down calls, they can shut down the noisy corner.” The remote-control calls need to be taken out of the system, but when and how is a “policy decision I’ll have to make,” McCarthy said.
Other decisions McCarthy is still weighing:
While McCarthy focuses on the big picture, his commanders have responsibility for the day-to-day operations within their districts. “I believe in the push down of authority and accountability,” he said. “You’re going to hear a lot of that.”
What that means for the 19th and 23rd Districts: If more patrols are needed in Wrigleyville during Cubs games, that’s the commander’s decision. Does Lincoln Avenue, between Fullerton and Diversey, need more officers to manage the bar crowds on weekends? Again, McCarthy deferred to the commander. “It’s the commander’s job to handle the local conditions,” he said. “I don’t want to have to do the commander’s job.” Kathleen Boehmer, commander of the 23rd District, and John Kenny, commander of the 19th District and the rumored commander of the new superdistrict, were also in attendance at the meeting and while they didn’t field any questions personally, residents now know where to direct their complaints.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) were also on hand to listen to Superintendent McCarthy and receive his reassurances. “This is not the end” of the conversation, McCarthy promised. “This is just the start.”