Cops and Neighbors: Explaining the divide between police and the community

May 30, 2011

Hosted by Steve Edwards and Richard Steele

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(Getty/Tim Boyle)

Updated 6/12/11 at 12:00am

Editor's Note:  Since our special, Cops and Neighbors, first aired two weeks ago, so-called flash mobs have exploded as a major crime concern - and controversy - in Chicago's Magnificent Mile area.  

Meanwhile, summer violence has erupted once again in neighborhoods far beyond the tony thoroughfare. In the 24 hour period ending Saturday, news reports indicate four have died from gunshot wounds and 10 others have been injured.   

And so violent crime has once again returned to the front pages of newspapers and the top of local newscasts.  

To say this is surprising would be to ignore the reality of summer in Chicago.  Even though violent crime is down - way down - from its historic highs in the city, Chicago continues to post a violent crime rate that far exceeds even larger cities like New York.

And while the Emanuel administration has vowed to make Chicago safer for all communities, one month into his administration, the new mayor is learning just how difficult a task that may prove to be.

Cops and Neighbors explores one significant aspect of the problem: the tremendous divide that exists between cops and some communities in Chicago, and what can be done to bridge it.  

Two weeks after the unofficial Memorial Day kick-off of Summer, the conversation more relevant than ever.

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Summer’s coming, which can lead to a rise in the temperature of violence in some Chicago communities-- a spike that could cause further distrust between cops and residents, especially kids. In a one-hour WBEZ special, Cops and Neighbors, hosts Steve Edwards and Richard Steele present a wide-range of community views—people and police—on what divides them and what can be done to solve it.

Edwards began on the South Side of Chicago at Kenwood Academy High School in Mr. A’s Global Issues class. He asked the room of about 25 high-achieving, mostly junior and senior-class students if they would feel comfortable sharing information about a crime with a police officer. Only three, or four at most, said they would volunteer information to help an officer solve a crime.

Chicago now has a new mayor and police superintendent.  And even though crime rates in the city are down from historic highs, Chicago’s rates continue to surpass those in other big cities like New York and Toronto. Numbers aside, many Chicago communities can still feel like war zones.

Earlier this spring, WBEZ obtained a video that appeared to show Chicago police officers deliberately parking their vehicle in the middle of a Chicago street while allowing a crowd of bystanders to taunt the backseat passenger. The specific circumstances of the video are still unclear, but the police department said the behavior in the video did not reflect the department’s values and its Office of Internal Affairs is investigating the incident. The video unleashed a wave of public response; people shared their experiences with the police with WBEZ.

Edwards spoke to "Ray," a top leader of a Chicago street gang. Despite Ray’s gang experiences, he expressed sympathy for Chicago cops and the daily grind they endure. In fact, Ray said one of the current problems is that too much is expected of cops—they’re expected to be social workers, counselors, teachers, mentors—which he said, has its consequences. 

Today, Azim Ramelize is assistant commissioner for the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. But years ago, as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he was a member of a street gang. He explained that while there was always a lack of trust in the police within the community, ultimately they were still the people called when things went wrong. The dichotomy, Ramelize said, is driven by those who terrorize communities.

This breakdown of trust has real consequences for a community and its police force. WBEZ’s Robert Wildeboer spoke to former Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis about the issue. Weis said that looking back over the last five years,  police saw case after case in which people were leery to come to the police department. A fear of police, what Weis described as a “street justice mentality” and an absolute refusal to work with the system, crippled efforts. But unless people want to become victims themselves, Weis said, the only to get criminals out of communities is to cooperate with law enforcement. But navigating the fuzzy line between aggressive, proactive policing and professionalism is difficult. Weis tried to encourage what he called “professionally aggressive” policing.

WBEZ’s West Side reporter Chip Mitchell spoke with Eric Hudson, a homeowner in Logan Square, who supports the police in the previously mentioned video. Years ago, Hudson worked for Amnesty International on police brutality cases in Englewood. He saw first-hand what can happen when police act with impunity.

Mitchell also went to Little Village to ask residents what they wanted from the police. Many pled for safety—a sense of police presence so that parents are comfortable letting their kids play outside, so that shop owners can run their businesses without the constant threat of being robbed or vandalized.

When new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped former Newark, New Jersey police chief Garry McCarthy to lead the Chicago Police Department earlier this month, he said McCarthy was the right man at the right time. But McCarthy’s is no easy task given the present frayed relations.

McCarthy himself said he knows he’ll need to hit the ground running. Edwards got out in front of that effort by asking the Kenwood Academy students what advice they could offer the new mayor and police chief. Students called for youth-based activities, more face time, consequences for police misconduct and an increased sense of accountability and responsibility within the communities.

Steele spoke with an officer in the Marquette Park area. Mike Miller grew up on the South Side and has been a Chicago cop for about two decades. A few years ago, he started a program in his community that focused on working with kids rather than supervising or policing them. It’s small and personal—only about 15 kids are involved. Miller is helped by a close friend who’s a Cook County sheriff’s deputy. They teach some basic skills—yard work, painting, cleaning, etc. But the most valuable lessons are life skills—how to be on time, prepared and in proper attire, and a member of a team.

Azim Ramelize acquired similar skills when, after getting involved in gang-banging as a teen, he was shot and partially paralyzed; he still has no use of his legs. But he turned his life around, went to law school and wound up working with juveniles.

John Hagedorn, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an expert on urban gangs. The heart of the problem today, he said, is that “We’ve been at war for 40 years with gangs and maybe it’s time to think about a different strategy; it’s not working all that well.” When one side has an attitude about the other, it engenders the same attitude on the other side. There are people, like ‘Ray,’ Hagerdon said, that don’t want all the violence, who are willing to negotiate. And he believes the new mayor should come to the table willing to communicate. It makes sense, Hagedorn said, to develop a policy that strengthens gang members who want to alleviate the violence. Changing the police response in Chicago, he said, deserves a hard look from the new administration. The rhetoric from the administration thus far is a message of transparency and inclusion.