Crime issue boils in some ward races, simmers in others

A rumored plan to redraw Chicago’s police-patrol map is playing a big role
in some City Council election contests, but not all the ones you might expect.

February 17, 2011

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(Chip Mitchell/WBEZ)
At this 24th Ward forum, neither Ald. Sharon Denise Dixon (right) nor 15 challengers raise the issue of police beat realignment.

Chicagoans who punch cards for their favorite aldermanic candidates might have the issue of crime on their minds. But depending on where they live, they will have heard more—or less—about crime from their candidates. Talk of crime is loud on Chicago’s North Side, where there’s relatively little violence. And some say there’s complacency among candidates in West Side neighborhoods, where there’s more crime. Two WBEZ bureau reporters, Odette Yousef and Chip Mitchell, look at this mismatch between crime and election talk. We start with Odette on Chicago’s North Side.

AMBI: Ready? Front! At ease.

YOUSEF: Thirty or so police officers from the Rogers Park police district are on hand for an outdoor roll call. They’re at Warren Park on a freezing night.

AMBI: Twenty-four oh five, Twenty-four twelve...

YOUSEF: Normally, police hold roll calls inside the district station. But 50th Ward Ald. Bernard Stone asked them to do it here this time.

STONE: On behalf of the entire 50th Ward, I want to thank each and every one of you for what you do for us.

YOUSEF: Usually, shows like this only happen when a jarring crime rocks a neighborhood. The police and community all come out to show criminals that law-abiding citizens still own the streets. But no major incident has happened recently in this police district. Ald. Stone is running for reelection. One of his opponents thinks that’s the real reason he called this show of force: A little politics before a scheduled CAPS meeting. CAPS is the city’s community policing program.

MOSES: I was very disappointed in Ald. Stone trying to take CAPS and make it a political event. CAPS and politics do not mix.

YOUSEF: So candidate Michael Moses leaves after the roll call. But he’s the only one. The other four candidates all stay through the meeting. It’s hard to say exactly how residents and politicians in the Rogers Park police district should feel about crime, because the stats are kind of all over the place. In 2010, general “violent crime” in the district fell more than 5 percent from the previous year but murder went up 75 percent. In another North Side police district, murder increased 400 percent. But consider this: That’s from only one murder the previous year. So, we’re talking about five murders in one North Side district in 2010. But some West and South side police districts saw dozens of murders last year. Still, crime is one of the top issues in North Side races.

ROSENBAUM: Too often the media and everybody in this business, we talk about violent crime rate in Chicago. And the reality is that crime is more complex and neighborhood disorder is complex.

YOUSEF: This is Dennis Rosenbaum. He’s a criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rosenbaum says even when violent crime may be low, residents feel fearful when they or their neighbors are victims of lesser offenses, like graffiti, car breakins, and auto theft. And, that fear translates into politics.

ROSENBAUM: In times of fear and external threat, we tend to turn to authority figures to give us guidance. So it’s a way of taking control over issues.

YOUSEF: So Rosenbaum says it’s little wonder North Side politicians are talking about nonviolent crime—after all, their constituents take it seriously. But there’s another reason why North Side candidates are talking crime and safety. For two years, Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis has advocated so-called beat realignment. It would involve redrawing maps of where cops patrol, so there’d be more officers and cars in high-crime areas. One fear is that the North Side would lose officers to the West and South sides, where there’s more violent crime. Previous efforts to realign beats have fallen flat, but there are rumors Weis is still trying to make it happen. Weis declined to confirm those rumors for WBEZ this week, but here’s what he told us a couple months ago.

WEIS: What we think by moving people around from districts that are not necessarily the quietest districts, but districts that have an abundance of police officers, we think we can move them over to the districts that are shorter, we can start attacking the whole image of Chicago.

YOUSEF: The future of beat realignment in Chicago is unclear. For one, the two frontrunners in the mayoral race are against it. And they say they want to dump Supt. Weis. Still, North Side aldermanic candidates continue to talk about realignment and run against it. One of them is Michael Carroll. He’s running in the North Side’s 46th Ward. He’s also a cop.

CARROLL: As a police officer, I know, absolutely, putting more police officers in high-crime areas to bring down the crime rate works. However, I have a very hard time sending our police assets from our community, when we have a clear problem with gang activity and violence somewhere else.

YOUSEF: Carroll says his ward has pockets of violent crime that are just as bad as parts of Chicago’s West or South sides. He fears losing cops on the North Side would make those places more dangerous. Carroll’s opponents are pretty much of the same mind. Most want the city to hire more officers, rather than shift existing officers around. But those same candidates concede that could be tough because the city’s faced with a $600 million deficit. Not many have detailed roadmaps for how they’d overcome that tricky problem. But in the 48th Ward, one candidate does. It’s Harry Osterman.

OSTERMAN: What I’d like to try to do is see if we can modify state law to use dollars for public safety. There’s a surplus in TIF funds for the city of Chicago, and potentially using some of that to hire police officers is something that I think would be worthwhile.

YOUSEF: Osterman’s goal of hiring more police is popular on the North Side. But using TIFs to get there may be less so. Tax increment financing districts have a bad reputation for being slush funds. So, maybe it’s telling that Osterman wants to use them. On the North Side at least, the debate about crime and safety is so loud that candidates will turn to whatever tools are around to ensure police resources stay put. Reporting from Chicago’s North Side, I’m Odette Yousef.

MITCHELL: And I’m Chip Mitchell at WBEZ’s West Side bureau. The political talk about crime is a lot different in this part of Chicago. Not many aldermanic candidates are hollering for more patrol officers. There are some loud voices on the issue. They’re regular folks or community activists, like a woman named Serethea Reid. She moved into the Austin neighborhood a couple years ago.

REID: There were people on the corner, drinking, selling alcohol out of the trunks of their cars—partying, loud music—two blocks from the police station.

MITCHELL (on scene): So what have you done about it?

REID: I started by calling the police. We’d call, wait 10 minutes, call, wait 10 minutes, call. And the police were not coming.

MITCHELL: Reid started attending local meetings of CAPS, the community-policing program. She soon noticed a stronger police presence near her house, but she wanted more help for the rest of Austin. So, last summer, Reid formed a group called the Central Austin Neighborhood Association. It meets in a church.

AMBI: Today, I wanted, I was going to start with reviewing and sharing what our mission is....

MITCHELL: Reid’s group shepherds Austin residents to Police Board meetings, where they demand better service. She’s writing various Chicago agencies for data to see if police response times are slower in Austin than in other neighborhoods. And Reid wants information about that beat-realignment idea police Supt. Jody Weis talks about.

REID: All the responses I’ve gotten were that it was going to take a few months before he’s done: ‘It’s not finalized. We can’t talk about it because he’s working on it.’

MITCHELL: Reid says she feels like officials are giving her the runaround. She says her alderman isn’t helping much either. That’s despite the fact that it’s election season, when politicians tend to speak up about nearly everything. So I’ve been checking out West Side campaign events to see whether aldermanic candidates are pushing for police beat realignment.

AMBI: I want to say thank you to each and every one of you candidates. Let’s give them a round of applause.

MITCHELL: This is a high-school auditorium in North Lawndale. Sixteen candidates crowd onto the stage to explain why they would be the best 24th Ward alderman. The forum lasts more than two hours, but not one of the candidates brings up the idea of realigning police beats or other ways to bring in officers from lower-crime areas. After the forum, I ask incumbent Sharon Denise Dixon why.

DIXON: I can’t answer that question for you, but that is a very good question. I can’t answer it but it certainly should have been on the radar here, seeing that Lawndale is a high-crime area with lots of homicides and drug activity, etc. So that should definitely be a concern.

MITCHELL: I’ve reached out to aldermanic incumbents in five West Side wards with a lot of crime. All of the aldermen express interest in shifting police to high-crime neighborhoods. But none is trying to organize any sort of campaign to make it happen. In the 29th Ward, Ald. Deborah Graham points out that any organizing would meet resistance from people in low-crime areas.

GRAHAM: Some of our aldermen on the north end [of the city] are fearful of losing their police officers.

MITCHELL: Graham wishes police Supt. Jody Weis would lay out his plan and build public support for it.

GRAHAM: Having a clear understanding of why we need the realignment—to ease their discomfort of possibly losing squad cars—would be very helpful.

MITCHELL: But there may be another reason why so few West Side candidates are pressing the issue. 24th Ward challenger Valerie Leonard says many constituents don’t want more officers.

LEONARD: Talk to younger people, especially on the street. They say they’re scared of the police. They say that the police are always picking on them and...

MITCHELL (on scene): It’s not a winning campaign issue.

LEONARD: That’s true, given the history.

MITCHELL: The history includes a point in 2003, when Mayor Daley was running for reelection. He promised to realign police beats. That riled aldermen of lower-crime wards, including some on the North Side. After the election, Daley backed away from his promise. Instead of realigning beats, his administration set up elite police teams to rove across large swaths of the city, from one crime hotspot to another. That way, the low-crime areas didn’t have to give up patrol cops. One reporter called it the path of least resistance. But Chicago police SWAT officer Erick von Kondrat points to a downside.

VON KONDRAT: These teams out there—whether they’re area gang teams or some of the other citywide teams that move from district to district on a need-by-need basis—they don’t have that opportunity on a day-to-day basis to make the connections that are really going to bolster the trust between the community and the police department.

MITCHELL: Officer Von Kondrat says distrust in the police partly explains why West Side aldermen don’t campaign for more beat officers. But he says there’s another reason. He noticed it when he was a 24th Ward candidate himself (before a challenge to his nominating papers knocked him off the ballot).

VON KONDRAT: A lot of these incumbents, because Mayor Daley is leaving, they don’t really know what they’re going to be stepping into at this point in time.

MITCHELL: Again, the mayoral frontrunners don’t support beat realignment. So, Von Kondrat figures, no West Side alderman can afford to be on the new mayor’s bad side.

VON KONDRAT: Going against that force is probably not in your best interest. It wouldn’t make much sense to bring that issue up.

MITCHELL: The beat-realignment idea has stalled, time and again, since the 1970s. The alternative would be to hire more cops for high-crime areas. That’s basically what the top mayoral candidates are suggesting. In this economic climate, though, it’s not clear what option the city can afford: financing a larger police department or shifting around the cops it already has. Chip Mitchell, WBEZ.