Falling CAPS Turnout Disturbs Residents | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Falling CAPS Turnout Disturbs Residents

Chicago has been a national model for community policing since the mid-1990s. The city calls its approach the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, or CAPS. What distinguishes the strategy are monthly meetings with local residents in all 280 of the city's police beats. The idea is to work together on neighborhood problems like prostitution or gang violence. In recent years, though, CAPS meeting attendance has fallen by almost a third. The police department says that's because officers are connecting with citizens in new ways. But some criminologists and neighborhood leaders are skeptical. We report from our West Side bureau.

Joan Thomas rents an apartment in Beat 1533, part of Chicago's Austin neighborhood. She's attended the beat's monthly CAPS meetings since they began.

THOMAS: We were having from 100 to 150 people.

Thomas and other residents say they built trust with their CAPS officers. They worked together on strategies to push drug dealers out of the neighborhood—strategies like towing abandoned cars, pruning trees back from street lights, and holding outdoor prayer vigils. But Thomas says CAPS meetings in this neighborhood have lost steam.

Citywide, police figures show CAPS attendance down by more than 30 percent since 2002. Last year's turnout totaled less than 49,000, the lowest ever.

Ambi: Meeting.

Just 16 people have gathered at this CAPS meeting, in a church basement. A new sergeant and three patrol officers introduce themselves.

Thomas rolls her eyes. She says she's fed up with what she calls constant turnover of CAPS officers.

THOMAS: They're here four to six months and they're gone. So now we got to start all over again.

FORD: The beat meeting is only one piece of what community policing is in Chicago.

Beth Ford heads the CAPS Implementation Office, the police department's civilian outreach arm. Ford says fewer people are attending CAPS meetings because of drops in crime over the years and new options for connecting with police.

FORD: A Friday night neighborhood walk, a smoke-out on a drug corner, organizing activities for young people in the community during the summer.

The department says it has also stepped up its work with block clubs, condominium associations and aldermen. And Ford says citizens can work with the police through a new department Web site called ClearPath.

FORD: They can get help organizing their block club. They can access city services through ClearPath. They can register community concerns.

A former Chicago police deputy superintendent who helped design the CAPS program says she likes the increased outreach.

McDONALD: CAPS, like any other program, is a model that needs to change and grow with the conditions that exist in the city.

Barbara McDonald says today's conditions include the economic recession.

McDONALD: Right now, you're seeing an issue of scare resources, both government resources as well as family resources. So you've added an additional challenge to the attempt to get people to work together on dealing with issues of crime.

Last year police Supt. Jody Weis ordered an end to overtime for officers at CAPS functions. And Chicago reduced the CAPS civilian budget.

But the attendance started falling years before those changes. Art Lurigio is a Loyola University criminal-justice professor.

LURIGIO: It may mean that residents don't have the same confidence that they've had in working with the police to solve problems in the neighborhood.

WILKS: We know the community doesn't trust the police.

Back in Austin, Rev. Ronald Wilks has worked with CAPS for years as pastor of Soul Saving Missionary Baptist Church. Wilks says the CAPS attendance has dropped partly because of police scandals. He says the new outreach is no substitute for the CAPS meetings.

WILKS: Over by me, there are six or seven blocks in the area and there are only two block clubs. Now this computer stuff? No. Everybody being computer savvy? No, I'm sorry. The beat meetings would be the best.

The police department this year has taken some steps to revitalize the CAPS meetings. Each of the city's 25 police districts, for example, are now supposed to send a single sergeant to meetings in all of the district's beats. And the department has held its first large-scale training in years for civilian CAPS facilitators.

But police figures show that the meeting attendance has continued falling.

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