2020 has been especially unkind to Chicago.
Of course, there’s the pandemic, which claimed more than 2,700 residents’ lives. But 2020 was also unkind on the violence front, too.
Dealing with it was a challenge. Distrust of the police was high. The city had seen weeks of protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis. Mass looting followed the initial protests, and Black aldermen accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot of deploying more police resources downtown.
Eager to turn the tide, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown proposed two new police teams, saying they were “designed not only to reduce violent crime throughout Chicago, but to build trust between our officers and the residents they serve.”
The Critical Incident Response Team would be deployed downtown or wherever there was potential for mass unrest, while the Community Safety Team would deploy to city neighborhoods based on crime data or at the request of local commanders.
Explaining that the unit would use a “first-of-its-kind approach designed for officers to get to know people,” Brown said the CST would reduce gun violence through peace marches, prayer circles and food drives.
Anti-violence police units have a long history in Chicago. The ‘80s saw the start of the scandal-plagued Special Operations Section which was replaced twenty years later by the Mobile Strike Force. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration created several more.
But as CST spins up and begins its mission, it’s worth asking how the CPD managed similar-sounding units. Were they focused? Did the efforts stay on mission?
WBEZ analyzed one of the most expensive, high-profile anti-violence efforts that operated earlier this decade — the Violence Reduction Initiative, which was rolled out in 2012 in response to high-profile increases in neighborhood gun violence.
We found that officers working in the Violence Reduction Initiative spent far less time and attention tamping down violence than was promised to the public. For example, officers ended up issuing hundreds of thousands of parking tickets in South and West Side areas where they were sent to curb gun violence — and they did that on overtime.
The anti-violence program eventually folded, but not until officers had also left their mark of enforcing traffic regulations and minor offenses in neighborhoods that were already burdened with the same from other police units.
What did VRI’s officers do with their time?
In 2012 Chicago saw homicides exceed 500 for the first time in four years. The latest superintendent, Garry McCarthy, had a solution for the city’s gun violence problem without increasing headcount: overtime, and lots of it.
That year, the department’s Violence Reduction Initiative began to saturate 20 South and West Side areas that would eventually be designated “Operation Impact Zones.” Officers volunteered for overtime shifts.
McCarthy and then-mayor Rahm Emanuel resisted calls by aldermen and the police union to avoid the overtime and just hire more officers instead.
That year, McCarthy was quoted by the Sun-Times telling aldermen that “there are no studies that show more cops mean less murders. It’s what those officers are doing.”
In May of 2013, just 11 months after VRI officers started collecting the overtime, the department was calling the program a success. The Sun-Times quoted officials saying that “murders were down 62 percent, [and] nonfatal shootings were down 44 percent and overall crime was down 25 percent in the Operation Impact zones.”
WBEZ’s own analysis of crime data in VRI zones showed declines in that time period, but deployment maps and overtime records obtained through public records requests also make it clear that any progress that the program contributed came with a hefty dose of overhead.
The department logged officers’ VRI performance with “activity scores,” assigning points for weapons recoveries and arrests, but also pedestrian stop-and-frisks, car stops, quality-of-life citations, parking tickets, etc.
Notably, the department created VRI to cut neighborhood violence, but CPD weighted activities the same, meaning that writing parking tickets or citations for minor offenses like riding a bike on a sidewalk were scored the same as arrests.
Put simply, half of the VRI activities logged between 2012 and 2017 involved writing more than 300,000 parking-related tickets. In the same period, VRI officers stopped and frisked residents more than 178,000 times and made more than 20,000 traffic stops. Officers logged 500 gun-related charges and 1,000 arrests for outstanding warrants during the same time period.
When presented with this analysis of VRI, the mayor’s office referred WBEZ to the Police Department. When the Police Department was presented with our findings, a spokesperson said the department would not comment on earlier police efforts, instead wanting emphasis to be on the performance of the new units.
But at the time, then-superintendent McCarthy actively promoted officers clamping down on the “little things,” a strategy that has drawn scrutiny.
Alexander Weiss, a police staffing consultant and the former director of the Center for Public Safety at Northwestern University, has conducted two staffing studies for the Chicago Police Department.
“Now, with respect to the kind of things that officers do on these kinds of missions, there’s a risk that you can send them out, say, ‘OK, just be visible.’ They’re going to do things to show that they’re there and show some productivity like parking tickets,” Weiss said.
“But it is the case that having police visible in high-crime areas is probably a good thing. You know, and in some areas, it probably makes people feel safer.”
Weiss says, ultimately the trick with specialized units is to keep them focused “and that you make sure that what they do is consistent with the overall crime-control mission.”
All told, between 2012 and 2019, Chicago spent nearly 4 million hours of overtime on VRI but it wasn’t consistent across the entire period.
After an initial surge of deployments in early 2013, VRI’s officers spent less time in the so-called Operation Impact Zones — the very areas identified as needing the most help curbing violence. This was after city aldermen and media balked at enormous overtime costs.
Between 2013 and 2016, the department did not increase VRI deployments in the Operation Impact Zones during the summer — traditionally, the season with the most shootings. Instead, after early 2013, the department spread VRI hours almost evenly across the summer, fall, spring, and even the winter.
Also, the narrative from the police department and then-mayor Emanuel was that VRI overtime was being spent in areas plagued by gun crime; at least 7% of VRI deployments between 2012 and 2017 were made to beats on Michigan Avenue and touristy shopping districts. These areas had experienced a series of flash mob attacks, but few shootings.
Overlapping special units create a costly pile-up
VRI’s officers were deployed in zones the size of several city blocks, but they weren’t alone. Regular beat officers worked the same zones, as did representatives of the department’s anti-gang units, narcotics units and so-called saturation teams, who aren’t tied to typical patrol beats.
And, like VRI, these other units wrote many, many parking tickets.
The effect: The mostly Black residents living in these zones were subjected to higher rates of parking tickets than other parts of Chicago, namely the North Side, confirming previous investigations from WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois.
The pile-up: Parking tickets issued by unit in 2012-2017
The same “pile-up” pattern also held steady for aggressive, disproportionate enforcement of small offenses in Black communities; these included citations for riding bikes on sidewalks, not shoveling sidewalks in the winter and winter parking.
The units’ activities didn’t just overlap; together, VRI, gang enforcement teams, narcotics units and others were increasing enforcement across the board.
Department officials justified such increases.
At a press conference in 2013, McCarthy said that “Fixing the little things prevents the bigger things,” echoing arguments traditionally associated with so-called “broken windows” policing strategies.
McCarthy went on, saying that when police approach someone for public consumption of alcohol, “we may find they have a warrant for their arrest for something else,” and that such a practice is “another method of doing good law enforcement.”
Critics of this approach suggest that the costs — especially to communities of color, where multiple police units overlap — extend beyond the immediate cost of a ticket or fine.
Those communities’ residents experience more bankruptcies, license suspensions, car boots, and impounds. These put residents at risk for public debt collection, which can disqualify them for work in Chicago city government or at tech companies such Uber or Amazon.
Karen Sheley is the director of the police practices projects at ACLU of Illinois and is enforcing the organization’s agreement with the city on its stop-and-frisk practices.
“Part of what you’re describing is a bigger picture problem with the police department, which is, ‘What’s the plan? Why are they sending more officers and what are they asking them to do?’”
“I think it’s clear that under Superintendent McCarthy, the plan was to put hands on as many people as possible through stop-and-frisk to traffic stops, and to reward officers who stop the most people,” Sheley said.
Sheley says that this dynamic affected how Chicagoans see the department.
“An entire generation of young people grew up under that system,” she said. “Those macro-level decisions have a tremendous impact on the day-to-day lives of Chicagoans.”
New units, new directions?
This is the environment in which the department’s latest specialized anti-violence effort, Superintendent David Brown’s Community Safety Team, begins its work.
Will the CST hew more closely to its publicly stated focus than the Violence Reduction Initiative did? Will department leaders concentrate participating officers’ time in neighborhoods that need help the most?
The Chicago Police Department did not directly comment on its experience of VRI and how lessons learned from it may relate to the CST’s operations. However, in a statement to WBEZ, it did emphasize that — compared to previous programs — the new team would build stronger community ties.
“Superintendent Brown has been crystal clear these citywide units are not the roving strike forces of previous administrations that have since been disbanded. In fact, these teams were specially designed and trained to the contrary, as each unit is rooted in strengthening relationships between officers and the residents they serve while also combating violent crime in Chicago’s neighborhoods.”
And there are major differences. For one, VRI initially focused on specific geographic zones, while Community Safety Teams — for now — are not so tied down; the department says the teams will deploy based on data as well as requests made to the department. Also, officers are assigned to the CST as a unit; they don’t participate just through overtime.
As for concentrating the CST program’s efforts, Superintendent Brown has suggested that fighting violence is the priority.
August was the CST’s first full month on the job. Its nearly 300 officers issued 269 parking tickets — a fraction of the VRI’s 4,000 tickets in its first full month of operation. Data supplied by the department suggest that most of the CST’s tickets were for parking in no-parking zones. The CST now has nearly 500 officers.
And, according to police, citywide murders dropped 44% in the first eight weeks the units have operated — a bittersweet drop in that it was coming down from a historical high. In that same eight weeks the police said the new units recovered 200 illegal guns — almost half the amount VRI did in its entire multi-year lifetime.
These types of approaches may have something to do with remarks Brown made in July when announcing the teams.
“Community policing in my opinion comes first. Until you know the community, you can’t very well protect the community,” he said.
“You’ll be stopping the wrong people, the hard-working people that have called you to help, writing them tickets, and doing just the opposite of what you’re called to do.”
Elliott Ramos was WBEZ’s data editor.
Follow him @ChicagoEl.