A Humboldt Park man said he recently woke up around 3 a.m. to strange noises in his backyard. When he looked out his window, he saw his neighbor was hacking away at plants with a machete while yelling incoherently.
WBEZ agreed to use an alias for the man, whom we’re calling William, because he said he was worried a story might catch his neighbor’s attention and lead to more threats and harassment.
William has a pump-action shotgun. He said he grabbed it and pumped it from his window to scare off his neighbor. His neighbor fled, and William called 911. But that did not go as he expected. Even as the situation escalated throughout the night, with repeated calls to 911, police refused to arrest William’s neighbor, citing concerns about the coronavirus.
Chicago Police have been instructed to minimize contacts with the public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Since Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order in March, arrests in Chicago have dropped by almost 75%, according to city data. William’s experience highlights the difficult balance police are trying to strike between public health and public safety.
“What the hell?”
The first time police came out to the house that night was about 10 minutes after the machete incident. William’s neighbor was already back on his property. William said he was still acting erratically and yelling at officers, but they left without taking any action.
Almost immediately after police left, William’s neighbor came back on his property. He took a shovel to William’s front lawn, indiscriminately digging up the grass and flinging it into the road.
And he started trying to light William’s front lawn on fire. He also stacked some wood in the yard and tried to light it.
William called 911 again, and this time he said five or six police cars showed up, including a sergeant. William went back inside but watched from his front window. He said his neighbor actually tried to light the grass on fire in front of the police officers, but they still didn’t arrest him.
“He said he wanted to be arrested. That’s what really upset me, because he said he was going to be arrested one way or the other. And he went to the sidewalk and put his hands behind his back,” William said. “But they didn’t want to take him in. So I, you know, came out and said, ‘What the hell?’ to the sergeant. He said due to the coronavirus that they’re not making any arrests. They’re writing these citations.”
Ultimately the police gave William’s neighbor a citation for trespassing and criminal damage to property with a court date in June.
William said officers counseled him that if his neighbor was on his property with a machete or another weapon, William would be within his legal rights to shoot him. Then the police left again.
The next morning, William came out of his house to find that his truck had been smashed up. The windshield was shattered. And his front yard was littered with matches and a can of lighter fluid.
William did not know the names of the officers or the sergeant who came to his house but he did provide WBEZ with photos, videos and police report numbers that back up his story.
Chicago police officers have been directed by the department to issue citations whenever possible to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, those guidelines explicitly tell members to make an arrest when “there is a reasonable likelihood that the offense will continue, recur, or that life or property will be endangered if the violator is not arrested and removed from the scene of the occurrence.”
In a statement, police spokesman Tom Ahern said he would not comment on the “discretion and professional judgement” of the officers who responded to William’s 911 calls.
“You’re now turning the city … over to the gang members”
Data from Chicago’s Inspector General show that arrests by Chicago cops have fallen off a cliff during the coronavirus pandemic. On average Chicago police make more than 1,600 arrests per week. In recent weeks, they’ve been averaging about 450 arrests per week, a drop of nearly 75%.
Ahern said the drop in arrests “may be attributed to the reality that Chicagoans are hearing and abiding by the order to social distance themselves from others and staying home.”
Whatever the cause, the reduction is a good thing for everyone, said Sheila Bedi, a clinical law professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
“Arrests themselves are incredibly disruptive to people’s lives. They’re often made for relatively minor, minor instances,” Bedi said. “And during this time, during the COVID-19 epidemic, arrests are also putting people at great risk of catching this lethal virus. So the fact that they are down is incredibly encouraging.”
According to police data, in recent weeks, sexual assault, robbery, battery and theft have all been down significantly compared to the same time period last year. That could be the result of any number of factors, including the stay-at-home order. But Bedi said other cities that have drastically reduced their arrests have also seen a reduction in crime.
“If you look at data about what happens in communities that reduce both arrests and reduce the number of people in custody, what you find is improved public safety outcomes across the board,” Bedi said. “So you know [the lower crime rates don’t] surprise me at all. And I imagine that it would remain true even after the pandemic.”
But at a recent virtual city council meeting, Ald. Raymond Lopez asked David Brown, head of the Chicago Police Department, whether the department was striking the right balance between avoiding contact and maintaining order.
Lopez said he was concerned that “police are being encouraged not to engage with the public, not to make arrests and not to bring anyone to the station pretty much at all costs, to avoid any kind of public interaction.” He said that was a problem in his South Side ward, which has some of “the most highly active districts in the city.”
“You’re now turning the city or certain neighborhoods over to the gang members who are running wild, because they know that they’re not going to be engaged by the police or arrested by the police,” Lopez said.
Brown responded that the department is taking the steps it can to protect the public and officers from contracting COVID-19 or bringing the virus home to their families, which is a particular concern among officers interviewed by WBEZ.
“We care about our cops,” Brown said. But he said they are still asking officers “to do their job.”
“We are focused on violent crime offenders, gangs, guns and drugs,” Brown said. “But we’re also at the same time being smart about limiting officer exposures when it relates to low level crimes. And we’re just doing a cost benefit analysis.”
As for William, he’s still worried about his next door neighbor. And the fact that he will have to wait until June before a judge even sees the case. He said he understands the need to protect police and the public from the coronavirus but there are still limits.
“I mean you still have to arrest people,” William said. “People who are in this kind of state of mind and this kind of emergency — you can’t just walk away from your duty.”