Chicago shootings and murders are up this year. In many cases, police officers are having a hard time finding witnesses willing to talk.
This is not a new problem. It’s a reason Chicago helped pioneer what’s known as community policing — the sort of crime fighting that focuses on trust between officers and residents. But a cornerstone of that approach is crumbling, according to internal police numbers obtained by WBEZ.
That cornerstone consists of meetings that bring together residents and cops across the city. The meetings, designed to take place monthly in each of the city’s 280 police beats, made Chicago policing a national model in the 1990s.
The city called its approach the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy. CAPS beat-meeting attendance peaked in 2002, when the citywide total was 70,024.
Since then turnout has fallen by more than two-thirds, according to the police figures, obtained through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request. During Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, it has dropped every year. Last year’s attendance — 20,420 — was less than half the turnout in 2010, the year before Emanuel took office.
One reason for the decline could be simple. Compared to when Chicago launched CAPS, crime is down. So residents have fewer problems to take to the police.
But that’s not the whole story. Over the years, the city has cut down on CAPS officers and the program’s paid civilian organizers. It has cut overtime for officers to attend the beat meetings. And it has cut the number of meetings. Residents have fewer opportunities to participate.
“Most police officers hated beat meetings,” said former Chicago cop Howard Lindsey, who helped with CAPS in the city’s Englewood neighborhood before retiring from the police department last year. “The officers didn’t believe in CAPS. They just felt like it was a waste of time to actually go to these meetings and listen to the citizens complain.”
Emanuel says the city remains committed to community policing. This year he created a top police position to focus on it. Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, for his part, is on an “outreach tour” this summer. The tour consists of closed-door meetings with residents of more than a dozen neighborhoods.
The department says it is also developing a new community-policing strategy, but so far is not talking with WBEZ about what role the CAPS beat meetings would play.
Our audio story (listen above) looks at the status of the beat meetings through the eyes of Lindsey as well as a former civilian beat-meeting facilitator in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a Loyola University Chicago sociologist who studied CAPS after working three decades as a Chicago police officer, and a current beat-meeting attendee in West Humboldt Park.
That attendee, an elementary-school clerk named Antwan McHenry, says the beat meetings could play an important role as police officers face more suspicion due to events in places like Ferguson and Baltimore.
“African Americans have been taught things like, ‘You don’t talk to police, you don’t snitch,’ ” McHenry said. “So if you grow up thinking that, you don’t get to see the other part — like when, if your neighbor gets shot, you have to work hand-in-hand with the police to solve murders and to solve crimes.”