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Garry McCarthy was on his victory lap. NATO had ended two days before, it was warm and sunny, and the Chicago police superintendent stood with eight officers on the warning track of U.S. Cellular Field. As personal guests of Jerry Reinsdorf, the Chicago White Sox chairman, the group watched the team take batting practice before a game against the Minnesota Twins, mingling with the players as they wandered in and out of the dugout. But mostly everyone just fawned over McCarthy. A dozen reporters and TV cameras gathered in foul territory for an informal news conference, White Sox Manager Robin Ventura set aside his usual pregame preparations to say hello, and Reinsdorf himself walked onto the field and handed McCarthy a T-shirt with a White Sox logo over the Chicago flag.
The career cop worked the crowd with a swagger, stopping for a series of one-on-one TV interviews, clearly relishing the chance to discuss a subject other than the city’s rising murder numbers. In the seventh inning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel watched from the Sox broadcast booth as McCarthy and his officers—including one who was stabbed in the leg by a NATO protester—were honored on the field. Midceremony, Emanuel rose to his feet and clapped, like a general observing his troops on parade.
On that day in late May, and in the two weeks that followed, the city and those who run it appeared to be under the superintendent’s spell. At a Cook County Board meeting on June 5, commissioners showered McCarthy with praise, comparing him to George Washington and John Wayne. A day later, at a City Council meeting, Alderman Nicholas Sposato offered up the ultimate in hyperbole, likening McCarthy to the warrior in Braveheart.
The salutes kept coming. Officials praised McCarthy’s decision to “lead from the front,” standing with his officers as they tried to keep protesters in line, enduring the same taunts, spit, urine, and physical abuse as the rank and file. They recalled the news conference on the first day of NATO, when McCarthy became emotional as he talked about his officers. “If you think it’s easy to ask people to do what they did, it’s not,” McCarthy said on camera, glancing downward, his voice cracking a bit. “Asking people to put themselves in harm’s way, knowing that they’re going to get assaulted, and to be able to stay there and take it—those guys were amazing.” For a few days, even McCarthy’s harshest public critics, the bloggers behind Second City Cop, were deferential.
Yes, NATO went smoothly, despite all the predictions to the contrary. But given the dire situation outside the meeting’s security perimeter, the postsummit lovefest seemed remarkably tone-deaf. The same weekend as NATO, 22 Chicagoans were shot and 7 were killed, including two boys, ages 12 and 14. (According to a recent chicagomag.com analysis of homicides committed between March and October from 2007 to 2012, the city averaged 4.9 weekend murders during the warmer months.) The shootings happened in Ashburn, Roseland, South Chicago, and West Pullman, neighborhoods most visiting NATO dignitaries didn’t venture near.
The following weekend, while most Chicagoans celebrated Memorial Day, the death toll rose: 43 people were victims of gunfire, and 11 died. One of them was Malcolm Dowdy, 33, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran who was killed as he left a holiday barbecue in South Shore. “People are becoming desensitized to violence. Gunshots ring out. Children keep playing,” said Denise Dixon, whose daughter was engaged to Dowdy. “We need somebody that’s going to take care of the community like they took care of the dignitaries that came here for NATO.”
Fair or not, much of that responsibility falls on the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, a position that is so intense, political, and high-profile that former chiefs say they never expected to hold on to the job for more than a few years. Enter Garry Francis McCarthy, a hard-charging vet of police departments in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. Emanuel brought him to Chicago in May 2011 on a promise to address the city’s gang problem, make the CPD run more efficiently, and rebuild officer morale.
But two months after McCarthy arrived, the murder toll—the stat by which police superintendents are most judged—began to inch upward. And after a brief winter respite, violence surged in March of this year. Through June 17, police reported 240 homicides, a 38 percent increase over the same period in 2011. The situation is particularly worrisome in light of statistics that show the number of murders and shootings starting to level off before McCarthy and Emanuel took over.
Of course, many factors contribute to an uptick in urban violence. But the current crime wave raises questions about the decisions made by McCarthy—an outsider who came here armed with a playbook of policing strategies he learned on the East Coast—and the man who has been his primary supporter, Mayor Emanuel. Why don’t the crime-fighting strategies that worked so effectively in New York and Newark seem to be working here? And if they aren’t working, why isn’t McCarthy changing them? If the violence continues at the same troubling rate, the city will surely demand answers, and McCarthy, who was once compared to George Washington, John Wayne, and Braveheart, could receive a much less flattering title: ex-superintendent.
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Photography: Jeff Sciortino