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Garry McCarthy Under the Gun

UNDER THE GUN: After a surprisingly chill NATO, Chicago’s police superintendent was the man of the hour. But the recent spate of violent weekends, and fear that the body count could continue to rise as summer marches on, threaten to tarnish the resumé of this one-time rising star

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THE FIRST YEAR: Unfortunately for McCarthy, 2012 began with unusual violence. From January to May—even before the historically deadly summer months—there were 203 murders, almost half the total of the previous year. By contrast, murders in the first year of his predecessor, Jody Weis, followed a bell curve: a rise in homicides outpacing what McCarthy saw in his first summer, followed by a dramatic decline. Source: Chicago Police Department


Murder Capital of America? »
Progress in decreasing homicides is difficult to sustain

In April, McCarthy’s particular brand of law enforcement was on full display in Lawndale. For a few months, police had been doing undercover surveillance on a suspected drug market run by the gang New Breeds near the corner of 19th and Troy Streets. On April 19, officers closed in, arresting nine members and seizing drugs, a gun, cash, and two stolen cars.

The day after the bust, McCarthy stood on the corner dressed in his dark blue uniform and spoke to reporters. Behind him, dozens of city workers in their reflective vests were mowing the vacant lots, trimming trees, washing away graffiti, and picking up trash.

Sure, it might have been a bit of theatre for the reporters’ benefit—but it was also, McCarthy insists, a reflection of the fact that he wants to improve these neighborhoods in ways that go beyond simply making arrests. “This is a different strategy that we’re using to target our street gangs and target the cash flow by which they function,” McCarthy said.

From that point on, police officers were going to “maintain beat integrity,” McCarthy explained, and make themselves highly visible on the beleaguered block, parking a squad car on the corner around the clock and constantly patrolling certain streets until they believed the drug dealers were gone permanently. “What we’re looking for is lasting results,” he told the reporters. “We’re not willing to just make some arrests and walk away.”

The next speaker was Maria Pena, the commander of the Ogden District (10th) and the officer ultimately responsible for following through on what McCarthy had just described. Pena said that there would be a community meeting the next Tuesday evening where officers and residents could discuss ways to unite and keep the gangbanging and drug dealing at bay.

The reporters seemed unimpressed. All they saw was a garbage-free block. “Aren’t you just giving the dealers a nicer street corner to deal drugs?” one asked.

McCarthy responded: “What we’ve done traditionally in law enforcement is arrest narcotics dealers and then walk away. So now we [eliminate] the market. We’re not leaving until the demand is crushed and the community can step up and hold on to this corner.”

Eliminating the market for drugs might be a tall order. But when it comes to police presence, McCarthy kept his word. At presstime, a squad car remained stationed around 19th and Troy. As one car finished its shift, another would take its place. Gone are the days when neighbors would see drug users walking up the block or hear gang members calling out “baldhead,” warning one another whenever a cop was nearby. It was quiet. Even the thumbnail-size bags of crack that once littered the sidewalk had mostly vanished.

“If the cops didn’t do this, it would go right back to the way it was,” says Robert Werner, a health care administrator who has lived on the block with his wife and three children for eight years. Werner says that in May he saw something he’d never seen there before: Balloons tied to a front porch. A child was having a birthday party.

Still, Werner and his neighbors wonder how long the constant police presence will last. They watch the news. They hear about city budget cuts, the police department’s manpower issues, and, most of all, the violence. The Ogden District led the city in homicides—24—as of mid-June. But while other officers raced from call to call, the patrol car on their block hardly moved. It was there during the NATO weekend, when many officers were reassigned downtown. It was even there the weekend of June 9, when 16 people were shot in the district. Cops sped from crime scene to crime scene, but the car stayed put around 19th and Troy.

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When McCarthy sat down on Monday, June 11, for an interview at the Erie Café in River North—trailed by his news affairs director and his younger daughter, Kimberly, who is spending her college summer break in Chicago—he seemed to be in a state of crisis control. The weekend had been rough citywide: 53 Chicagoans were shot, and 9 were killed.

It was just after 6 p.m., and the superintendent looked tired. Rubbing his eyes and ordering a Bud Light, he said that he had spent the early morning going from TV station to TV station, urging people to take the long view and consider that gangs and violence are deeply entrenched in the city. “It didn’t start overnight, and it’s not going to be repaired overnight,” he said on NBC’s morning show. In interview after interview, he insisted that overall crime numbers are down from last year and second-quarter shootings are 8 percent lower than the same period in 2011.

The numbers depend on how you slice them, of course, and few are better than McCarthy at spinning statistics to prove a point or argue against another—a skill honed during his days running CompStat for the NYPD. “When every category of crime is going in the right direction except for one,” McCarthy says, referring to homicides, “does that mean the numbers are up?”

Well, yes. The spike in headline-grabbing violence began one weekend in March, when 49 people were shot and 10 were killed, including a six-year-old girl from Little Village caught in gang crossfire while playing on her front porch in broad daylight. Afterward, a furious Emanuel called the level of violence in Chicago “unacceptable.”

That’s when McCarthy announced a gang audit to help police better understand what they are up against. But the bad news has only continued, with bloodshed spiking on warm weekends.

In the aftermath, there has been outrage, promises to take action, and more shootings. The day after our interview, McCarthy announced his Violence Reduction Overtime Initiative, a new plan to pay officers overtime to work extra hours in troubled areas. He followed this with a made-for-media “roll call” on Saturday, June 16, in which he instructed officers to get out of their cars and be aggressive.

By the end of that weekend, 35 people had been shot and 7 killed.

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