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Chicago isn’t New York. Or Newark. Experts estimate that our gang population ranges anywhere from 70,000 to 125,000; according to the CPD, gangs commit three-quarters of the city’s homicides. “Gang violence in Chicago is something that’s totally different from what I experienced in New York and Newark,” says McCarthy, “where we had low-level bands of thugs who called themselves Bloods or Crips but were narcotics dealers.”
McCarthy’s citywide gang audit, completed in May, shows that Chicago now has 59 active street gangs with 625 factions. That’s up from 500 factions and 68 gangs in 2003. This continued fracturing of the local gangs, McCarthy believes, is the reason for the rash of recent violence.
The splintering stems from a lack of leadership; many of the highest-ranking chiefs are in prison or dead. “We took the generals out, and we now have the gangs being run by sergeants,” explains Leo Schmitz, the commander of the Englewood District (7th). “Instead of having an area, now they have blocks.” This means increased rivalry—and, as a result, more shootings.
Schmitz describes an adversary who is younger, more reckless, and more likely to pull a trigger. “Young people are making very quick decisions,” he says, “and most of the time they are the wrong ones.”
The audit information has become the foundation for McCarthy’s plan to combat gangs, informing a new computer system that puts updated intelligence in the hands of beat officers. Additional tactics include a new ballistics unit to aid in building criminal cases, the call-ins between gang members and officers, and the shutting down of liquor stores that double as hangouts. “This is not a new problem,” McCarthy said at a May 29 news conference, discussing his gang strategy. “What it is, is a new solution that we’re applying to it.”
One thing that McCarthy can’t do, however, is rely on units that specialize in fighting gangs—the teams that Hillard began disbanding as interim superintendent. McCarthy hasn’t moved to reinstate them, arguing that the officers’ expertise is better used in the districts. That’s one reason his gang strategy has failed to rouse support among the rank and file, whose job it is to proactively police the beats in the way their boss demands.
Police chiefs dating back to Phil Cline, who served from 2003 to 2007, relied on such specialized units. Under Cline and, later, Jody Weis, the units’ officers were chosen from among the department’s best and received special training. The work was dangerous and extremely stressful. “The beat officer is the backbone of the department,” says a former high-ranking police official. “Nobody is disagreeing with that. But a backbone needs to be supported by muscle. Those guys were the muscle.”
Those units operated in a militaristic way, not unlike Army Special Forces. While beat cops can spend entire shifts answering the millions of 911 calls the department receives each year, the specialized units would, for example, saturate a block after a shooting in an effort to prevent retaliation or patrol a neighborhood that had seen a series of sexual assaults.
Several former specialized-unit officers interviewed for this story recall the way gang members knew them by their unit number, say, a 42 or 44 on their cars. “They feared us,” one says. “I’m not trying to be arrogant. It’s just that when you’d pull somebody over, you’d see them looking. They’d see the unit number and put their hands on their car.”
For some communities, aggressive cops, known as “jump out boys,” represented the worst of the department. Revelations in 2006 that some officers robbed and kidnapped residents, and the accusations a year later that one officer plotted to murder another, bolstered that point of view.
McCarthy believes that specialization is the enemy of community policing—an idea that took root long before he came to Chicago. “With specialization, those guys have zero connection to the community,” he says. “They offend a lot of people because not everybody is a perp.”
Even so, it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of specialized units. Consider what happened when Cline began using them to target gangs, guns, and drugs in certain neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Chicago went from being the murder capital of the nation in 2003, with 601 people killed, to 453 the next year (see “Murder Capital of America?”). That was the first time since the 1960s that fewer than 500 murders had been recorded.
Homicides remained under the 500 mark until 2008. The previous fall, in the wake of ongoing scandal involving the rogue officers, Dana Starks, the interim superintendent between Cline and Weis, shelved the specialized units. Homicides began to rise. After Weis took the job, he convinced Mayor Daley in September 2008 to reinstate the units, promising that, as chief, he’d implement better training and more accountability.
According to Weis, the city’s sub-500 murder totals in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were a direct result of that decision. “Sometimes the answer is staring you right in the face,” he says.
“Everyone loves the idea of the beat cop,” adds a South Side officer who worked in a specialized unit and didn’t want to be named because he is not authorized to talk to reporters. “You’re Officer Friendly; you’re walking around, whistling, twirling your baton. I get it. It’s a great story. But that’s not where we are right now in society. We’ve got some neighborhoods that are hell on earth. Officer Friendly can only be as friendly as the neighborhood allows.”
In the city’s most violent districts, police officers say, they may be assigned half a dozen jobs or more—covering everything from traffic accidents to assaults—at the start of a shift. Their watches are spent racing from call to call, while anything that requires investigation stacks up. Officers describe having to weigh whether to make an arrest. The process “downs” their car, taking it off patrol for a few hours or so, which leaves their beat uncovered and puts more pressure on their fellow officers.
Sometimes, they say, when it comes to minor offenses, they just look the other way.
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According to criminologists, a rise in violence can be caused by a myriad of political, social, and economic factors. Tying the effectiveness of Chicago’s top cop to murder numbers, some say, is especially unfair.
“Chicago is not Mexico,” stresses John Hagedorn, a criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The violence here isn’t related to things law enforcement can affect: organized gang problems or wars or disputes. In Chicago, you have spontaneous problems that are all related to desperation.”
And former police chief Phil Cline thinks it’s too early to say whether the superintendent’s strategy is failing to quell the rising tide of violence. “You have to give it time,” he says. “I always used to say this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Cline is quick to point out that he had more troops—13,500—than the roughly 12,000 that McCarthy inherited (a number that police union officials say boils down to 9,000 on patrol once you subtract command staff, detectives, and administrators). Manpower, many argue, is a major issue. “Their crime strategies aren’t working because they don’t have the personnel to enforce them,” says an officer who works in a North Side district. “We’re outnumbered.”
As far as the climbing murder toll is concerned, the most pivotal moment in Chicago’s recent past might not be the day McCarthy landed here but rather Mayor Emanuel’s making good on his campaign pledge to put 1,000 more police on the street. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for eliminating the specialized units. According to the police union, it was the only way to make the numbers work. “He took the specialized units that patrol in high-crime neighborhoods and put them in beat cars,” says Mike Shields, the president of the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Bit by bit, Emanuel reached his magic number of 1,000, announcing in October 2011 that he’d fulfilled his promise. Shields says the move was made for two reasons: The city didn’t have enough officers to answer 911 calls, and the mayor chose “to balance his budget at the expense of public safety.” Chicago repeatedly asked the mayor’s office to respond to this criticism. Emanuel’s spokesperson, Tarrah Cooper, responded with an e-mail outlining the city’s antiviolence initiatives: introducing CompStat, shutting down problem liquor stores, and so on.
McCarthy disagrees with the idea that he’s just following orders. “Those [previous] philosophies on policing, I don’t agree with,” he says. “We’re going to do it the way I think it should be done.” During the interview at the Erie Café, the lifelong cop makes a point to say that the mayor does not “micromanage” him. “He tells me what he’s concerned about and then lets me run the drill.”
A server brings the superintendent his chicken Parmesan. McCarthy expresses concern over the spate of early summer murders but has confidence that a turnaround is still possible. “We had some issues in the first quarter,” he concedes, “but we’ve been able to turn that around in the second quarter. While a lot of people are ready to give up on the year, I want to end it down with shootings and murders, which means we have some ground to make up.”
If the killings don’t stop, another factor will come into play: Chicago politics. And ever the good soldier, McCarthy likely will be the one to take the fall.