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Under the CAPS program, beat officers are hands-on with the residents of high-crime neighborhoods.
Once a novel tactic drawn up by criminologists and police officials, CAPS meetings became a highly touted part of Chicago law enforcement and, eventually, a model for police departments across the country. The idea was to create a formal process through which communities could work with police to solve problems and rebuild themselves.
The key attraction was the holy grail of law enforcement: stopping crime before it happens. Ideally, at a monthly CAPS meeting, officers and residents interact and build the community trust that leads to meaningful tips—hearing about a drug dealer’s plan to launch an open-air drug market, for example, or getting a heads-up on someone who is threatening his neighbors.
CAPS also aims to bring officers and residents face to face, reshaping the perception of police and the work they do. One of the greatest obstacles to effective police work, criminologists say, is the public’s attitude toward law enforcement. “If a community doesn’t respect its officers, it doesn’t respect their work, and it certainly doesn’t respect the law,” says Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago. “What you have then is a community that won’t follow the rules, a form of anarchy.”
The interaction between cops and the community helps hold all participants responsible, too. “I don’t know of any place in the country where there’s this kind of accountability between the public and public officials and public employees,” says Wesley G. Skogan, a Northwestern University professor who has studied CAPS since its inception. “It’s where people meet and discuss monthly, and get after each other about their performance.”
That said, no one who has studied the CAPS program would suggest that beat meetings work consistently for everyone. Attendance waxes and wanes depending on the criminal activity in a neighborhood. Officers sometimes outnumber the residents. Neighbors sometimes tie up officers’ time reporting on broken park benches and potholes. In high-crime neighborhoods, residents are often scared to attend. Anyone can come to a beat meeting, and criminals or their emissaries have been known to listen in. Still, when CAPS was launched in five police districts in 1993, crime dropped more in those districts than others with similar demographics and lawlessness. Within a year, CAPS was deployed citywide.
But money has now become an issue. Last August, Weis announced a subtle but potentially seismic change: The department would no longer pay officers overtime to attend beat meetings or CAPS events that weren’t on their shift. In October, the city slashed the overall CAPS budget from $6.6 million to $5.3 million and cut its staff from 72 employees to 54. (In 2000, the CAPS budget was $9 million.)
Before the cuts, residents at CAPS meetings had a chance to talk with officers from all three shifts—early, middle, and late—and get to know the different police officers who worked at different times in their neighborhoods. Under the new CAPS plan, only a sergeant working at the time of the meeting, typically the late night or “third watch” shift, would be under orders to attend.
“I just don’t see how we can take community policing seriously anymore,” says the Reverend Marshall Hatch, whose church is in the high-crime Austin neighborhood, “and the sad part is: Community policing is the one way we can stop this violence.”
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Candice C. Cusic