When you call 911 in Chicago, it should not matter where you live, whether the Gold Coast, Rogers Park or Englewood.
Help should be as reliably on its way on one side of town as on another side.
And yet it does matter, which cannot stand. Predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South Side face a chronic overload of 911 calls, the result of which is that the police frequently are unable to respond to a call.
We’re not sure if there is an easy or obvious fix to this problem, but we do know finding a solution should not be put off indefinitely, which sources tell Sun-Times reporters could happen while Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new blue-ribbon panel looks at larger issues within the Police Department. Freezing work on one reform while investigating other reforms kind of misses the point of it all.
One common-sense solution, according to a recent Sun-Times story by Frank Main and Fran Spielman, might be to lower the total number of 911 calls by shifting many of them — the clearly non-emergency ones — to the city’s 311 call center. That reportedly was Supt. Garry McCarthy’s solution before Mayor Emanuel fired him two weeks ago, and it is no less a good idea now.
It’s important to stress that the police do respond to all urgent 911 calls, such as shootings, regardless of the neighborhood. The frequent failure of the police to answer non-urgent calls is not a matter of life and death, but it does diminish the quality of life in a neighborhood and adds to a perception of racial bias. Nobody calling 911 in Pullman or Chatham wants to think the cops are blowing them off while rushing to answer a call in, say, Lincoln Park.
Chicago has a long and inglorious history of racial and geographic discrimination in the provision of city services, from funding for park maintenance, to the number of cops assigned to a police district, to the speed at which side streets get plowed after snowstorms. It’s as if a dollar in property taxes were not worth as much on the South Side as on the North Side. It is as if life were any less precious.
In each case, City Hall has been pressed to end the inequity, and Emanuel’s administration must do so now. At a time when the city is reeling from the scandal of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and trust in the police has plummeted, Chicago can ill afford the message of discrimination sent by inequities in the 911 call system.
The Sun-Times analyzed district-by-district totals for 911 calls, looking specifically at “radio assignments pending call events” — the times when no police cars are available to respond to a call. They discovered that the districts with the biggest police-response problems are in heavily minority communities on the South Side, while the districts with the fewest problems are on the heavily white North Side.
The Calumet District on the Far South Side racked up the most “RAP” events — 2,016 — from January 2011 through August 2015. Meanwhile, the Lincoln District on the North Side had only 38 RAP events, fewest in the city.
The number of RAP events in the Calumet District was high before Rahm Emanuel first was elected mayor and remains high. But backups in 911 calls have become more concentrated in South and West side districts since Emanuel became mayor.
South Side aldermen are calling for the shifting of more police officers from the North Side to their wards, but North Side aldermen are understandably opposed to that solution to the 911 response disparities. They point out that Chicago as a whole could use more police officers.
The U.S. Justice Department is about to embark on a pattern and practices review of the Chicago Police Department that could, among many other sensitive issues, look at whether police manpower in the city is sufficient and fairly deployed. In the meantime, McCarthy’s suggestion that more 911 calls be diverted to the 311 non-emergency call center so as to improve the police response to more serious 911 calls is worth exploring.
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