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WATCHDOGS: Chicago’s deadliest neighborhoods get greenest cops

An evidence technician with the Chicago Police Department investigates the scene of a homicide in Humboldt Park in July 2016. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Faced with a surge in killings and a breakdown of trust in law enforcement, the Chicago Police Department is sending its least experienced cops to neighborhoods that see the most violence.

The six police districts with the highest total of murders and shootings this year have the most rookie officers, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of police deployment data found.

Those districts — all of them on the South Side or the West Side — also have some of the least experienced supervisors, on average.

At the same time, officers assigned to four lowest-crime districts in the city — downtown, on the North Side or the Northwest Side — have, on average, the most years with the police department.

And the gaps in experience have grown wider since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011.

“When these guys get out of the academy, this is where they’re sending them,” says Ald. David Moore (17th), whose South Side ward includes parts of the high-crime Gresham and Englewood Districts. “And as soon as those cops get tenured, they’re ready to get out of here.”

Moore and others say that situation — the result of deployment strategies and a union contract that gives experienced cops a say in where they work — leads to higher turnover, limiting officers’ ability to get to know the communities they’re serving.

Ald. Ray Lopez. | Sun-Times files
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th). | Sun-Times files

“This is something I’ve brought up with the superintendent, asking him to put a hold on transfers out, to stop the bleeding of experience,” says Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), whose ward includes a swath of Englewood, which has experienced some of the worst gun violence. “With some of the rookies, there’s a certain percentage of them that come to these districts as a proving ground to earn their mettle as a police officer. And that’s fine. But there’s more than one way to defuse a situation, and seasoned officers know that.”

But Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), whose Northwest Side ward doesn’t see as much violent crime, argues there are advantages to sending cops straight from the academy to tough neighborhoods.

“Do you want a guy who’s 50 years old and 30 pounds overweight, or the young guy who’s built like a brick house?” Sposato says. “If a 25-year-old kid goes to the [slowest districts] right out of the academy, he’s not going to learn as much.”

That debate over police deployment has taken on heightened importance during the wave of violence this year that has resulted in more than 700 killings and about 3,300 shootings overall.

The disparities in officers’ experience levels can be dangerous for the police and the neighborhoods they serve, Moore says.

Ald. David Moore (17th). | Sun-Times files
Ald. David Moore (17th). | Sun-Times files

“What happened was the rookies weren’t learning community engagement — they were just learning to maintain order,” the alderman says. “You’ve got to have a good number of well-seasoned officers around them who have been a part of community engagement. Otherwise, [young officers] may be quick to react to a negative situation rather than de-escalate.”

In July, officers in South Shore fired at Paul O’Neal as he took off in a Jaguar they said was stolen and again during a subsequent chase on foot that ended with the 18-year-old shot to death. Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said it appeared that three officers who fired shots did not follow proper procedures and stripped them of their police powers while the Independent Police Review Authority investigates the shooting. All had been with the department less than four years.

The Sun-Times analysis found that:

• In five of the six districts with the most killings and nonfatal shootings this year — Gresham and Englewood on the South Side and Ogden, Harrison and Austin on the West Side — officers have been with the department, on average, for about a decade. In the other hardest-hit district, Deering on the South Side, the average time on the job is 14 years — the same as the citywide average.

• In the low-crime Central, Jefferson Park, Near North and Lincoln districts, it’s 18 to 20 years.

• Thirty-two to 38 percent of the officers assigned to Gresham, Englewood, Ogden, Harrison and Austin have been with the department for three years or less. They include 78 rookies — in their first year on the job.

• Jefferson Park, in sharp contrast, has no rookies. Just 4 percent of the officers assigned to the Northwest Side district — a total of nine cops — have three or fewer years of experience.

The disparity has widened since Emanuel took office in 2011. Police in the Gresham, Englewood, Harrison, Ogden and Austin districts are less experienced, on average, than the cops assigned there five years ago. In the Harrison District, for example, officers average about nine years and eight months of experience — a year less than in 2011.

Emanuel has said he’ll hire more officers and improve training — initiatives included in his 2017 budget, which the Chicago City Council approved in November.

The mayor’s plans aren’t likely to shift more experienced cops to high-crime districts, though. That’s because the city’s police contract ensures that veteran officers get a greater say in where they’re assigned. And many decide they’d rather work in a slower-paced environment or closer to home.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato believes he’s the best choice to run the City Council’s Aviation Committee during a massive O’Hare Airport expansion. | File photo
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th). | Sun-Times files

“The worst thing that could happen to the police or fire department is to have the management just send people where they don’t want to go,” says Sposato, a former firefighter. “You force a guy, and he may say, ‘Screw this, I’m not going to risk my life and career.’ ”

The current police contract with rank-and-file officers expires in June.

In negotiating a new contract, Sposato says the city might want to consider offering incentives to veteran officers who are willing to serve in high-crime communities. Moore says aldermen need to be part of the negotiations to ensure that veteran police are sent where they’re needed most.

But the police department maintains that it’s helpful to staff troubled areas with new cops.

“Younger officers who graduate are sent to busier areas so they can gain job experience and field training while assisting with community policing and patrol efforts,” chief department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says.

But these young cops have fewer veterans to turn to for training. Supervisors in the Gresham, Englewood and Harrison districts are, on average, the least experienced in the city. Those with the rank of sergeant or higher in those districts average less than 19 years with the department. In comparison, supervisory officers in Jefferson Park have an average of 24 years.

Over the past five years, the Gresham, Ogden, Harrison and Austin districts all have had a net loss of field-training officers — the ones who provide on-the-job mentoring to young cops.

Emanuel has promised to add 92 field-training officers over the next two years.

Peter Moskos. | John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Peter Moskos. | John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop who’s now an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says there’s nothing inherently wrong with having young officers work in high-crime districts.

“There is something about learning quickly in busy districts,” Moskos says. “But you are likely to burn out and not give a damn.”

He says Chicago and other cities could do more, though, to encourage veteran officers to stay in high-crime districts.

“They could incentivize those ‘bad’ districts,” Moskos says. “Maybe they could put the best equipment there. Maybe they could offer more days off.”

He points to New York City, which, under former police Commissioner William Bratton, began phasing out its “Operation Impact” program, which sent rookies into high-crime “impact zones” in favor of a more traditional field-training model pairing young cops with veterans.

Moskos says what’s important is to have a strong field-training program for young officers assigned to high-crime areas and to avoid any “stat pressure” — a push to bolster statistics — that might encourage young officers to unnecessarily write tickets or make needless stops that worsen the relationship between cops and the communities they serve.

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