Police brass, facing horrible homicide numbers, at last see frontline response

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FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2015 file photo, Chicago interim Police Superintendent John Escalante speaks at a news conference in Chicago. During a news conference Tuesday, March 1, 2016, police said there have been about twice as many homicides and shootings so far this year in Chicago as compared to the same period in 2015, but the number of illegal guns seized has dropped. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File) ORG XMIT: CX103

Police stops have plummeted by 87 percent this year and homicides have soared to levels not seen since the 1990s in Chicago — creating a firestorm of criticism for the department.

Still, police officials said Tuesday they’re at last seeing progress from their frantic efforts to get cops back to work on the streets.

Police work nearly ground to a halt in the first six weeks of 2016 because officers were worried about increased scrutiny of their stops following the November release of the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting. The video led to a murder charge against Officer Jason Van Dyke and a federal probe of the department.

Ninety-five people were slain over the first two months of the year, the largest number of homicide victims in Chicago since 1999 and nearly double the body count over the same period of 2015 when 48 people were killed.

That number tops 100 when other deaths from the year are included, such as a fatal police shooting, homicides ruled self-defense and pending death investigations.

The spike in homicides comes as the number of street stops by police plummeted from 111,831 in January and February of 2015 to just 14,648 this year.

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the department, said Interim Police Supt. John Escalante and his commanders have been busy in recent weeks visiting officers to ease their fears that they will become the next targets of investigations into misconduct.

And between Feb. 15 and the end of the month, the policing slowdown began to ebb. Police stops rose about 20 percent over the last two weeks, compared with the same period of 2016, Guglielmi said.

“Everything is headed in the right direction,” he said. “Officers are becoming more familiar with the regulatory atmosphere we are in.”

If the recent rise in police stops continues, officers “will arrest more people with guns and in turn, you will get more armed bad guys off the street,” Guglielmi said.

Cops have told the Chicago Sun-Times they’ve been afraid to make investigatory stops because the Justice Department and American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois have been busy scrutinizing police practices after the release of the McDonald video.

The huge slowdown in police activity this year could be a factor in the rise of violent crime in Chicago — along with warmer-than-normal temperatures that drew more people outside in high-crime neighborhoods.

Officers seized 829 guns during the first two months of 2016, compared with 943 guns over the same period of 2015 — a 12 percent decrease, Guglielmi said.

Still, he noted that gun seizures were down a whopping 28 percent in January alone.

“They are closing the gap,” Guglielmi said.

Escalante recently spoke to officers in a video to assure them the Justice Department and ACLU are not personally targeting officers, but looking at systematic problems involving policing in Chicago.

“We are aware there is a concern among the rank-and-file about not wanting to be the next YouTube video that goes viral,” Escalante said, adding, “We understand there is a difference between a mistake and misconduct.”

This year’s spike in crime in Chicago included a gigantic rise in the number of shooting victims, including those who were killed and wounded. There were 475 people shot over the first two months of 2016, compared with 207 in 2015. Crime has risen in every other major category, too, according to the police department.

Other major cities have not seen the same problem. New York, for example, saw homicides fall 31 percent through Feb. 21 — from 52 in 2015 to 36 in 2016, according to the New York Police Department.

Escalante has rolled out a series of policy changes to address the rising violence in Chicago, which he has called “unacceptable” and attributed in part to increased gang activity spurred by feuds on social media. The department has boosted its gang-intervention programs, officials said.

The department also redesigned the new forms cops must fill out when they stop people. The goal was to make the task less time-consuming for officers and encourage them to make more stops, officials said.

And last week the department expanded CompStat, its crime-strategy program, to make sergeants more accountable for the performance of their officers. About 100 new sergeants have recently hit the streets, officials said.

The weather could have been another factor in Chicago’s crime wave.

Chicago’s winter — December, January and February — was the 14th warmest on record since 1871, said Ricky Castro, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

December was especially warm — the fourth hottest on record — but January and February were above average, too, Castro said. February’s average temperature was 30.4 F and the normal temperature is 27.7 F, he said.

As more people congregate on street corners and in parks in warmer weather, there’s a greater risk of them becoming victims of shootings in high-crime areas. Most murders in Chicago happen on the street.

Guglielmi acknowledged the department changes its tactics when the weather is balmy. For example, officers were moved from cars to bicycles this past weekend to increase their visibility as people gathered outside to enjoy temperatures that soared into the 60s, he said.

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