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Lightfoot ties CPD’s surge strategy to need for a new kind of policing during pandemic

“We are fighting, not only the pandemic of COVID-19, but ... the continuing epidemic of gun violence. We have no time to waste on either,” the mayor said.

A Chicago Police Department squad car sits on the corner of West Monroe Street and South Hamlin Boulevard on the West Side, Friday morning, April 24, 2020. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
A Chicago Police Department squad car sits at West Monroe Street and South Hamlin Boulevard during increased enforcement efforts on the West Side earlier this month.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

A “surge strategy” that requires Chicago Police officers from low-crime districts to temporarily flood high-crime neighborhoods on the South and West Sides was devised to accommodate the need for a new kind of policing during the pandemic, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday.

Newly-appointed CPD Supt. David Brown has apologized to North and Northwest Side aldermen for “blindsiding” them about the plan that deprives their districts of officers for roughly two hours at a time.

The apology came during Brown’s first full day on the job after being unanimously confirmed by the City Council.

But Lightfoot made no apologies for the surge strategy itself.

“We are fighting, not only the pandemic of COVID-19, but … the continuing epidemic of gun violence. We have no time to waste on either,” she said.

The mayor attempted to tie the surge strategy to the extraordinary pressure that police officers are under — both emotionally and physically — during a public health crisis that has seen more than 400 officers test positive for the coronavirus and three officers die from complications caused by the virus.

“We are in an unusual time. While our first-responders are out there and they’re on the front line, they’re human. They’re concerned about their own well-being. They’re concerned about their safety and they’re concerned about … taking something back to their families,” Lightfoot said.

“So in an effort to continue to move forward on public safety — recognizing the risk attendant to physical contact, officer-to-resident — the department has conceived this surge strategy. Which really, effectively, is bringing in lots of marked cars into areas really suffering from gun violence in conjunction with stakeholders in the community and being present with lights with sirens.”

Lightfoot said the city is “starting to see some promising results,” although she stressed she would “knock on wood” as she uttered those words.

The mayor acknowledged CPD can’t “drain resources” for long from Chicago’s safest police districts to provide additional officers to neighborhoods that have been “under-resourced for way too long.”

But Lightfoot said Brown “now understands that” and has had “very productive and candid conversations” with the impacted aldermen.

“This isn’t a permanent taking of the resources from those districts. It was, `Spend a couple hours doing these fixed posts ... in these neighborhoods. That’s what it’s about,” the mayor said.

“We’re moving ’em around different days. We did some on the North Side. We did some on the West Side. We’re doing some on the South Side. But this strategy is a way to engage our law enforcement resources at a time when policing in the way that we traditionally do it is challenging because of the risk of COVID-19.”

One of the aldermen losing officers to the new superintendent’s surge strategy was Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader.

Villegas’ ward includes parts of the Jefferson Park and Grand Central districts. Each lost 10 officers, but only for two hours at a time, the alderman said.

The mayor’s floor leader has said he is willing to sacrifice officers for a short time if it’s needed to tamp down violent crime in other parts of the city. But Brown needs to tell him in advance.

“The superintendent mentioned that, the other day, there were no shootings and no murders in the city of Chicago. That hadn’t occurred in quite some time. So the fact that there are unpredictable surges going on makes the bad guys think, `When are all of these police going to converge in our area to deal with the crime that’s going on?’” Villegas said.

“The strategy here of two-hour surges in communities seems like a good strategy. We’ll see how it plays out. It’s just a matter of keeping the aldermen in tune as to what some of the strategies are so that, as we hear back from our constituents, we have the ability to address them factually and not let social media or the echo effect take control of the narrative.”

Villegas didn’t hesitate when asked what lesson he hopes the retired Dallas police chief learned from the backlash to his strategy from aldermen whose districts lost officers, even temporarily.

“Communication is key. We’re all partners in this. The constituents do not call the superintendent. They won’t call the congressman. They won’t call the President or the governor. They call the aldermen,” Villegas said.

“Superintendent Brown, being new, did not really enlighten the aldermen about what the plans were for that. … We just want to make sure we have ample resources. If you’re taking away police officers, we have to make sure there’s a strategy in place to make sure that there’s coverage.”