Hero dispatcher warns of cop shortage in Northwest Side district — and City Council members plan to meet with police Supt. Brown about it

‘If you are a Chicagoan, living here or doing business here, even just visiting as a tourist here, your safety is compromised and in jeopardy,’ says Keith Thornton, a Chicago emergency dispatcher.

SHARE Hero dispatcher warns of cop shortage in Northwest Side district — and City Council members plan to meet with police Supt. Brown about it
Keith Thornton Jr.

Keith Thornton Jr.

Pat Nabong /Sun-Times

Months after a Chicago emergency dispatcher garnered praise for his handling of a deadly attack on two officers, he’s now back in the spotlight with a warning that a Northwest Side police district is dangerously understaffed.

Keith Thornton Jr.’s cool-headed radio transmissions on Aug. 7 when Officer Ella French and her partner, Carlos Yanez, came under fire —killing French and critically wounding Yanez —prompted kudos from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police Supt. David Brown.

Over the weekend, though, Thornton used his new celebrity to blast the city and Police Department for what he sees as a woefully low staffing level in the 16th District in the northwest corner of the city.

Following the wide attention to Thornton’s remarks, Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) and other City Council members whose wards overlap the 16th District plan to meet Tuesday with Brown to discuss their concerns over police manpower.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) chats with another alderperson during a Chicago City Council meeting.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) chats with another alderperson during a Chicago City Council meeting.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

“We have to fight for crumbs,” Sposato said Monday. “Since we are in a city that believes in socialism, give us our fair share and even things out. Start helping us on the Northwest Side and give us more bodies.”

Sposato, a former firefighter, said the 16th District-Jefferson Park is far more undermanned than when he first took office in 2011. And many officers in the district are now sidelined with COVID-19, he said.

Napolitano added the 16th District covers about 33 square miles —many times larger than the city’s other 22 districts but not with a proportionally larger number of cops.

In one Facebook post on Christmas Eve, Thornton said Brown lied in a community meeting in the 16th District a few weeks ago when he said it had plenty of officers.

Thornton cited statistics showing that police cars in many beats in the district were unavailable for duty or operating with a single officer.

“If you are a Chicagoan, living here or doing business here, even just visiting as a tourist here, your safety is compromised and in jeopardy,” Thornton said.

Chicago police statistics show criminal sexual assaults are up 115% in the district compared with the same period a year ago. Thefts and aggravated batteries also are up, but other crimes like murder and robbery have dropped, according to the data.

Meanwhile, a Chicago Sun-Times data analysis paints a mixed picture of the manpower issues in the district.

When a district gets a high number of 911 calls, emergency dispatchers can’t assign a call if no officers are available. That’s called a “radio assignments pending” situation, or RAP.

In those situations, dispatchers keep answering 911 calls from the district. But the dispatching of those calls is delayed. The district stays in a RAP situation until officers are dispatched to all the backlogged 911 calls.

One of the districts with the lowest number of RAP calls this year was the 16th, but it did have one of the steepest rises in RAP calls compared with 2020, according to a Sun-Times analysis of police data through Dec. 1.

The 16th District had a 111% increase in the number of RAP calls in 2021 compared to 2020 and a 173% increase compared to 2019.

Still, some police districts on the West and South sides had three times the volume of RAP calls as the 16th District, the data show.

Overall, the city saw a 42% rise in the number of RAP calls in 2021 compared with 2020.

Sposato dismissed those RAP numbers for the 16th District, saying he’s used to people telling him the police manpower problem is just as bad or worse in other parts of the city.

“We need at least 50 bodies,” Sposato said. “We are losing them at a rapid rate (to retirement and transfers to other departments.) “I feel we get punished in the 16th District for being a safe community.”

Sposato said he plans to ask Brown to offer more slots to officers to use their seniority to bid into the 16th District and to also have more rookies assigned to the district after they graduate.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Napolitano said he likes the idea of more bids but doesn’t want more rookies, who, he says, often transfer out to other “faster” districts when they have enough seniority.

Napolitano said the city needs to make a major structural change to the long-standing boundaries of most of Chicago’s police districts, including the 16th District, which could be chopped up into several more manageable districts.

“Snatch-and-grabs, thefts from motor vehicles go unreported,” said Napolitano, who served as a Chicago police officer and then as a firefighter before becoming an alderperson in 2015.

“My residents deserve to feel safe, and they don’t anymore,” he said. “I agree with the stuff the dispatcher said. But it’s all stuff we’ve been saying for seven years.”

In an interview Monday, Thornton said he went public with his concerns about police manpower after hearing from cops, one of whom even said he was “scared.”

As for the reaction to his comments, he said, “I think it’s fantastic. It’s getting them to do their jobs.”

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