911 overload — South Side often faces too many calls, not enough cops
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Predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South Side face such a chronic overload of 911 calls the Chicago Police Department frequently has been unable to respond to many calls in those areas, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Backups of 911 calls have been concentrated in South Side and also West Side police districts since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, according to the records, which City Hall fought to keep confidential, citing safety concerns.
Sources said police Supt. Garry McCarthy was working on plans to address the problem when Emanuel fired him Dec. 1 in the fallout over the release of video of the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times by a Chicago cop in October 2014.
The Sun-Times made a district-by-district comparison of 911 calls and “radio assignments pending call events,” known for short as RAP data — the times when no police cars are available to respond to a call in a district. The police still answer urgent calls, such as shootings, but not things like reports of shoplifting or burglaries.
The city argued that releasing the RAP information could jeopardize officers’ safety and initially refused to make it public. But the Illinois attorney general’s office rejected that argument and ordered City Hall to turn over the information.
The police districts with the biggest police-response problems are in heavily minority communities on the South Side, according to the data the city released. The districts with the fewest RAP events are on the heavily white North Side.
The Calumet District on the Far South Side had 2,016 RAP events from January 2011 through August 2015 — the most in the city, the records show. The Lincoln District on the North Side had only 38 over the same period — the fewest citywide.
The total number of 911 calls in the Calumet District also dwarfed those in the Lincoln District: 606,321 versus 335,652 from July 2011 through August 2015.
Black aldermen have called on the police department to assign more officers to handle 911 calls in their neighborhoods. Aldermen representing North Side neighborhoods have balked, though, at the prospect of losing cops in their districts.
McCarthy was planning a different fix — shifting lower-level 911 calls to the city’s alternative-response section at the 311 center. But he was forced out by the mayor after the city released the video of an officer shooting McDonald 16 times, continuing to fire as he lay on the ground.
Emanuel said the superintendent was a “distraction” and that keeping him on the job would render the city unable to solve the “systemic breakdown” that culminated in the police shooting of the black 17-year-old.
The McDonald video has renewed protests by some in the city’s minority communities about unfair treatment by the Chicago Police Department.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), whose Far South Side ward includes the Calumet District, said he’s unsuccessfully been urging a reallocation of police resources for years.
The number of RAP events in the Calumet District has remained among the highest in the city and is similar to what it was before Emanuel took office in May 2011.
In an emotional address to the City Council last week, Emanuel promised a top-to-bottom overhaul of the police department to deliver the same level of services to all Chicago neighborhoods. Beale is challenging the mayor to put a reallocation of police manpower behind those words.
“If the mayor is sincere, we will see change,” Beale said. “If he’s serious, he will move those resources immediately. If we are going to have one city, there should be no disparity” in radio-assignment-pending calls.
“If we’re going to make this entire city safe, we have to put all of the resources where they need to be and not where they want to be,” the alderman said. “I understand my colleagues’ fight for their communities. But you can’t sleep with a good conscience knowing you’re hurting other people . . . We have to start giving up resources in other areas.”
Ald. Joe Moore (49th), whose Far North Side ward includes the Rogers Park District, said he “clearly understands” Beale’s concerns about the disparity in radio assignment calls. But Moore said there are “other ways of approaching it without robbing Peter to pay Paul” — such as redirecting more non-emergency calls from 911 to 311.
“Smarter and more efficient policing can go a long way,” Moore said. “If you come home to see your garage was broken into and the assailants are gone, rather than call 911, call 311. A detective can take the information over the phone. That leaves police officers on the street to respond to true emergencies.”
Moore said he will fight to hold onto every one of the police officers he has in a ward that’s 30 percent African-American.
“I don’t feel guilty at all,” Moore said. “We’ve had shootings in my neighborhood and serious issues with regard to gun violence. We’ve got people who are demanding more police officers in Rogers Park.
“The last thing we should do is reduce our level of police protection and return to the bad old days. when crime was twice what it is today.”
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), whose North Side ward includes the Town Hall District, said he needs more officers, even though that district consistently ranks toward the bottom of the city in RAP events.
Tunney said he voted for Emanuel’s tax-laden 2016 budget only after Emanuel committed to adding 35 police officers by the end of next year.
“When the 19th and 23rd police districts were merged, there was a commitment we would not be losing personnel, but we did lose personnel,” Tunney said. “Over the last four years, we’ve lost 75 to 100 officers.
“We were elected to be representatives of our wards, and our biggest complaint is diminished police resources,” he said. “Wrigley Field and Boystown have some of the highest robbery and burglary numbers in the city. Those are violent crimes, too. We’re seeing guns involved. It hasn’t been shootings and homicides, thank God. But there is certainly concern about safety in our district.”
Law enforcement sources said McCarthy’s solution to lower the total number of 911 calls would have been more pragmatic than shifting more officers from the North Side to the South Side.
But McCarthy’s plan to shift more 911 calls to the 311 center will probably gather dust, at least in the near future, sources said. The Emanuel administration is leery of making major changes in police operations until the mayor’s new blue-ribbon panel makes recommendations on police reforms.
Also, the Justice Department just launched an investigation into the police department’s “patterns and practices,” which could take a year or longer.
“There’s not a big appetite to make major changes until we hear from those folks,” said a top police source.
WORST, BEST DISTRICTS FOR 911 CALLS
Police districts with the most times that no officers were available to respond to a 911 call, based on city data covering January 2011 through August 2015:
Calumet — 2,016
South Chicago — 1,791
Grand Crossing — 1,676
Districts with the fewest 911 backups:
Lincoln — 38
Rogers Park — 199
Town Hall — 234