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Top cop defends stripping officers from neighborhoods to protect downtown

CPD Supt. David Brown argued two specialized units he created had turned the tide on violent crime, with both homicides and shootings down. Aldermen, however, complained local police districts are “on fire.”

Chicago police block traffic downtown Sept. 15, 2020.
CPD Supt. David Brown told aldermen it was important to prevent another round of costly looting downtown by moving more officers there from the neighborhoods.
Sun-Times file

Under fire from aldermen, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown defended his decision to strip neighborhood police districts of “four to six” officers on each watch to prevent a third round of looting downtown.

On the hot seat for the first time at City Council budget hearings, Brown argued the two specialized units he created had turned the tide on violent crime — with drops of 29% in homicides and 9% in shootings since their inception three months ago.

That drop came as no comfort to aldermen across the city who complained local districts forced to relinquish officers to downtown are “on fire.”

“The 4th District has seen a severe uptick in violent crime along with one of the grids that I share with the 7th Ward,” South Side Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) told Brown. “A tremendous uptick. Historical numbers of carjackings. It seems to never stop.”

Chief of Operations Brian McDermott assured Harris three community safety teams are assigned to the South Chicago district “every single day.”

“I know you guys are on fire. You’re catching a lot of shootings,” he said.

Ald. Sophia King (4th) complained the Wentworth District has endured a 67% spike in shootings, but has fewer officers. She demanded to know how many officers each district was sacrificing to downtown.

“Between four and six in each district on every watch,” McDermott said.

“About a month ago, we moved about 200 back to the districts. We did have more people assigned downtown. Now, we’ve scaled that back. … We have less officers down there on days. … But, first and third watch pretty much have enough people down there to have a noticeable deterrence against any civil unrest or looting.”

King was almost incredulous.

“How do you take into account putting resources down there when literally folks are being killed in the 4th Ward and, I know, other places? ... I feel like you’re waiting for something to happen downtown while things are actually happening in our communities,” she said.

“You’re focusing now disproportionately on an area waiting for a looting incident to happen while there’s shootings happening … elsewhere.”

Protesters and Chicago police officers during a march downtown Friday, May 29 over the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.
Protesters and Chicago police officers during a march downtown on Friday, May 29 over the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. Looting occurred later that weekend.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

McDermott countered that the “vast majority” of patrol officers are assigned to Chicago neighborhoods, backed by 800 officers on citywide teams that can be deployed on a dime to neighborhood hot spots.

“At the same time, we can’t ignore the 1st and 18th districts, which also have residents living there. We can’t just sit back and wait for another looting incident to occur,” McDermott said.

“70% of the city’s revenue is generated from downtown. We just can’t afford to have another looting incident downtown.”

Brown said “downtown is a neighborhood” unto itself. He pushed back hard against the notion that officers were just “sitting around” downtown waiting for something to happen.

“They are visible, preventative. They’re engaging in communities. They’re responding to crime. They’re making arrests. They’re writing citations. Doing all the things they do in every other neighborhood in the city. We’re not waiting for something” to happen, the superintendent said.

Complaints from aldermen were exacerbated by the fact that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed budget eliminates 614 police vacancies.

That means that, as Chicago police officers retire — at a rate certain to rise once the police contract is settled — they will not be replaced. The mayor is shrinking the department through attrition.

“People are gonna be leaving after 23, 24 years instead of 29. I just don’t think we’re getting ahead of the problem of crime with what we got,” said Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), whose Far Northwest Side ward is home to scores of police officers.

“You’ve got lemons. You’re making lemonade. … But we have to answer to constituents. And nobody feels that we’re getting ahead of these problems. Each district is losing police officers. … We’re losing them to special teams.”

Brown tried to put the best possible face on the $58.9 million cut in the Chicago Police Department’s $1.7 billion budget.

During the pandemic, recruit classes have been limited in size to maintain social distance. As a result, the police academy can safely train only 300 officers next year. That’s 200 officers short of the normal attrition rate of 500.

Also during Thursday’s hearing, Brown disclosed that CPD already has burned through $125 million in overtime. That’s $33.7 million over budget with two months still to go and a tumultuous election that could trigger another round of civil unrest.

Brown also appeared to crack the door open to reversing the decision made by his predecessor, interim Supt. Charlie Beck, to abolish merit promotions used to diversify the overwhelmingly-white ranks of the CPD supervisors.

“I have yet to determine whether or not I will bring that back or have some different iteration of merit. I will just say from a high level, we have to focus on diversity amongst all the ranks. And multiple-choice tests don’t necessarily get us to that point,” he said.

“We need some other things that not only include previous history as it relates to civil litigation, misconduct and, more importantly in my opinion, reform. What’s been that person’s history on reform needs to be involved in our promotional process that will be intertwined with making sure we are diverse.”