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Chicago Police Supt. David Brown moves most tactical officers to beat cars, leading to backlash: sources

The move came after Mayor Lightfoot and her handpicked top cop said during a closed-door meeting last week that tactical officers would be reassigned to beat cars if they couldn't generate more arrests. Now, sources warn that gutting tactical units could result in more violence.

Chicago police Supt. David Brown
Chicago police Supt. David Brown.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Chicago police commanders were told Saturday that most of their tactical officers were being reassigned to patrolling streets in beat cars and responding to 911 calls, prompting members of tactical units in two districts to quit those teams, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The move came days after Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown threatened to demote police leaders who can’t generate more arrests and community outreach as the city grapples with a continued surge in violent crime, sources with knowledge of the meeting said. The two leaders specifically warned underperforming tactical officers would be bumped down to beat cars.

District commanders were then told Saturday that 60% of their tactical officers were being moved to beat cars, leading members of the tactical units in the Central (1st) and Grand Central (25th) police districts to leave their posts, sources said.

Police spokesman Don Terry didn’t directly respond to questions from the Sun-Times but said in a statement that department officials “are continuing to review crime activity citywide and put the appropriate resources in place to ensure public safety and grow community trust and support.”

“The Chicago Police Department’s top priority is safeguarding every community and neighborhood across the city,” Terry added.

Three sources — all police supervisors — told the Sun-Times they’re alarmed about the potentially dangerous effects of depleting tactical units responsible for proactive policing like responding to gunfire and gang disturbances and conducting surveillance.

Tactical officers play a pivotal role making high-level arrests and taking guns off the street, efforts Brown touted last month as some of the department’s few bright spots during the city’s most violent year in a quarter-century.

The sources said gutting tactical units could result in more crime and violence, with one predicting more than 1,000 homicides this year and another warning the city is on the verge of becoming “the wild wild West.” There were about 800 murders last year in Chicago and nearly 500 in 2019.

“If you thought it was bad before, it’s going to get completely out of pocket,” one source said, describing the move as a “death punch” that serves as a “huge” hit to the department’s already low morale.

The sources said there was no clearly stated reason for the change, saying it doesn’t make sense and specifically blaming Brown.

Since Brown took over from acting Supt. Charlie Beck in April 2020, Chicago has been battered by civil-rights protests and looting, the coronavirus pandemic, a shrinking police department and soaring violence. Meanwhile, officers have been retiring, resigning and transferring to other police agencies in droves, creating a severe manpower shortage.

In April 2020, Chicago had more than 13,200 sworn officers, and there are now fewer than 12,000. The number of cops assigned to the city’s 22 police districts has fallen from about 6,700 to about 6,300 over the same period, according to data from the city’s inspector general’s office.

Brown, who was hired by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to usher in reforms to the police department and reduce potential civil-rights abuses, created a new Community Safety Team, whose mission was to have positive interactions with people in high-crime neighbors along with fighting crime. But in November, he gutted the unit, which once had about 875 officers and now has fewer than 240, according to the inspector general’s data.

Last fall, he also doubled down on the gang investigation unit, which was de-emphasized earlier in Brown’s tenure. The unit, whose roster hit a low of about 80 officers last year, now has more than 215 cops and continues to grow, according to city data and sources.

Also last fall, Brown revived units of officers who don’t have citywide jurisdiction like the Community Safety Team but patrol one of five areas of the city. There are currently about 250 officers in the five area teams compared with about 40 in October.

It’s a return to a philosophy Beck had embraced and Brown rejected.

During Beck’s short time in Chicago, he reorganized the police department, emphasizing district and regional patrols. In April 2021, Brown defended his decision to reverse direction and create his citywide Community Safety Team and and Critical Incident Response Team, telling reporters Beck’s decentralized crime strategy “wasn’t working.”

At the time, Beck responded by criticizing Brown’s approach as “a more militarized, shock and awe” style of policing. Beck said he and Brown later spoke on the phone to clear the air. Beck recommended Brown go back to a community-based strategy and Brown “agreed with that,” Beck told the Sun-Times then.

Last week, Brown told reporters he plans to assign more 200 more officers to the detective division, which currently has about 1,275 detectives assigned to the city’s five area headquarters.

He also said he wants officers to have 1.5 million positive interactions with the public to build trust in the police — up from 500,000 last year. Before that news conference, which Lightfoot attended, she met with the police department’s entire command staff and told them to do more to make the city safer — or face demotion.