New top cop to change 'paradigm of policing' in Chicago

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On July 15, Garry McCarthy took the official oath as Chicago’s new police superintendent, and he was quick to assure the crowd that he would focus his efforts on creating a “partnership on a level unparalleled in the history of policing in this country.”

The timing couldn’t be better. After a string of violent summers and cuts in the police force, the Chicago community could use a different approach to law enforcement, and McCarthy, with almost 30 years of policing experience under his belt, might be just the person to fill this challenging role.

There’s no question that McCarthy has his work cut out for him. Just a day after his swearing-in ceremony, four people were killed in a 24-hour period across the city, resulting in a total of 87 murders during the summer months so far. And earlier this week, a 13-year-old boy was shot eight times after pointing a weapon at officers in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, which prompted talk of police brutality and excessive use of force.

The toughest part of the new job may be gaining the public trust of the black community in Chicago, which has had a historically tenuous relationship with police in their neighborhoods. It doesn’t help that McCarthy, who cut his teeth in law enforcement while working in larger metropolitan areas like Newark and New York City, is seen by some as an outsider who may not be prepared to deal with the divide that exists between urban areas that are experiencing more criminal activity, violence and disproportionate arrests than affluent middle class communities.

Can the former Newark police director garner the support he needs to effectively engage the black community in the law enforcement process, and apply all that he’s learned over the course of his career to reduce crime in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods?

“Policing in Chicago is challenging in part because of its size and its diversity,” said Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice and psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago. “There are 25 police districts in the city, and each of them has its own set of unique needs and social and crime-related problems. Although crime may be down overall, it’s not a uniform decrease, and the most violent neighborhoods are getting worse, which calls for more than one law enforcement formula and strategy.”

The city is faced with a murder rate that outpaces other large U.S. cities and an unrelenting gang problem that rivals both New York City and Los Angeles. Nearly 700 children were hit by gunfire last year, resulting in 66 deaths, according to Jack Wuest, the executive director of the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago. And January-May 2011 Chicago Police Department crime statistics found that 56.1 percent of Chicago murders were gang-related. In 65.9 percent of the cases, the offenders were African-American. In nearly 76 percent of these incidents, the victims were black, and a firearm was used as the weapon 83 percent of the time. All of these are issues that McCarthy will have to address as the city’s top cop.

“The biggest challenge that I have is reducing the violence in the city,” said McCarthy. “The number one cause of death for African-American youth is murder by gunshot and it outweighs all other causes of death combined, which is disappointing.

“One of the most greatest lessons that I learned in Newark was about the depth of racial polarization in our neighborhoods, and I think that in order to obtain the trust of the black community, we have to discuss these issues. The first step to reconciliation is recognition and we have to talk about where we came from to understand where we’re going. The stage has been set to do something truly special never achieved in the history of the city and together, we can change the paradigm of policing and community engagement.”

The new superintendent, who was handpicked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and who began his new job in May, hasn’t been timid in his quest to build a better relationship with the black community, either. Last month, he spoke at St. Sabina Church, a liberal black congregation in the heart of the city’s South Side, and he compared the nation’s guns laws to “government sponsored racism.”

“Let’s see if we can make a connection here,” he told the congregation. “Slavery. Segregation. Black Codes. Jim Crow. What did they all have in common? Now I want you to connect one more dot on that chain of the African American history in this country, and tell me if I’m crazy: Federal gun laws that facilitate the flow of illegal firearms into our urban centers across this country, that are killing our black and brown children.”

McCarthy hasn’t spoken publicly about his speech, but he did tell that he would not take anything that he said back and that he stands by his assertion that “strong gun laws against illegal firearms are critical in order to maintain public safety and private rights.”

While many in the audience at St. Sabina seemed to agree with what McCarthy was saying that day, there were those who believe that the police superintendent was pandering to the audience and shifting focus away from the root causes of the violence—increased gang activity, lack of job opportunities, a bad educational system and poverty.

Richard Pearson, the Executive Director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, told the Chicago Sun-Times that McCarthy is attacking gun rights because “he has nothing else to offer.

“He’s not talking about what the real problems are,” Pearson was quoted as saying in the Sun Times. “He’s not facing the fact his gang unit is failing, that the graduation rate in Chicago Public Schools is about 50 percent. He never mentions the economic problems.

“Any suggestion that McCarthy is a law-enforcement officer is a sham. Rather, McCarthy is merely another in a long line of political hacks who have resided in the office of police superintendent. McCarthy’s job description has nothing to do with law-enforcement and everything to do with enforcing the political agenda of his boss, Rahm Emanuel.”

St. Sabina Church Pastor Michael Pfleger, who invited McCarthy to speak at his congregation and is also outspoken supporter of limited gun rights, disagrees with Pearson, and says that the police superintendent was simply stating the obvious about the government’s need to do more to keep illegal guns off of Chicago’s streets.

“We can’t blame all of the violence on the lack of employment in the community, because at the end of the day you can’t shoot anyone if you don’t have a gun,” said Pfleger. “And I agree with McCarthy that the government has an obligation to create an environment where we don’t make bad decisions with guns.

“I’m really impressed with McCarthy so far, and I think he has a good sense of the issues that the Chicago police need to deal with. He’s realistic that we can’t police our way out of the crime problem, and the community needs to stand up and take back control of our neighborhoods and stop looking for the police to solve our problems.”

Not everyone thinks that McCarthy is adequately qualified for the new position, however. Pat Hill, executive director of Chicago’s African American Police League, says that the group does not agree with McCarthy’s appointment and that his refusal to respond to their group’s request to publicly address their questions during a City Council session only made them less supportive of the new superintendent.

“McCarthy has no prior knowledge of how the system works in Chicago, he is not aware of how the juvenile system functions, or how to properly address problems of high crimes in our neighborhoods,” said Hill. “He has a generic overview of the issues that face the city, but he is not well versed in the idiosyncrasies of policing in Chicago. Crime doesn’t occur in a vacuum and you don’t have to move police to stop crime, you don’t need more police to makes arrests. We have to address the root of the problem and create an environment where crime doesn’t flourish.”

Some of McCarthy’s first actions as police superintendent have been met with apprehension, leading many to express skepticism about the department’s ability to turn around the deteriorating relationship between community members and police. A Chicago Reporter analysis of Cook County court cases from 2006-2010 found that black teens aged 15-17 are nearly four times more likely to be charged with misdemeanor crimes than white and Latino youth combined. Black teens were also three times more likely to be convicted on those charges.”

McCarthy’s and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to send 500 additional beat officers to the city’s toughest neighborhoods this summer sparked mixed emotions because despite the increased police presence, it also mean that more black teens could be arrested for misdemeanor crimes at a disproportionate rate compared to youth from other races. McCarthy’s proven track record and his experience working in leadership roles in other large cities could prove to be beneficial in helping him develop a successful policing strategy in Chicago. On Sept. 11, 2001, as the country held its collective breath after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, Garry McCarthy was operating a command center a block away to sort through the chaotic disaster. He spent the week following the attack with Rudy Giuliani at ground zero, serving as one of the leaders in the nation’s worst crisis management situations.

In Newark, McCarthy flooded high crime areas with police, and had them crackdown on quality-of-life complaints like loud music and public drinking. He also created a 45-person specialized narcotics unit to tackle the city’s drug trade. When he took over in 2006, the number of shootings and homicides dropped by roughly a quarter, and the 37 percent reduction in the city’s homicide rate during his tenure was one of the steepest drops in the nation in 2008. But many in the community disagreed with his heavy-handed approach.

In September, the local ACLU filed a petition against the Newark Police, calling for federal oversight of the department because of a high number of excessive force and misconduct complaints. The filing included complaints about seven deaths that occurred while suspects were in police custody and another instance where an officer broke a man’s jaw and eye socket while under his watch.

Prior to McCarthy’s arrival, the Chicago police were also suffering from an image problem. During the early 1990s, former police lieutenant Jon Burge was fired over allegations that he and his officers tortured suspects, including dozens of black men and women, into confessing to crimes. After he was fired, Burge still continued to collect a police pension, and many in the community equated this to the fact that police brutality was acceptable in the Chicago Police Department.

In 2007, the police department had to disband its Special Operation Section, an elite group of officers charged with making gang and drug arrests, because of accusations of making false arrests and taking part in robberies and home invasions. Seven officers assigned to the unit were sentenced after pleading guilty to charges against them. One officer, Jerome Finnigan, was accused of allegedly tried to hire a hit man to kill a fellow officer who was set to testify against him in a trial related to these charges.

A year later, outgoing Chicago Mayor Daley hired Jody Weis, who formerly worked for the FBI, to lead the department. According to a recent Huffington Post article, during Weis’ tenure, Chicago’s homicide rate fell to its lowest since 1965 and there was a 42 percent drop in complaints against officers. Despite this, morale in the force continued to be less than ideal, and the community was still a bit leery about police officers in their neighborhood.

Although the overall crime rate is down in Chicago in 2011, and last year’s homicide numbers fell from 458 murders in 2009 down to 435, summer remains a particularly violent time in the city. And preventing the summer months from becoming a bloody season could prove to be the first true test of McCarthy’s ability to reduce serious crime and create order in the city’s deadliest neighborhoods.

After a series of layoffs in the police force and with Chicago’s current financial situation making it difficult to hire new officers, McCarthy will also have to learn how to use his leadership skills and adaptability to do more with less. He has already started to shift staff around the city, and he intends to incorporate more technologies like computer statistic and crime mapping software and camera monitoring systems to help officers patrol the streets and to hold police commanders accountable in their districts. This could be a key piece in getting the community’s buy-in.

Despite all of these obstacles in front of him, McCarthy says that he is ready for anything that the future holds, and he is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that policing in Chicago is a successful endeavor.

“I believe in doing better with less, and having a bigger impact, despite the lack of police officers,” he said. “My strategy is to ensure that every cop is out there on the streets and that the rest of the agency is set up to fight crime. We need to get back to the basics of law enforcement, which is protecting the people of our community and making sure that our neighborhoods are safe.

“Our officers take more guns off of the streets than in any other city, and the profound character and courage that they exhibit on a daily basis is a perfect example of the commitment that the police need to have to their jobs and to advancing our society. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no other place that I would rather be than in Chicago. Law enforcement is a lifelong passion for me, and this is the major leagues, and I’m ready make the best out of this opportunity of a lifetime.”