Monday, June 6, 2011

New police chief sets out to show he's not the old police chief

Posted By on 06.06.11 at 06:36 PM

Garry McCarthy and the aldermen who signed off on his appointment as Chicago police superintendent Monday were eager to send a message to the public: He is not Jody Weis.

As 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell put it: “The difference between you and your predecessor is like night and day.”

The aldermen should know. Several even dropped hints suggesting they’d studied for the question and answer session ahead of time.

“Your resume, Mr. McCarthy, is quite impressive,” said James Balcer (11th Ward), the committee chairman.

“You have a great resume,” declared Willie Cochran (20th), the committee’s vice chairman.

“Your resume is very impressive,” added Anthony Beale (9th).

“I read your resume,” promised Ray Suarez (31st). “It’s very impressive.”

Of course, aldermen had also voiced enthusiasm about McCarthy’s predecessor, the former FBI man Weis, when they approved his appointment by a 44-1 vote three and a half years ago at the behest of then-Mayor Daley. (The one opposing vote came from Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell, as she recently reminded me after my colleague Ben Joravsky and I noted that her pragmatism often outpaces her revolutionary instincts.)

Yet by the unceremonious end of Weis's tenure in February, few were willing to call themselves fans. Crime numbers dropped steadily on his watch, but Weis never had the political or public relations skills to convince people that the city wasn’t slipping.

In contrast, McCarthy, who previously served as the police chief in Newark after a 25-year career in New York City, was cool and confident. Suarez noted that McCarthy had even shown up without any handlers or crib sheets: "You're answering your own questions."

McCarthy, in turn, made it sound like dispensing with crime would be the easy part of his gig. He spent much of his time talking about “customer service,” “transparency,” “trust,” “quality of life,” and “community engagement.”

“We can reduce crime, we know how to reduce crime, and we can do it without the unintended consequences of ‘heavy handed’ policing that we’ve used over the last few years,” he said.

It sounded very good, and hopefully it will be. Chicago was once considered a national leader in community policing—the idea that police and community leaders would team up to not just solve crimes but confront community disorder that leads to it. Over the years, though, the philosophy was essentially relegated to an outreach program within the department called CAPS.

At the same time, budget woes led to fewer cops assigned to specific beats. Instead, the department relied on mobile units that would descend on designated hot spots.

McCarthy was savvy enough to avoid mentioning “community policing,” which is closely tied to very mixed feelings about the CAPS program. Instead he talked about “community engagement,” which he suggested would mean more beat cops interacting with community folks and cracking down on quality of life violations like public drinking and loud radio-playing. He said he remains a supporter of the broken windows theory of crime prevention.

“I understand that the direction of the agency has been a little bit, shall we say, muddled, when it comes to quality of life, but I am an absolute advocate for enforcing the little things to prevent the big things,” he said.

The 500 cops he recently moved from mobile units to beat work in high-crime areas might stay there, he said, though he didn’t yet know for sure. What he did know was that he wouldn't be taking the approach of Weis and Weis’s predecessor, Phil Cline, who quit after a series of scandals, some involving mobile officers.

“Many of those [recently redeployed] officers were assigned to two separate task forces that went around the city going to hot spots and pushing down on crime. That’s an easy fix and it’s a different management style than I’m accustomed to,” McCarthy said.

“When officers are not connected to the community, they can’t tell the difference between Mrs. Smith’s son and Mrs. Jones’s son, and they’re two totally different kids but they look a lot alike so they treat them both the same. That results in unintended harms to the community.”

No one argued with that point, which is raised often in hard-hit black and Latino neighborhoods.

But the aldermen didn’t protest when McCarthy's promises veered into improbability either.

“If I need to I will stop the administrative function of this agency to put every single cop on the street to stop our children from getting shot,” McCarthy said.

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