Among the questions Chatham residents had for police Superintendent Garry McCarthy at a community forum Saturday was one asked by a lot of people around the city: “Are you going to hire more police?”
As another resident went on to explain: “We don’t have much of a police presence here. And crime is spreading to the side streets.”
McCarthy couldn’t respond, since, as I wrote in this week’s paper, he skipped the long-scheduled event. Instead, Sixth District police commander Eric Carter addressed the group of hundreds of residents, telling them that 40 officers had recently been redeployed to the district for evening and overnight shifts. “We’re going to enforce the ordinances, the quality of life stuff, while also going after violent crime,” he said.
Carter was referring to cop re-assignments that McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have touted as “new” officers on the street—even though, beyond the politicking, it’s not clear how many police are actually patrolling neighborhoods who weren’t a few weeks ago.
What is clear is that the size of the police force is shrinking, and people in Chatham and other middle-class neighborhoods don’t think they’re getting the kind of police coverage they’re paying for with their taxes. That’s prompting some officials and community leaders to consider going another route: hiring private security.
Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer, elected this spring after promising to improve public safety, said the new redeployments won’t address all of his constituents’ concerns. “We do have more officers patrolling the area, which is always a good thing,” he said. “But they can't do it all themselves and we have to acknowledge that.”
So Sawyer says he’s researching the possibility of using special taxing districts to fund a private security force for the community. “We’d get security guards and off-duty cops to patrol, particularly in our residential areas,” Sawyer said. “That might help us crack down on these property issues we’ve been experiencing—the thefts of air conditioners, the lawn mowers stolen. I think we need to do something to combat that.”
The alderman is talking about special service areas, or SSAs—designated districts where property owners pay a little more in taxes for extra services like storefront facade improvements, extra trash pickup and street sweeping, and economic development.
Sawyer isn’t the first person to propose using SSA funds for security. In fact, the southwest side community of Marquette Park began paying $70 a month for private patrols way back in 1994. The policy has been controversial almost ever since. As one Marquette Park resident said in a 2002 story about it for the Reader: “We're paying for the Chicago police—so why are we paying for extra security?”
The issue came up again in 2009, when far south side aldermen Anthony Beale and John Pope wanted to give private security guards the authority to issue citations for parking, litter, and other small infractions. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and police superintendent Jody Weis—well aware they didn’t have the money to hire Chicago cops for the work—said they were open to the idea, but it was ripped by the police union and died soon after.
Later that year, the parking meter lease deal gave parking enforcement powers to private contractors. That’s been challenged in court, though not by the police union, since the lease deal outsourced the work of meter maids, not cops.
Anyway, SSA-funded private security forces have patrolled parts of Rogers Park and still patrol portions of Marquette Park and Roseland, according to city records.
There are now 43 SSAs across the city. Most don’t currently fund private security guards, but that may change as the city continues to grapple with gigantic budget shortfalls.
As the Marquette Park residents noted a decade ago, all of this raises a series of questions:
Are the private security forces fully accountable to the communities they’re policing?
Just how many patronage workers will get paid out of these funds as they continue to expand?
And does the growing use of SSAs signal a trend toward a multi-tier system of service delivery—high-quality for the areas that pay a premium, unreliable or poor for the areas that can’t afford it or don’t have the clout to get it?
Or is that already how it works?