Rookie Chicago police officers have started to patrol on foot on some of the city's most dangerous blocks in a move that Superintendent Garry McCarthy said reinforces the department's "return to community policing."
After six months in the Police Academy and 12 weeks of training in the field, 24 newly minted officers have worked nights for a little more than a week in what McCarthy called an "impact zone" within the South Side's Gresham District, in crime-ridden neighborhoods that include Chatham and Auburn Gresham.
As more classes graduate from the academy this year and complete the field training, officers will be added to 19 other zones throughout the city where gang violence is rampant, McCarthy said.
"Where officers are in the vehicle, they can get around quicker, but where they're on foot, they can really lock down a location," McCarthy said Monday during a news conference at the Morgan Park District police station on the Far South Side.
The same group of new officers will be assigned to one particular impact zone instead of bouncing around to others, the superintendent said.
"One of the philosophies ... that we've adopted is what I like to call a return to community policing," McCarthy said. "And in this case, it's the same officers in the same zones every single night."
The strategy comes after the department this month doubled to 400 the number of officers allowed to work on their days off in those 20 zones to try to reduce violence. Those 20 zones represent only about 3 percent of Chicago's geographical area but have accounted for some 20 percent of the city's violence over the last three years, according to the department.
After a dramatic rise in violence during the first quarter of 2012 in part because of unseasonably warm weather, homicides and shootings have dropped sharply by comparison this year. Through Sunday, Chicago had recorded 69 slayings, down almost 35 percent from 106 in the same year-earlier period, department statistics show. Shootings also have dropped, by about 30 percent.
McCarthy said he hopes the foot patrols will eventually allow the department to reduce the amount of money being paid out in overtime.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents rank-and-file police officers, said the rookie cops will be working on the same blocks as more experienced officers who will be riding in squad cars. But foot patrols can pose a safety risk, FOP President Michael Shields said.
"I'd much prefer to see officers in very violent areas in a police car just for officer safety purposes," he said. "You always have to worry about officers being disarmed or approached from behind and disarmed, and the next thing you know the officer has his gun stripped from him."
But criminologist Arthur Lurigio said he knows of no evidence that officers face a greater risk patrolling dangerous blocks on foot than when riding in a squad car. Echoing McCarthy's comments, Lurigio said foot patrols can strengthen a police department's relationship with the community.
"Officers on the beat can gain a better sense of emerging crime and other social problems in the neighborhood," said Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. "Foot patrols also help police forge more favorable, cooperative and productive working relationships with law-abiding residents and business owners."
Ald. Howard Brookins, a past critic of McCarthy's strategies whose 21st Ward covers the Gresham District, said he believes the foot patrols will bring more meaningful interaction with residents.
"Foot patrol officers tend to know the community and the hot spots," Brookins said after McCarthy's news conference.