February 1, 2013
"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel a few years ago.
"And what I mean by that," he said, "it's an opportunity to do things you could not do before."
Things you could not do before?
Or things you would not do before?
Like hiring enough police to fight the gangs that are shooting and killing on the South and West sides?
Police have been retiring in droves, but because of a city treasury spent down to nothing over the years, City Hall hasn't been able to hire young cops in droves.
And after more than 500 homicides last year, and 42 last month (the most since 2002), Chicago and its mayor face a reckoning:
The cops are overworked and undermanned. The street gangs are fractured into smaller cliques that are even more deadly. And the rest of us are hearing almost every day about another homicide victim or two or three added to the death toll.
"Forty-two deaths in January is crazy," said a West Side cop with more than 20 years on the job who works in a high-crime district. "This is supposed to be the slow time. If we've got 42 deaths in January, what's it going to be in July?"
The death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton is Emanuel's crisis now.
She was a high school band majorette and good student who participated in an anti-gang video at school. Recently she was in Washington to perform during inauguration festivities for President Barack Obama. The White House has expressed its condolences over her death.
Chicago politicians — including Emanuel and Obama — find it easier to fight for gun control than to fight the gangs.
Pendleton's killing forced Emanuel to make a public announcement Thursday that he's shifting 200 desk-bound cops onto the street, a plan dismissed as thin public relations by the police union.
"It isn't working, and it's failed miserably," Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden said of overall police manpower during a midmorning radio interview with me on WLS-AM 890.
"And a (murder) clearance rate of some 30 percent is absurd because you can't put in new detectives, because you don't have the patrolmen to replace them," Camden said. "And we keep playing smoke-and-mirrors games."
City Hall begs to differ.
"We disagree," an administration official told me. "The mayor's been absolutely clear and firm that the Police Department will remain at full strength and that we will hire as many officers as we need to maintain that strength."
Full strength is a relative term, always shifting, but at his news conference, the mayor portrayed the personnel change as proactive, rather than as reactive.
"Before a flame becomes a fire, to put it out," Emanuel said. "And to actually, basically saturate and exhaust an area and have the resources to do that."
That saturation strategy sounds remarkably like one he rejected, the one developed under a previous administration t flood problem neighborhoods with aggressive cops and pressure the gangs.
Up on the podium with Emanuel on Thursday at the South Side's Area Central Headquarters were the usual suspects — police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, aldermen and community leaders.
It looked exactly like so many others you've seen over the years — other desperate mayors coming up with grand plans.
"We already have more than 200 officers citywide doing exactly what we're talking about," said McCarthy. "Getting these officers out the door quickly from their assignments — which, by the way, we just identified — putting them into a place where they can make a difference. This was the simplest, easiest, best assignment that we could do, was put them into the area task forces."
The senior cops we talked to after Emanuel's crisis-management public relations event weren't impressed.
"We've had more retired than those hired — it's all smoke and mirrors," said the veteran West Side cop.
The waves of police retirements aren't the only problem where he works. The main problem, he says, is the brazen attitude of the gangbangers. He doesn't think their boss from New York, Superintendent McCarthy, gets it.
"There's no fear of the police by the criminal element — that's the real problem," said the longtime officer. "This ain't New York, and he (McCarthy) wants to run it like it's New York. We have more modern gangs than they have in New York. Our gangs go elsewhere in the country and set up shop."
A South Side veteran said the mayor's new initiative — shoveling clerical personnel onto the street — is in effect Emanuel's admission that police are understaffed.
"They can no longer say that manpower isn't down ... there's no doubt about that," said the officer, who has experience as a beat cop, detective and watch commander. "And this is a way of getting more policemen on the streets without spending money."
While the Chicago news media focus often on Englewood on the South Side and West Garfield Park on the West, other neighborhoods are about to boil over, cops say.
As an example, he cited the gangs of Marquette Park. The Southwest Side area's African-American and Latino gangs are breaking up into block-by-block factions that are feuding with each other, coordinating fights through social media, he said.
""It's a huge breakdown in gang leadership," he said. "They're all factioned off."
The crisis is building for a smart mayor in a tough spot. It's all his now. He owns it.
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