Monday, July 23, 2007

it's not just about the southwest side

Last week's alarming news story about the fight in Durkin Park and slow emergency response is about a lot more than what's happening on the southwest side. Twenty six minutes is a long time to wait for emergency response in a potentially lethal situation. One boy was beaten into a coma. Eight were struck by an SUV driven into the crowd by a 15-year-old boy. The 911 center received 51 calls from the time the fight started around 10:19 p.m. until police dispatch was notified 26 minutes later. No squad cars were actually dispatched until an officer working in another district got a call from his son at the scene and then called police headquarters.

In the words of one officer: "the incident started when a group of white teenagers who were drinking in the park, decided to chase a black teenager but was unable to catch him. Then the mob turned their sight on another black teenager who was walking with a girl, they chased, caught and beat him until a resident came to his aid."

Wednesday night's community meeting at St. Bede's drew an enormous crowd of neighborhood residents. Racial tensions have been brewing in the neighborhood for years, and smaller incidents have happened before. This problem did not appear out of nowhere.

One of the major issues here is a dirty little secret that is off the radar of most folks who are not police and are not involved in CAPS: our police department is seriously understaffed. I've been hearing this from a number of police officer friends for years, and the situation is getting worse. Classes of police academy recruits are nowhere near large enough to replace the number of officers who retire or otherwise leave the job each year. Administrative snafus have cost the department potential recruits. I know 3 young guys who actually took the entrance exam for the police academy but were never notified of their test results. They know a bunch more who got the same non-response.

In 8 and many other districts, too many beat cars and rapid response cars are often not on the street or are one-person cars because there are not enough available officers to staff the cars. A one-person car is limited in its effectiveness, because many types of incidents need two officers to ensure safety, both for the officers and for civilians on the scene. One officer I know, who works a rapid response car (dispatched to specific incidents in progress rather than assigned to patrol a specific beat) often works alone because no one else is available for the car. As he puts it, "if it's a domestic or bar fight or any kind of violent incident, I can't go in there alone. I have to wait until at least one more car shows up, otherwise the situation could get even worse." Note: this officer works in the best staffed district in the city.

Many police are less than thrilled with the operations of OEMC (Office of Emergency Management and Communications), which handles 911 service, traffic management, etc. It sounds like there are procedural issues that need to be ironed out between how 911 calls are prioritized, how they are dispatched, and how communications are handled between OEMC and CPD. The OEMC web site has a notice to the effect that the actions of the dispatchers handling the Durkin Park 911 calls are currently under investigation and that the dispatchers involved are on leave pending the outcome of that investigation. I'll be curious to hear the results. These blog items give the dispatchers' side of the story.

There's been a lot of discussion on the Second City Cop blog about manpower and procedural issues, with follow-up today. Some of this is accessible to anyone, and some won't mean much unless you're familiar with CPD and police jargon. A police officer friend who took his entrance exam 10 years ago said that over 20,000 took the exam that year and that it was the last large (10,000+) group. That was the year that the city started requiring at least 60 college credit hours as a prerequisite for entrance into the police academy and stopped accepting applicants who were military veterans but did not have college credit. There has to be a way to balance the need for a more educated police force with a method for getting enough recruits. When a test group might be as small as 1,000 and fewer than 10 percent of those actually get through the process of becoming officers (entrance exam, physical exam, drug testing, psychological screening, background check, police academy), it's a drop in the bucket compared to what the city needs.

CPD is supposed to have 13,200 officers, if all positions are filled. Depending on whose numbers you want to believe, the number of sworn officers is around 9,900 or 11,000. Either way, that's a bit of shortage. For comparison, NYC has a population around 8 million and 41,584 officers. Chicago has about 2.9 million population and let's say 10,500 officers (split the difference on the numbers above). Los Angeles has about 3.8 million population and 18,000 officers (combining LAPD and sheriffs - structured a bit differently than here. They also have a much larger geographic area).

Another sore point among police is the number of officers faking illness or injury to collect $$$ while sitting at home, or doing anything but their jobs. I can't verify the accuracy of the following quote. If it's halfway accurate, it could explain part of the big picture. "We hire and train 50 officers a month on average. We have over 700 officers on medical leave or light duty on any given day. Those officers alone collectively represent the 3rd largest police department in Illinois, behind the CPD and State Police. ... Cracking down on medical abusers alone would greatly reduce our manpower shortage."

The 8th district, where the Durkin Park incident happened, is geographically larger than many suburbs. The northernmost point is around 37th St. The southern boundary is 87th St. That's 6 1/4 miles. East-west, the northern half of the district (which includes Midway Airport and some industrial areas) runs from just each of Western to Harlem Ave., also 6 1/4 miles. It contains populated areas interspersed with some large industrial areas, connected by major streets that are sometimes serious traffic bottlenecks. Many officers feel that redistricting to improve police coverage and response times is long overdue. I think it's an issue worth examining.

Some officers are on regular detail watching aldermen's offices, aldermen's homes, the mayor's home, the cardinal's home, park basketball tournaments and other events. These officers are not sent to emergency jobs, no matter how busy it gets in their districts.

Where's the media coverage on these issues, folks? Is this incident enough of a wake-up call, or do a bunch of people have to get killed for police issues beyond the rogue cop incidents to magically appear on the public radar?

No comments: