Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Everyone wants their own police station

If the political people were to have their way, the Chicago Police Department would be broken up into 50 districts, each with its own stationhouse.

That would literally create one district for each ward. You’d literally have a district commander who would answer to the alderman. For the aldermen, the idea of having their own personal police district at their beck and call would be yet another perk of the position.

OF COURSE, WE don’t have that situation. We have a police department that for decades has been split into 25 districts.

And if the hints of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy are at all legitimate, there may soon be fewer stations across the city.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Monday about the pressures the superintendent faces to cut nearly $200 million from the police budget. The newspaper is interpreting McCarthy’s “We’re looking at everything” comment to mean that some district stations could be closed.

Although no one is singling out which district stations would be shuttered, you just know this is going to get worked up into a political morass.

FOR THIS ISSUE is going to be spun as the potential for certain neighborhoods to lose their local police protection. That really isn’t true, since any closing of stations also would reconfigure the police district boundaries so that all of Chicago is still covered.

But that will be lost in the shuffle.

People are going to complain if their neighborhood stationhouse gets shut down – even if it would be more efficient, practical or cost-effective to run police out of fewer locations.

I’m sure we’ll even hear some people complain if some of the older district stations get shuttered. We’ll hear rhetoric about history and tradition being disrespected.

EVEN THOUGH ANYBODY who has paid attention knows that the Police Department has periodically restructured itself. Change does occur.

I can recall the days when the 25 districts were broken up into six areas, each with its own headquarters – as opposed to the current five areas (what we now think of as Area Three at Belmont and Western avenues used to be Area Six). I remember when 11th & State was a significant intersection in police lore (and 35th & Michigan meant nothing).

I’m even old enough to remember when the Calumet District (and Area Two) were known as the Pullman District (and Pullman Area), although that change was meant to erase some of the bad memories lingering from the days of one-time area commander Jon Burge.

Although the days when one-time police Superintendent O.W. Wilson tried several reforms of the Police Department – including reducing the number of district stations to 20 – is before my time.

PERHAPS THAT IS the most telling part of this issue.

When a police superintendent tried to reduce the number of district stations out of a sense of efficiency, city officials ultimately found a reason in future years to restore the number back to 25.

Could McCarthy be engaging in a futile exercise that would be undone by his eventual successor?

Like I wrote earlier, many political people would like to increase the number of district stations. Even if their motives are somewhat selfish, I suspect many members of the public will be willing to go along with them on this issue.

BECAUSE THE PERCEPTION among the general public is that there aren’t enough police officers. I believe many people will see the closing of district stationhouses as evidence that there will be fewer officers available, or the same number covering larger areas.

Some police officials say that closing stationhouses would allow for police officers to be reassigned in ways that would put more officers in places where they are desperately needed.

And with fewer districts, there would be a need for less administration, which could mean more officers put back on the streets (even though I’m sure at least some of those officers would dread such a shift in duties).

But those facts won’t sway many in the public, who will see the building that they once knew as a police station sitting empty (or perhaps turned into a vacant lot) and will make the presumption that their neighborhood no longer has local police.

THEN, THEY’LL COMPLAIN that their local district station got closed, while the neighboring district station remains open. Favoritism being shown to select neighborhoods? Some people will be determined to spin the issue that way, regardless of what the truth might be.

This issue is going to open up ugly wounds, no matter how McCarthy plays this out. Even if it makes sense, some people won’t want to listen. If he pursues this issue, we’re going to learn just how tough McCarthy truly is.

Of course, to appease them, you’d literally have to put a police district in every single neighborhood and sub-neighborhood across the city of Chicago. Nobody wants to have 100-plus police districts.

Except, perhaps, for the most political opportunist of aldermen – who would love the idea of having several district commanders under their control. Which might be the ultimate evidence that cutting district stations might not be the dumbest idea ever conceived.


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