Crime in Chicago has long drawn the attention of politicians, media, and the general public. In particular, the influx of violent crime often associated with gang activity and rising shooting rates continue to trouble the city. Chicagoans know contemporary gang violence in a homogenized form. It is seen as an issue which primarily affects low-income, minority communities. When analyzing statistics, historically poor communities suffering from high unemployment display drastically higher violent crime rates. Members of these communities continuously take part in the fight for violent crime reduction and seek assistance from the rest of the city in doing so. While different initiatives have been put forth by both the city and grassroots organizations, funding is hard to come by.

According to James C. Howell, a senior research associate with the National Gang Center in Tallahassee, Florida, 20-50% of all homicides in U.S. urban cities involve a gang member as either perpetrator or victim. To be certain, this phenomenon is not Chicago’s alone despite media coverage suggesting otherwise. Gang involvement has risen in the last five years nationally. However, in terms of population, Chicago homicide and shooting rates remain alarmingly high ahead of the larger municipalities of New York and Los Angeles.

Chicago Tribune and Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors
Chicago Tribune and Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

Just as the roots to Chicago’s gang issues are multifaceted, thoughts on possible solutions to handling gun violence abound. Gun control brings about some of the strongest rhetoric amongst politicians despite varying opinions as to any potential legislation’s impact. There has also been discord within the academic community over gun control since research began on the issue. Those against increased measures point to Illinois’ strict gun laws as proof of their inadequacy. Those in favor reference the loose regulation in states surrounding Illinois as the problem.  This debate has and continues to rage on; however, it does not seem as though gun control legislation alone could ever change the culture of violence to which Chicagoans and others have grown accustomed or desensitized. Accordingly, any future reduction must be accompanied by a shift in attitudes.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab, a university sponsored think-tank, notes that “[d]espite the enormous toll gun violence takes on young people in Chicago, and across the United States, the evidence about what works to reduce youth gun violence is extremely limited.” While politicians and talking heads argue for different methods, rarely are specific programs or success stories referenced as support. However, official strategies for strengthening law enforcement bonds to communities have existed for quite some time. The U.S. Department of Justice refers to the 1990s as the founding era of community policing and points to Chicago as one of the first cities to use this approach.

CAPS-ThumbThe Chicago Police Department (CPD) initiated the Community Alternative Policing Strategies (CAPS) program in 1993. After a brief exploratory period in several of the police districts, the program was expanded in 1995 to include the entire city. The rationale behind the program shifts focus to prevention at the community level instead of merely reacting to reports of criminal wrongdoing. Monthly beat meetings for community advisory boards and CPD officers look to establish trust and an open space for discussion. According to the CPD website,

CAPS has been recognized as one of the most ambitious community policing initiatives in the United States. It has been cited as a model by numerous national experts, including officials at the U.S. Department of Justice and academic authorities on community policing.

CAPS aims to make community members more active participants in law enforcement and to reduce both the physical and psychological distance between themselves and police officers. Individuals, church groups, school affiliated organizations, and non-profits all make an effort to attend and work in coordination with the police. The meetings seek to normalize interaction between the two groups and open a forum to discuss anything related to crime reduction. Reports from the early 2000s by officials at Northwestern University and others monitoring the program noted an improvement in police perception amongst various community members and overall crime reduction. While the extent to which these improvements can be directly attributed to CAPS is not clear, the program did offer some encouraging results.

CAPS continues to be used by CPD and serves as a model for other community policing initiatives around the country. However, the program has not been universally regarded as successful in bridging the community-law enforcement gap. Many note that CAPS suffers from the typical bureaucratic lapses and lack of interest associated with such programs. Creating meaningful relationships requires both parties to attend meetings and to value the strategies enacted. Community members have been critical of police attitudes towards the program and police have expressed similar skeptical outlooks towards meeting attendance and overall community member involvement. In essence, many believe the program to have good intentions, but to fall short of producing meaningful change.

Criticism of the program prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to amend CAPS in 2015 in an effort to combat some of its criticism. Coming at the height of the Emanuel reelection campaign, the changes were in response to a peak in Chicago shootings which had brought staunch disapproval for the Mayor’s policing strategy.  In a press conference, Emanuel noted that the program newly envisioned would have to apply the existing budget in a different manner. “You can have the same 50 people, but if they’re in the downtown headquarters, they’re not doing community policing.”

Emanuel’s plan established permanent CAPS offices in each of Chicago’s 22 police districts and, according to him, moved officers from city desks to foot and bike patrol in their jurisdictions. The Mayor makes an important point in noting that community policing efforts necessarily must have officers in the communities forging ties. Yet not allocating new funds makes one wonder about Emanuel’s dedication to the program. Without incentivizing police officers to become more active participants, or finances to increase program engagement, the enacted changes seem superficial. Those most affected by gun violence have grown accustomed to inequity in terms of city funding. By structurally reshaping the program instead of increasing funding, the mayor’s action appears more like empty campaign rhetoric than something likely to be impactful.

Time and time again, inner city communities are told that the problems they face are being taken seriously and yet, programs envisioned as potential solutions struggle to maintain funding and support. Chicago’s budgetary crisis should be taken seriously, but lives of city residents should always remain the top priority. The events in Ferguson and Baltimore during the previous year displayed, amongst other things, that serious mistrust exists between many of the country’s urban minority communities and their police forces. As noted, these issues are widespread and by no means unique to Chicago. However, attitudes must change towards city crime and violence. The intentions behind CAPS and similar programs are in the right place and greater urgency, importance, and resources must be directed towards solving these problems.