Taking the streets back

Posted: Feb 24, 2005 12:00 AM

CHICAGO -- He looks like the actor Wilfred Brimley -- round as a beach ball;  grandfatherly gray mustache -- but Philip J. Cline, this city's police superintendent, is, like his city, hard as a baseball. And as they say in baseball, he puts up numbers.

     Actually, he and his officers have driven some crucial numbers down. Last year homicides reached a 38-year low of 448, 25 percent below 2003's total of 600, which was lower than the 2002 and 2001 totals of 654 and 668.
   Nationally, homicides declined steadily after the peak of dealer-on-dealer violence in the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early '90s. But the decline was slow in Chicago, where in 2001, 2002 and 2003 it ranked second, first and second among cities in the number of murders, not just the murder rate. In the last third of the 20th century, Chicago violence killed more than 28,000 people -- the population of many Illinois towns.

     In an American city, as in Baghdad, which is about the size of Chicago, the key to policing against violence is intelligence and other cooperation from a population that trusts the police. Which means, Cline says, replacing random patrols with strategic deployments of officers.

     He says 50 percent of Chicago's homicides are gang-related. Gang membership, now an estimated 65,000 strong, used to be a rite of passage for young men. Now it is increasingly a career choice for men turning the gangs into business organizations selling drugs and investing the proceeds in, among other things, real estate. One-third of the drug customers are suburbanites.

     Video on a police department laptop displays facets of the problem. One clip shows dealers giving away, in broad daylight, free samples to droves of potential customers. Another clip shows mass marketing as customers, again in midday, are walked, in groups of several dozen, across a street to a playground to make their purchases. Another clip shows a violent felon being released from Joliet prison, heading for Chicago but first visiting Indiana, thereby violating his terms of release. He was rearrested two hours out of prison. ``A land speed record,'' says Cline.

     Fewer than 10 percent of Chicago murder victims are white. And as a mordant student of murder says, ``There's always a correlation between homicides and ice cream trucks.'' Most victims are killed in hot weather, from May to October, mostly in July and August, when people are mingling -- and often drinking -- on stoops and street corners, and are irritable.

     The crime-infested Robert Taylor high-rise housing projects on the South Side have been closed and the Cabrini-Green project on the near North Side is being closed, which means a jostling for social space among displaced drug dealers. Cline says there were about 100 open-air drug markets in the city last year. Police closed about half of them, producing more displacements as markets opened elsewhere in the city. This process is frustrating but constructive because it means some slowing of the drug trade. But it can also cause an uptick in violence as dealers contest desirable turf.

     Cline says that when 100 markets are each pulling in $5,000 a day, serious money is at stake. Some of the money buys the guns that settle struggles for turf. Last year police seized 10,509 guns -- 29 a day. They probably will seize as many this year; they did in 2003. But this is not an exercise in bailing the ocean: Stiff sentences for gun possession, and stiffer ones for firing a gun, put a high price tag on regarding a gun as fashion necessity for the well-accessorized young man.

     Last year about 18,000 of the inmates released from Illinois prisons came back to Chicago; perhaps 25,000 will this year. Some of the returning convicts come home expecting to reclaim their shares of the drug business. Some of the younger dealers will decide it is easier to kill them than accommodate them.

     A new ``shot spotter'' technology can detect the trajectory of a bullet and direct a camera that scans 360 degrees. Soon there will be 80 such cameras watching strategic intersections. There is nothing surreptitious about this -- indeed, the cameras have blue lights and Chicago Police Department logos. The CPD wants dealers to know the area is being watched. The cost of the cameras is paid by seized assets from dealers. So, Cline says contentedly, ``they're paying to surveil themselves.''

     Cline says the message to the neighborhoods is: ``We will take the corner back. You must hold the corner.'' Again, as in Baghdad.