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Uptown in the News  

June 4, 2003
Uptown looks back on its first decade of community policing
By Libby Sander, Medill News Service

Marylinda Alejandro stands barely five feet tall, but her voice never falters as she admonishes a woman nearly twice her size for panhandling outside her Uptown grocery and liquor store.

"We don't ever have to call the police in here," says Alejandro, a storeowner on Wilson Avenue since 1967. "We know people."

And people know her. The store is a hub of activity, a fact not overlooked by the police officers who patrol the neighborhood on foot. They come into Alejandro's store regularly, and when detectives are looking for someone in particular, they ask the petite lady with the silver-white hair and the quick smile.

Alejandro and her extended family --- her grandson owns a new Internet café two blocks away --- appreciate the amicable relationship with local police. Just five years ago, Alejandro says, "it was drug dealers on every corner." But since then, the community has helped police clean up the neighborhood.

The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) began in 1993 as an experiment in law enforcement. It was billed as a proactive attempt to prevent crimes --- and reinvent the Chicago Police Department --- by promoting more cooperation between community members, city agencies and police.

The program marked its tenth year in April with accolades from Mayor Richard M. Daley and Police Supt. Terry Hillard for contributing to the citywide drop in crime in recent years.

"(CAPS) has reduced crime in the Uptown area," says Town Hall (23rd) District Cmdr. Daniel Alvarado. "It has fostered a partnership with the community."

In fact, Uptown's three police beats saw a 25 percent decrease in index crimes --- including murder, criminal sexual assault, robbery and motor vehicle theft --- from 1999 to 2002.

Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) regularly sends staff members to beat meetings and works with police to increase foot patrols to reduce domestic violence, hate crimes, prostitution and drug dealing.

But not everyone believes CAPS has had a positive impact. Although CAPS' motto is "Together We Can," some Uptown residents are not sure who the "we" is.

"CAPS is being used wittingly and unwittingly to gentrify the area," says Aqueela Ali, president of the Lakeside Tenants Association who has lived for 23 years in a government-subsidized Uptown high-rise.

She used to be a staunch supporter of CAPS, but now Ali says, "there's no doubt that CAPS is being used to get rid of poor people no matter what color they are."

David Rowe, executive director of the Uptown Chicago Commission, credits CAPS with making Uptown a more desirable neighborhood for both businesses and residents by curbing gang activity and drug trafficking.

But Rowe says CAPS needs to do more. "There needs to be someone who can deal with sensitive issues," he says. "CAPS needs to move up to the next level."

The next level could be difficult because many residents wonder just how involved police should get in the social undercurrents of the neighborhood.

Beat meetings: forum or free for all?

When the mayor's office and former Chicago Police Supt. Matt Rodriguez announced the creation of the CAPS program in the mid-1990s, it represented a visible shift in law enforcement. Emphasizing direct interaction with residents, officers were instructed to get out of their squad cars and patrol their beats on foot. Be a problem solver, they were told.

Some veteran officers resisted the change. But 10 years later, younger officers coming out of the Police Academy are well-versed in the tenets of community policing, says Rick McMahon, a 31-year veteran and lieutenant commander of the 23rd District.

At monthly beat meetings with residents, officers share information on crime, offer tips on how to help prevent and solve crimes, and respond to residents' concerns.

"The beat meetings are meant to be used as problem sessions," says Lisa Kuklinski of Lakefront SRO, an organization that manages affordable-housing buildings in Uptown and hosts CAPS meetings.

For most residents, the beat meetings are the most accessible extension of CAPS. Rowe compares them to town hall meetings. In the beginning, he says, the meetings brought police together with residents and business owners."

"At first we argued a lot, but at least there was a way for people to be heard," he says.

Even now, beat meetings aren't always placid. Yet as useful as the meetings are in airing the residents' concerns and increasing their contact with police, they haven't been a mechanism for constructive change, says Wesley Skogan, a criminologist at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research.

Skogan and a team of researchers have spent years examining CAPS' effectiveness and its impact not only on the police department but on the neighborhoods. Uptown residents who say beat meetings lack focus are not alone, Skogan says.

"(CAPS) has not been very good at getting officers on the street to think outside the box. They don't have any sense of doing analysis to combine together clusters of problems or hotspots and trying to figure out the underlying issues," he says.

At a recent Uptown beat meeting in a conference room of a high-rise apartment building, three officers sat facing two dozen residents in rows of metal chairs. The residents listened to crime reports from the previous month and volunteering trouble spots to police. A handful said they were concerned about teenagers loitering in the parking lots of local fast food restaurants and asked for more police visibility there. The meeting was over in 25 minutes.

"It usually isn't like that," says Irma Perres, a CAPS coordinator for the 23rd District. "It was an off-night. Of course when you have problems, people come to beat meetings," she says, adding that the meeting was in the neighborhood's quietest beat.

A two-way street

Community policing is not a science. It functions differently in each of the city's 279 police beats, reflecting the concerns and temperaments of Chicago's many neighborhoods. In Uptown, a small but racially and economically diverse neighborhood, CAPS has had a tumultuous but arguably effective first 10 years.

Skogan says police have successfully reshaped their internal structure to emphasize a more localized approach. The police department has formed partnerships with city agencies and attracted residents to beat meetings.

"As police departments go, that's a lot of progress," he says.

But in some neighborhoods, especially Uptown, Kuklinski says CAPS has become "a class thing --- and that's where the danger comes in. It should be working to pull people together, and in some cases it works to push people apart."

Many immigrants and refugees live in Uptown. Its concentration of social service organizations, homeless shelters and scattered-site housing make it a destination for those who are temporarily down on their luck. And with its proximity to the lake, spacious old homes and burgeoning construction of luxury condominiums, the area also has attracted a steady stream of professionals.

"You have such a large difference in Uptown," McMahon says. "You've got the very rich and you've got the homeless. And both have their own unique problems."

Anthony Valle, Alejandro's grandson, owns Connexco Café, a hip Internet bistro, agrees. He says tensions among Uptown's diverse residents are rampant, and no one group --- renters, yuppies, the homeless --- is more or less guilty of blaming each other for neighborhood problems.

Valle says he doesn't expect CAPS to deal with the neighborhood's mood swings, and he wishes there was more cooperation among residents.

"CAPS has helped, but one must keep in mind that it's a two-way street," says Officer Nano Guardi, who has been walking the streets of Uptown for eight years. "We can't be security guards. We can't have a police officer on every corner. But we can assist through communication and touching base with the community from a beat level."

The next 10 years

For Ali, the contentious beat meetings of years ago along with what she says is the unfair targeting of low-income residents has tarnished her image of CAPS.

"It's not working for the average person," Ali says. "It's working for the people with a hidden agenda who want their property values to come up" and don't want poor people to be visible in the neighborhood.

The only way to resolve those tensions, police say, is the continued interaction between police and residents of varying backgrounds. "I think we need to maybe even work closer together," says Perres. "We still need to bring the police closer to the community."

McMahon says police will continue to walk the "fine line" and keep the streets safe for all of Uptown's residents.

"What we have to do is work with both sides," he says. "We're not going to go along with (one group) if it wrongly affects the other."

Alejandro and her daughters say when stereotypes break down, life will improve. When the neighborhood first started to gentrify, some newcomers complained to police about Alejandro's store and the customers it attracted.

"They didn't know us at first," says Awilda Salcedo, Alejandro's daughter. But soon, the suspicion faded.

Meanwhile, Ali says she wants to start a dialogue with one of the block clubs she thinks has been asking police to target her building.

Officer Robert Kero, a beat team leader and a 21-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, says that community policing in Uptown is a gradual process.

"If you looked at the neighborhood yesterday and looked at it today, you don't see a big difference," Kero says. "But if you look at six months ago, two years ago, 10 years ago --- you see the big difference and you realize how far we've come."

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