The rise and fall of community policing in Chicago

Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson mans the grill during a National Night Out barbecue in August. The event aims to create stronger police-community bonds. - MARIA CARDONA

The rise and fall of community policing in Chicago

Chicago used to be at the vanguard of community policing. But more than two decades after the strategy was launched, CAPS is a shadow of its former self.

By Nissa Rhee, Manny Ramos and Andrea Salcedo

On a mild morning in early May, two teenage boys sat on the porch of a house in West Humboldt Park on busy Chicago Avenue. From there, they could see a string of abandoned stores, boarded up and painted in bright colors. Occasionally, a CTA bus would pass in front of them, carrying commuters from the distant edges of the city to the Magnificent Mile shopping district eight miles to the east. A heavy breeze shook the blooming tree in front of the house.

At 10:30 AM, someone walked up to the porch and started shooting at them. The 16-year-old, Eddy Brooks, was shot in the head and later died in the hospital, according to Chicago Tribune reports. The 17-year-old was hit in the calf and thigh but survived the encounter.

Neighbors say they had long known the house to be a drug den. In the months leading up to the shooting, they had repeatedly complained about the building to the police and attended meetings of CAPS, the city’s community policing unit, to demand that officers do something about the young men who congregated there.

CAPS community organizer John Campos was on his way to one of these public gatherings on the afternoon of May 6, when he saw yellow tape around the house. Two uniformed officers were taking pictures of the blood-splattered porch stairs. Despite a decades-long community policing system in place for reporting and preventing crime, violence had prevailed that day at the house on Chicago Avenue.

Community policing has long been a matter of life and death in Chicago. When it’s worked, researchers have found that communities of color report less fear of crime and better relations with the police, which can translate into improved crime prevention and fewer shootings. And in a year when shootings have skyrocketed and community trust of the police has been severely damaged by the release of a series of videos capturing police shootings, it’s been touted by politicians as a powerful crime-fighting strategy.

“Chicago is where the whole idea of community policing began,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a speech on police accountability on December 9, 2015, just two weeks after the release of the Laquan McDonald video rocked the city and sparked a crisis in police-community relations. “It remains the best and most comprehensive approach we have in changing the everyday conditions that breed crime and violence and then breed mistrust.”

But nine months after that speech, an analysis by City Bureau and theReader finds CAPS in crisis. Chicago’s once-trailblazing community policing program has been hollowed out by years of budget cuts and restructuring. Stretched thin, the police department no longer has the money necessary to reach out to the community and quickly follow up on citizen complaints such as the ones made about the house on Chicago Avenue. Neighborhoods like those on the city’s west side struggle with far fewer resources and institutional knowledge than in previous years. CAPS today is an uneven patchwork of programs around the city. The result has been the destruction of the trust and goodwill the police department had built in the early years of CAPS.

Arguably, neighborhoods such as West Humboldt Park need strong police-community relations more than ever. An open-air drug market plagues the area, and residents live in constant fear of violence. District 11, where the May shooting occurred, has had twice as many murders so far this year as it had in the same period last year. As of September 15, CPD reports that there have been 65 murders in District 11 this year. That accounts for around one-tenth of the 519 homicides the city has had, as of September 19, so far this year. But while residents are eager to tackle crime, with CAPS a shell of its former self, they no longer have the support from the community policing program that they once did.

“It comes down to a question,” Campos says. “Are our voices being heard on the west side?”

Asked for comment, Emanuel’s office deferred to CPD. Meanwhile, the head of CAPS, deputy chief of community policing Eric Washington, has dismissed the idea that the program is in crisis, arguing that “Chicago has always been at the forefront of community policing.”

“Community policing started in Chicago in 1993,” Washington said in an interview at CPD headquarters. “We were at the forefront then and I believe we are at the forefront now.”

CAPS community organizer John Campos, pictured here in 2012 - JIM NEWBERRY/FILE

Community policing got its start in the 80s and 90s as an innovative approach to reducing crime. Cities from New York to Seattle to Cleveland tried establishing community policing strategies during this time but failed to create strong stand-alone programs because of a lack of government funding or support.

In Chicago, however, Mayor Richard M. Daley was a staunch advocate of community policing and fueled the growth of CAPS.

The city established the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy in April 1993 during a period of high crime and poor public relations with the police. Chicago logged 940 murders in 1992 and 850 in 1993.

In a “Strategic plan for reinventing the Chicago Police Department,” released in October 1993, Daley praised community policing as a “new, proactive approach to preventing crimes before they occur.” He wrote that a “historic change was taking place in Chicago” with the adoption of CAPS, and that while “community policing means reinventing the way the Chicago Police Department works, it also means reinventing the way all City agencies, community members, and the police work with each other.”

The strategy was rooted in a belief that communities can and should play a role in preventing crime and maintaining a safe environment. Through regular neighborhood beat meetings and district advisory councils, CAPS allowed police officers to work directly with community members to solve persistent problems like drugs and graffiti. Strategies ranged from playing basketball with neighborhood kids to holding regular community meetings and improving transparency in police operations and crime data. At the root of these strategies was relationship building, with police officers taking the time to engage with youth, business owners, and community residents.

After a brief experimental phase, CAPS was rolled out to all police districts in 1994. Between January and May 1995, more than 9,000 officers completed a three-day training on community policing’s approach to problem solving.

In 1996 and 1997, CPD expanded its civilian staff in order to improve community outreach and increase participation in beat meetings. More staff members were also brought on for additional CAPS programs like court advocacy and projects targeting gang and drug hot spots.

By 1999, CAPS had a budget of $12.5 million, about 1.4 percent of CPD’s total budget of $907 million—a small but significant slice. Each district was assigned a sergeant focused solely on community policing. The program was no longer dependent on the goodwill of the mayor’s office, and had an established bureaucracy that could address the needs of each district. The response from the community was by and large positive, but some communities found CAPS more useful than others.

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research studied CAPS between 1994 and 2003 and in 2004 published a report that found that the program had had a substantial impact on crime levels and police-community relations during its first decade. They found that African-Americans reported a 10 percent decrease in what they saw as crime problems after CAPS was created. African-Americans also experienced a 22 percent decrease in fear of crime in their neighborhood. Whites also saw decreases in these measures during this time, though Latinos didn’t. (Researchers speculated that Latinos didn’t respond as well due to a combination of factors including language barriers, fear of deportation, and a young, mobile population that wasn’t interested in attending beat meetings.)

Northwestern researchers also found an improvement in how communities saw social order and physical decay in the first decade of the CAPS program. African-Americans reported a 60 percent decrease in perceived social disorder and a 30 percent decrease in physical decay problems in their neighborhoods.

Even more significant was the change in police favorability ratings among these communities during this time. African-­Americans, Latinos, and whites all felt that officers were more responsive after the establishment of CAPS than before its creation.

“From 1993 or so well into the 2000s, Chicago had the largest and most impressive community policing program in the world,” says Northwestern University’s Wesley Skogan, who led the CAPS study.

The early 2000s would prove to be CAPS’s high point, however. While other cities invested heavily in community policing programs, Chicago began to pull back from its once-powerful tool.

“The energy went out of it after that time,” Skogan says. “There was a new chief of police [Phil Cline] who wasn’t interested in it. . . . And the mayor got sidetracked by a crime wave that was on the cover of the Chicago Tribune.” Violence spiked again in 2001 with 667 homicides, breaking a six-year trend of a decrease in murders.

Following the rise in violence, Daley took a hard line on crime and focused the police department’s efforts on guns, gangs, and homicides. Money was pulled away from CAPS and never returned. This past April, the Police Accountability Task Force convened by Emanuel gave its assessment of the state of policing in Chicago. The task force noted in its final report that “attendance [at CAPS events] dropped off significantly after 2000.” (Cline declined to comment for this story. Daley didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.)

In 2010, Daley moved 111 officers from CAPS to street patrol in order to address what he described in a press release as “the most immediate and pressing problem facing many of our neighborhoods—violence in our streets and in our homes.” Daley promised that the move would increase efficiency while at the same time ensuring “that the original goals and objectives of CAPS are met.”

A Chicago News Cooperative/New York Times story from early January 2011 noted that because of budget cuts and shrinking staff, fewer community meetings were being held.

“The program has pretty much been eviscerated, which is tragic,” 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore said at the time. “There’s no substitute for an engaged citizenry and police officers taking an active role in preventing crime.”


By the time Emanuel took office in May 2011, the budget for CAPS had fallen to $4.7 million, a little more than a third of what it had been in 1999. Meanwhile, CPD’s total budget had jumped to $1.3 billion from $907 million in ’99.

But in January 2012, Emanuel announced the “revitalization” of CAPS in order to restore “an effective community policing structure to the Department while providing the best possible services to the residents of Chicago.”

“Community policing is a philosophy, and the strength of that philosophy within the Chicago Police Department and in our communities is more critical now than ever before,” Emanuel said in a statement at the time. “CAPS is an important partnership between residents and police, and it’s time to revitalize the program by giving District Commanders responsibility and authority to tailor programs for individual communities.”

Under the new CAPS structure, community policing resources once controlled by police headquarters were moved to individual districts. Each district’s CAPS program was to be handled by the commander, a CAPS sergeant, two officers, a community organizer, and a youth services provider. District commanders were given the responsibility of choosing which CAPS programs they would fund and which they would stop supporting, a strategy that the department hoped would make CAPS more responsive to local needs.

(Garry McCarthy, who served as Emanuel’s police superintendent from 2011 to late 2015, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.)

While the “revitalization” changed the structure of CAPS, it didn’t alter the downward trend in funding for community policing. In 2012, the year after Emanuel took office, the budget for CAPS was slashed by $178,497 from the year before. In 2016, CAPS has a budget of $3.9 million, less than a third of the funding it had in 1999 and 17 percent less than when Emanuel took office. The police department’s overall budget has ballooned to $1.45 billion today; CAPS funding represents just 0.3 percent of CPD’s overall budget.

“Emanuel kept CAPS in place, but there’s no money there,” says Jimmy Simmons, who has volunteered as a CAPS beat meeting facilitator in District 11 for 22 years. “They don’t put any money into it. They continue to do these [beat] meetings, but that’s it.”

Emanuel’s 2012 changes to CAPS also resulted in a patchwork of programming spread unevenly across districts that inadvertently isolated CAPS volunteers and staff from their colleagues in other parts of town.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CPD said that each CAPS district received between $7,000 and $9,500 in 2016 to “support local community policing activities.” Funding levels are dependent on “the size of the district, levels of crime, particularly violent crime, previous spending patterns and other factors.”

But in analyzing CAPS programs for the first seven months of 2016, City Bureau and the Reader found striking variations in the activity level across districts. Several districts had more than 100 public events in the first seven months of this year, while others had fewer than 40. Our analysis showed that the number of events a district held didn’t correlate with the amount of money it received from CPD; some districts that received less funding had many events, while other districts that received more funding held fewer. Nor did programming levels in a district correlate with crime rates. Instead, interviews with CAPS volunteers and staff suggest that programming levels are determined more by the interests of district commanders.

Plus, CAPS teams now work in what one facilitator described as “silos” in each district, rarely collaborating with their colleagues. Campos recalls going out on “wolf pack” missions with organizers from other districts before 2013 to address problematic areas together. Now, however, he rarely talks to CAPS employees outside of his own district.

“We don’t even have the opportunity to learn from each other,” Campos says. “Like, ‘Hey John, what are you guys doing in [District] 11 to do this?’ We used to get together monthly and have meetings. We don’t do that [anymore].”

In the first seven months of this year, several police districts had more than 100 public CAPS events, while others had fewer than 40. - MARIA CARDONA

On a Wednesday afternoon in July, two police officers roll a dusty portable chalkboard with SWAT printed on it to the front of a meeting room in the basement of District 11’s west-side headquarters.

“How many chairs and rows do you think we need?” asks one of the officers.

“Ain’t going to be that many people here anyways,” says the other, as he arranges 36 blue chairs in the middle of the room. Indeed, when the meeting begins a few minutes later, only a dozen chairs are occupied.

District 11’s Expanded Anti-Violence Initiative meeting wasn’t always so poorly attended. Campos says that as recently as seven years ago, between 40 and 50 people would regularly attend the meeting. At that time a five- or six-person panel of community policing experts would help facilitate the initiative. Now it’s led by Campos, beat facilitator Simmons, and the district’s CAPS sergeant, who is out of the office on this particular day.

In the past, every district held monthly antiviolence meetings. That changed with the decreasing budget and recent restructuring, which allowed district commanders to choose whether or not to hold them. District 11 is now one of the few places that still does, but it’s only the “skeletal remains” of the program, Campos says. A previous commander got rid of the program altogether; it was only reinstated when a new commander came in.

EAVI was originally envisioned as an ideal venue for community policing, a “beat meeting on steroids,” as Campos puts it. Neighborhood leaders would meet regularly with police officers and CAPS staff and delineate problems in the neighborhood. People would break into groups around topics like public safety, community outreach, and problem buildings, and come up with solutions. Both community members and police officers were responsible for thinking up solutions and taking on “homework” that contributed to the solution. This could be as simple as finding out who a resident needed to speak to in order to get a stop sign installed on a certain corner, or talking to the principal of a school where young men loitered and caused trouble. When the group met again the following month, its members would be graded on how well they’d completed their homework and how close they were to resolving the issue.

Campos says that while those early violence-prevention meetings were “pretty successful” at addressing problems and holding people accountable, the low turnout in recent years has made the program less effective. Someone assigned an important piece of homework in one meeting could easily not show up to the next meeting, making accountability difficult.

Leticia Segura makes a point of attending the meetings, despite the fact that they fall in the middle of a workday. She walks into this one a little late, but is immediately recognized. The 44-year-old has lived in the area for more than a decade, and got involved in CAPS a year ago when she started having trouble with drug dealers near her house.

The dealers were hiding drugs in the alley, she says, and preventing her from backing her car out of the garage. When they began concealing drugs in her yard, she says, she feared for her family’s safety, and began attending every CAPS meeting she could find. She called 911 frequently, determined to get the police department’s attention.

Her persistence paid off. After more than three months, during which she asked the department for help, police raided the drug dealers and cleared the area.

Segura says the experience made her appreciate the power of community policing. Then, seeing that her local CAPS office was short-staffed, she started volunteering there, answering phones and doing administrative work.

CAPS “is spread very thin,” Segura says. “You have only so many officers who can do so much. If we had more police help and more money, I think we could do way more things.”

CAPS did indeed do more things in the past, Simmons says—when they had a bigger budget.

“CAPS was high on the list [back then],” he recalls of the 90s. “Oh, you had your little drug dealers and shootings, but nothing like this because the people were committed.”

CAPS had turned his neighborhood around then, Simmons says. People weren’t afraid to leave their houses, and they felt respected by the police. Thanks to the good relationship with the police, he says, the community was the “eyes and ears” of the department and helped officers solve and prevent crimes.

But when funding for community policing started decreasing, Simmons says that CAPS stopped being the cornerstone of policing in his district. The number of public meetings between officers and community members decreased, and their relationship suffered for it. Districts had to rely on donations to support bonding events like barbecues, and began enlisting volunteers like Segura to answer phones and do paperwork in their CAPS offices.

Looking at the cold and half-empty room, Simmons knits his brows.

“I think [CAPS] can do a much better job than what is being done,” he says.

“It’s like building a better mousetrap.” We don’t need new or fancy methods for improving public safety, because the mousetrap “has already been invented.”


Now, facing pressure over rising homicide numbers and poor community relations, CPD is once again looking to community policing to alleviate its problems. Superintendent Eddie Johnsonsaid in April that CPD had made a mistake by downsizing CAPS and that the department is working on “reinvigorating” the program.

“While CAPS has been successful for decades, enhancements are being implemented to forge better relationships between police and the community,” CPD told City Bureau and the Reader in a statement this week. “Over the next several months, you can expect to see more on this as the department will develop a specific community affairs platform that tackles some of the very challenging obstacles and tensions that exist between communities and the officers as well as implement better programs to work with young people and minority communities.”

Still, just what the “new CAPS” will look like is unclear. So far the department has been vague and sometimes contradictory about the scale of the changes in store. In an interview at a CAPS event in August, Johnson had said his department was working on revamping CAPS, though he was “not really ready to roll out the actual details” of the change. In its statement to City Bureau and the Reader, CPD said that the formal strategy that will guide CAPS in the future is “still a work in progress.”

Yet in an interview after a community meeting in July, CAPS deputy chief Eric Washington said, “We are not changing anything.” In a second interview held at CPD headquarters in August, Washington hesitated to even use the acronym “CAPS” to describe Chicago’s community policing program, and hinted that the letters would soon stand for something besides the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy.

“Because that ‘alternative’ is still there, I don’t say ‘CAPS’ right now,” Washington said. Both Washington and Johnson have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an “alternative” strategy for CPD, but rather the guiding philosophy of the department.

“Every officer that works for CPD should be engaging in some type of CAPS activity,” Johnson said. He didn’t elaborate on what that work should entail, or how it would be paid for, however.

The talk of making CAPS a department­wide doctrine and not just an “alternative strategy” may stem in part from the Police Accountability Task Force’s review of CAPS in its final report, in which it asserted that community policing should be “treated as a core philosophy throughout CPD.”

“Community policing cannot be relegated to a small, underfunded program,” the report stated.

Since the CAPS “brand is significantly damaged” and its “civilian staff has dwindled to the point of ineffectiveness,” the task force recommended getting rid of the program altogether. (The task force is not the first to call for the death of CAPS. Last year, District 14 commander Marc Buslik said of the program, “We need to drive a stake right through its heart.”)

The task force recommended replacing CAPS with what it called “Community Empowerment and Engagement Districts.” These CEEDs, one for each of Chicago’s 22 police districts, would be more responsive to community needs, the task force argued. But there has been no indication that the police department or the mayor’s office is considering such a change.

Meanwhile, as CAPS withers, police departments across the country are bolstering their community policing offices with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice. Last year, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing included community policing as one of its six pillars for police reform and recommended that community policing be “infused throughout the culture and organizational structure of law enforcement agencies.”

Johnson and other CPD officials have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an “alternative” strategy, but rather the department’s guiding philosophy. - MARIA CARDONA

On a hot afternoon in August, Superintendent Johnson grills hamburgers and sausages in a park set up for the 11th District’s National Night Out. Nearby, Campos applies temporary tattoos of the CAPS logo to children’s arms, and seniors take refuge from the sun under white tents. The event, which is held by police departments across the country, aims to create stronger community-police bonds.

“We are celebrating the community for being our right hand and helping us solve crimes,” explains Daniel Allen, District 11 CAPS sergeant and an organizer of the event.
 For some, like a 13-year-old named Xavier, the event marks the first time residents will meet a police officer. For others, it’s a chance to learn about ways they can help prevent crime and become involved in CAPS.

Campos says he remains optimistic about the power of community policing to make neighborhoods like his more safe. He says that community policing can “absolutely” help reduce the homicide rate and that he saw its power at the peak of CAPS, when the program “had the resources [and] ways of pulling in the community.”

“It’s like building a better mousetrap,” Campos says. “We don’t need new or fancy methods for improving public safety, he argues, because the mousetrap “has already been invented.”

“The philosophy of community policing should work,” he says, “if that philosophy translates into action like it’s supposed to do.” v

This story was produced in partnership with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.

Story originally published in The Chicago Reader.

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