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Chicago's Police Department Launches An Intense Outreach Program

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Chicago Police Department is trying to rebuild trust in communities with which it has a terrible relationship, so it launched an outreach program that's designed to change the ways in which police approach their work. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: At a recent food giveaway at a Chicago park, a cluster of police officers wearing masks greeted drivers and loaded boxes of food in the trunks of a long line of cars.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How many?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I have four. I got to get on line for four.

CORLEY: Twenty-fifth District police commander Adnardo Gutierrez watched to make sure things were going smoothly.

ADNARDO GUTIERREZ: We're here to work together with the community. We want the community to embrace us, embrace each other. It's making sure that there's no violence in our district, in our neighborhoods. That means we got to work together as a team.

CORLEY: This is a collaboration with an area church and an alderman's office, and it's here in the 25th District where Chicago decided to go a step further. The district is the first to set up a neighborhood policing initiative, patterned after a similar program in New York City.

DAVID BROWN: The best way to reduce crime is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

CORLEY: That's Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown.

BROWN: And you do that through community policing. Getting officers out of their cars and into the barbershops and beauty salon and churches and into the living rooms of our neighborhoods where they are assigned is community policing.

CORLEY: The notion of community policing isn't new, but it takes on a bigger meaning now after this summer's protests. Instead of working from one radio assignment to the next, district coordinating officers, or DCOs, as they are called, hand out business cards and encourage people to email or call them on their cellphone. They work together with residents to resolve problematic non-emergencies like speeding cars or a loud neighbor. The officers have helped some residents find jobs, the homeless places to live. And they often turn to beat officers, businesses and community groups for assistance. Commander Angel Novalez, the head of the Office of Community Policing, says he's witnessed something among the DCOs you don't hear much about these days.

ANGEL NOVALEZ: Joy that comes from helping members of the community - that's why we came on the job. We weren't just showing up and writing reports and making an arrest and moving on to the next thing.

CORLEY: Instead, says Novalez, they are actually creating strategies with people to solve problems. Officer Malcolm Brooks says he wanted to help change the perception of the police, and after a couple of years on the job, he signed up to be a district coordinating officer. Brooks says they get calls day and night.

MALCOLM BROOKS: We deal with people who have mental health issues. We deal with people who may be out of work - 'cause we've helped people get jobs. We helped a lady find an apartment.

CORLEY: And work to build relationships, he says, with business owners and residents. City officials say in the 25th Police District, where it all started nearly two years ago, there have been 10,000 fewer calls this year to the 911 emergency number, a drop city officials directly credit to people having direct contact with officers who are part of the neighborhood initiative, a program that's now active in five police districts challenged by crime and gangs. The 25th Police District is big, also diverse. But its nearly 200,000 people live in distinct neighborhoods largely defined by ethnicity on the West and northwest sides of Chicago.

RONALD WILKS: Good morning.

CORLEY: Good morning. How are you?

WILKS: OK. Just go up the stairs and to your right.

CORLEY: Ronald Wilks (ph), a retired pastor, lives in a brick two-flat on a tree-lined street about a block behind the police station. He's the president of the street's block club and a community ambassador, a point of contact for the police in their outreach and for residents. He says there has been tension between police and residents here for decades, but the ambassadors know the area and the community and work with the officers, explaining what's going on in the neighborhoods, the hot spot, when crime is happening. He says the DCOs have made a difference in certain areas but not all of the district.

WILKS: Now, could this plan work? Yeah, it could because when we first jumped off, we was all over the place. They was walking the streets with us, getting introduced to people and things, but something happened.

CORLEY: What happened in the 25th, says Bertha Purnell, was a lack of follow-through by new officers. She's another community ambassador and a longtime resident.

BERTHA PURNELL: I feel like we're not taken seriously a lot of the times because it's almost like pulling teeth to get information.

CORLEY: Purnell says too many DCOs get pulled off the job to handle other police duties. Police commanders cycle in and out of the job, too. That means they have to try building new relationships over and over again. Commander Novalez says attrition, reflective of cops leaving the profession nationwide and officers being promoted, have affected the program, but he expects that may be resolved as the initiative grows.

NOVALEZ: The question is, what are the key elements that will get translated as it expands?

CORLEY: Northwestern University professor Andrew Papachristos, who's been evaluating the program, says there's been frustration on both sides. But overall, results in the 25th District, at least before the summer protests, seemed promising. He says both residents and officers felt like relationships were moving in a better direction. But there's a caveat. Papachristos says no one should expect the DCOs and the neighborhood policing initiative will cause any drop in crime.

ANDREW PAPACHRISTOS: The mistrust and the cynicism in the police took centuries to get to where it is, and so if crime is going to improve because of that trust, it's going to lag behind. It's going to take years to build and work on this relationship, especially as we as a society reckon with the history of policing in America.

CORLEY: City officials agree, saying the policing initiative won't be able to resolve all the long-standing issues rooted in a lack of trust and respect, like police misconduct or stop-and-frisk policies that have caused a rift between police and communities. Still, Chicago's mayor, the police superintendent and many residents call the program with the district coordinating officers a positive police reform. They say eventually it should be a citywide project to bring police and residents together to solve problems, to work for safe streets and safe homes and to build trust block by block. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.