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Updated: August 11, 2012 6:17AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel doesn’t like playing defense, but he’s had to do a lot of that lately when it comes to the 37 percent surge in Chicago homicides that’s become a hot topic both locally and nationally.

The Chicago Sun-Times just launched a series exploring the roots of the violence and what’s being done to stop it, and the CBS Evening News and the New York Times have both come to Chicago to shine an unflattering spotlight on the city.

On Monday, the mayor who is better known for his media offensives was back to playing defense after returning from a week-long summer vacation.

Emanuel joined his Police Supt. Garry McCarthy in defending their joint decision to disband specialized police units and return hundreds of officers to beat patrol under pressure from aldermen who want those units restored.

“I don’t think coming in, swatting something down and letting it come back in two weeks is a way you strengthen a community. What it does is build up cynicism,” the mayor said.

McCarthy noted that 200-plus officers remain in task forces under control of area deputy chiefs.

“Saturating [a high-crime area] is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. We’re not repairing anything by doing that,” the superintendent said.

Instead of reinstating the Targeted Response Unit and the Mobile Strike Force, Emanuel and McCarthy are targeting liquor stores that serve as magnets for crime and vacant buildings where gang bangers deal their drugs and stash their weapons.

Towards that end, the city’s Department of Buildings will spend $4 million to board up, secure or demolish 200 vacant buildings in five police districts: Englewood, Harrison, Grand Crossing, Chicago Lawn and Ogden.

The buildings were placed on police “watch lists” after gang members and other criminals were repeatedly spotted there, officials said.

“The liquor stores and the vacant buildings undermine the very individuals and institutions who are trying to stand up [for] a sense of community. And I want City Hall to help the community leaders — not undermine `em,” the mayor said.

“It’s also of the view that you’re not gonna do this just with police. I need the pastors and community leaders to be able to step up.”

McCarthy said liquor stores and abandoned buildings are the two biggest “quality-of-life” complaints he hears at community meetings.

“Chicago has a unique gang issue, and vacant properties and buildings are an element that facilitate serious gang issues,” the superintendent said.

“Gang members all too easily are able to find a haven for illegal enterprises inside of these vacant buildings: Stash houses for guns and drugs and locations for narcotics sales and distribution foster the problems around these buildings.”

Emanuel’s focus on securing and demolishing abandoned buildings and shutting down problem liquor stores is not new. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley spent years publicly railing about and targeting both perennial problems.

The only difference now is better coordination among city departments and Emanuel’s promise to spend $4 million over the next few months to secure or demolish 200 vacant buildings that police have pinpointed as crime havens in five, high-crime police districts.

Interviewed on the CBS Evening News Monday, Emanuel talked up his strategies to tackle gang violence, including closing liquor stores that are “a magnet and a cancer in the community for gangs,” boarding up and tearing down buildings that have been taken over by gangs.

Asked what he meant when saying the cross-fire killing of 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was about values, not about crime, Emanuel said: “Two gang bangers — one standing next to a kid. Get away from that kid. Take your stuff to the alleys. Don’t touch the children of the city of Chicago. Don’t get near them.”

“And I don’t buy this case where people say they don’t have values. They do have values. They have the wrong values. Don’t come near the kids. Don’t touch them.”

The decision to focus on quality of life issues did not sit well with aldermen of two South Side wards under siege from gang violence.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, and Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former Chicago Police officer, said McCarthy’s strategy of disbanding specialized units to put more officers on beat patrol is simply not working, and it’s time to reverse course.

“We need to bring the Targeted Response Unit and the Mobile Strike Force back in conjunction with what the mayor has instituted in terms of beefing up the beat cop,” Beale said.

“Most of the shootings that are going on now are gang-related retaliation. Those units were the ones that would go into a community to stop the retaliation. Those officers were specially-trained and highly-motivated. Without them, there’s nothing to combat the retaliation. Beat officers are not equipped.”

Noting that homicides in his Far South Side Ward have nearly doubled during the first six months of this year, Beale said, “The superintendent’s strategies are not working. I will give up 20 officers out of my [Calumet] District if I can get those specialized units back.”

Cochran acknowledged that the specialized units were criticized for their aggressive police tactics.

But, he said, “Specialized units focus on aggressive and preventive patrol and nothing else. Their main responsibility was to stop and frisk to relieve our communities of these terrorists. We don’t have that capacity right now. Beat cops do what they can, but they’re not enough. I am supportive of removing these terrorists from our community.”

Emanuel said he understands the frustration the aldermen feel and shares it, noting that, “Their constituents are my constituents.”

But, he said, “We’re gonna back up the beat officer. The [specialized unit] strategy … calmed it down for a week, and it returned. [What’s important is,] are you doing the things that bring permanent reduction?”

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