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Police mull closing district stations

Exterior Chicago Police Department building 937 N. Wood St. Sunday Sept. 18 2011 Chicago | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Exterior of Chicago Police Department building at 937 N. Wood St. Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011 in Chicago | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:17AM

Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy is exploring the politically volatile idea of closing district police stations to save millions and free scores of officers for street duty.

McCarthy is under the gun to cut at least $190 million from the police department’s $1.3 billion-a-year budget. He is under further pressure to put more police officers on beat patrol at a time when the city can’t afford to hire more officers.

Chicago has 25 police districts, each with its own station. O.W. Wilson, the city’s first civilian superintendent, bit the bullet in 1960 and closed several stations, leaving only 20. Five have been added since then.

For every station closed, dozens of officers could be made available for street duty. Building maintenance, utilities and renovation costs also would be reduced.

Asked whether he was considering closing stations, McCarthy said, “We’re looking at

everything .”

Other high-ranking officials confirm that police station closings are under serious consideration and that the “dynamic and complex” decision would be based not just on the age of the buildings but also on demographics and crime in the surrounding neighborhood.

Sources familiar with the current deliberations refused to identify the stations that could be closed or pinpoint the precise number being talked about. The oldest stations are: Monroe, Prairie, Wood, Belmont, Wentworth, Harrison, Rogers Park, Calumet and Grand Crossing.

At a news conference last week to announce the redeployment of 114 more officers to beat patrol, McCarthy fueled speculation about station closings when, asked where he’d found some of the now-redeployed officers, he spoke about how many officers it takes to run a district station.

“If you walk into a district, you will see two or three or four police officers behind the district desk taking care of various administrative functions — whether it’s taking reports or directing people to where they need to go,” McCarthy said.

“Then, there were folks in the back offices doing administrative work like collecting data . . . [even though] you can take and collect data 10 times faster, 10 times better, with technology, rather than an individual with a pen and paper.”

Nearly 20 years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley touched off a political firestorm when he embraced a consultant’s proposal to close seven police stations to free 400 officers for community policing. At the time, the hit list of stations included: Town Hall, Morgan Park, Deering, Foster Avenue, Albany Park, Wood and Austin.

Community leaders from the targeted neighborhoods held rallies and launched petition drives. They argued that station closings would diminish the “perception of safety,” remove “vital decision-making personnel” from neighborhoods and disrupt long-standing relationships” between district commanders and the communities they served.

Daley backed off, vowing to test community policing in a handful of districts to “convince people it works” before ever again proposing consolidating stations.

He never touched the political hot potato again. In fact, Daley embarked on an aggressive plan he called “Neighborhoods Alive 21” — financed by four years of up-to-the-limit property tax increases — to rebuild police stations he viewed as “anchors” for neighborhood development.

Of the seven stations on the original hit list, six have been rebuilt in the past 10 years. The only exception is the Wood station, 937 N. Wood, which opened in 1960. It’s one of a dozen or so stations that are at least 20 years old.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward includes the Wood station, said demographics of the area have “shifted and changed” to the point where there is less housing and, therefore, less need for the antiquated station.

“If they had the resources to split ’em up into two or three other districts, they could probably save money by doing it,” he said.

Waguespack said he could support the station closing, “but only if I saw the commanders in the area could absorb more officers, and they upgraded those other buildings.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, said he, too, could support station closings provided there would be “no lapse in public safety.”

“I do believe with this consolidation you could have more officers on the street because you [now] have people duplicating administrative services,” Beale said.

But he warned, “No comamunity will want to lose their station. That’s where you might run into problems. You have to sell this. You have to educate the community that it’s not the building that protects the people. It’s the officers being out on the street.”

Another aldermen, who spoke on the condition he remain anonymous, called police station closings the “political equivalent of the third rail.”

“People tie the proximity to a police station to enhanced safety,” that alderman said. “If you close the station, people will feel less safe, even though all calls are directed by 911.

“But closing fire stations would be worse. There, the vehicles really are deployed from the station,” and response times depend on how far away the building is.

Sources said the possibility of closing fire stations and libraries also is on the table as Emanuel struggles to deal with the city’s $635.7 million shortfall without raising taxes, cutting police or using one-time revenues. Daley’s building spree also included libraries and fire stations.

The Wood District police station has long been a natural for consolidation because of its age and because the area’s demographics have changed.

So is the nearly 60-year-old Prairie District, which was primarily created to serve the University of Chicago. Now that Chicago Housing Authority high-rises along the State Street corridor in the adjacent Wentworth District have been demolished, that district could inherit the workload.

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