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Emanuel evades questions about police station closings

Exterior Prairie Police District Building 300 E. 29th street.  |  Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times.

Exterior of the Prairie Police District Building at 300 E. 29th street. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: November 10, 2011 1:07PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday danced around the politically volatile subject of closing district police stations, maintaining that his singular focus is to get more police officers on the street.

“Everything I’m thinking about is how to strengthen the beat officer to fight crime — not the bureaucracy. ... It’s not a budgetary question. It’s a crime-fighting strategy,” the mayor said.

“Over the years, the beat officer and community policing have been hollowed out. The bureaucracy got fat. The whole strategy here is to ... strengthen the beat officer and make sure the bureaucracy doesn’t become the focus of fighting crime.”

Does that mean Chicago has too many district stations and could get along without a few to free dozens of officers for street duty?

“What it means is exactly what I said. Let me repeat it: The beat officer is the backbone of a crime-fighting strategy. ... How do you make sure that all the communities have the proper resources — not in the buildings but in our communities and on our streets,” the mayor said.

“I’ve never heard anybody say — not a single alderman, not a single community leader — say, ‘We need a bigger bureaucracy.’ I’ve heard, ‘I need more beat officers. I need a better gang unit. I need more officers working with our residents.’ But, what nobody said is, ‘How do I make the bureaucracy bigger.’ ”

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 more have been added since then.

Ald. Jim Balcer (11th), chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said he would entertain station closings if he was assured it would “put more people out on the street.”

“That has to be looked at — as long as the community is safe. That’s the biggest thing. If you can consolidate and put more people in the community to support that community and police officers, yes” he would consider it, Balcer said.

Nearly 20 years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley embraced a consultant’s proposal to close seven police stations to free 400 officers for community policing, only to back off amid a barrage of community protests.

A new proposal to consolidate stations would resurrect that controversy, but Balcer insisted that it’s not the station that keeps a community safe.

“It would make them feel safer, but you’ve got to have more people out there. You have to have the people on the street doing the work. That is the biggest thing,” Balcer said.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that Police Supt. Garry McCarthy is exploring the 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 cannot afford to hire more officers.

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

For every station closed, dozens of officers could be made available for street duty. Fewer officers would be required to staff the desks and lock-ups. Building maintenance, utilities and renovation costs would also be reduced.

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