Emanuel: 3 police stations to close; police, fire headquarters to merge
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org October 11, 2011 4:28PM
Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel during interview at City Hall, Tuesday, October 11, 2011. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:28PM
The Chicago Police Department will close three district police stations in 2012 — Wood, Belmont and Prairie — consolidate police and detective areas from five to three and merge Police and Fire Department headquarters and specialized units, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday.
Instead of having “overlapping functions” in the Police and Fire Departments overseeing anti-terrorism, marine activities, helicopter and bomb and arson, those units will join forces under “single leadership” for “better coordination at key moments,” the mayor said.
The merger of special units and the combined Police and Fire headquarters at 35th and Michigan will create a “more agile bureaucratic structure” that Emanuel called unprecedented.
Emanuel will unveil his 2012 city budget at a special City Council meeting on Wednesday, using a mix of budget cuts and targeted tax and fee increases to erase a $635.7 million shortfall.
“No other city to date has looked at both the headquarters and integrating certain areas into kind of a single public safety mission,” the mayor said, joking that the Police and Fire Departments would maintain “separate football and softball teams”
“The bureaucratic structure that existed, rather than assist, sometimes actually got in the way. ... The city is better served from a public safety perspective [by] finding that kind of integration and being more agile.”
The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was exploring the politically-volatile idea of closing district police stations to save millions and free scores of officers for street duty.
In an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on the eve of his budget address to the City Council, Emanuel confirmed that he is closing three stations by “taking the oldest buildings and consolidating them into some of the newest facilities.”
City Hall sources subsequently identified the three stations as Wood, Belmont and Prairie. The Prairie station opened in 1952 and is Chicago’s second-oldest station. Wood opened in 1960. Belmont dates back to 1975.
Sources said the stations were chosen because of their relatively low crime statistics and the ability of nearby stations with similarly low numbers to absorb the operations.
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.
For every station closed, McCarthy estimated that 20 officers could be made available for street duty. The move would also free scores of additional officers now assigned to police areas who support those district operations.
“At the end of the day, the consolidated districts will have the largest police forces — meaning by district manpower,” the mayor 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 protests in the impacted neighborhoods.
Emanuel said Tuesday he is well aware of the politics behind station closings — and the widely-held view among some neighborhood residents that living close to a police station makes them more safe.
But, he also said, “Between the building that’s sitting there and a police officer [who is] driving around, most important from a visual kind of security is the cop driving around, riding around, walking a community. That’s where a community feels safety — not in a building that’s two miles away.”
The decision to consolidate police and detective areas from five to three could dramatically reduce the number of police supervisors. But, McCarthy said he intends to keep them all, but use them more effectively.
If the captain’s union agrees to a “side letter,” every district commander, area deputy chief, and unit chief will have an executive officer, he said. The Fire Department will also go from six areas to five.
“If the commander is on vacation or out sick, somebody’s got to be in charge who’s accountable,” McCarthy said.
“It’s taking the management structure that exists — the same population — and redistributing it into a consolidated, more efficient system.
Currently, the city is divided into five detective “areas,” each of which is responsible for investigating crimes in five police districts.
The city’s detective divisions are Area 1, 5101 S. Wentworth; Area 2, 727 E. 111th; Area 3, 2452 W. Belmont; Area 4, 3151 W. Harrison, and Area 5, 5555 W. Grand. Emanuel and McCarthy would not say which two are being eliminated.
Not surprisingly, Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields reacted coolly to the station closings.
“We’re going to be losing manpower in those neighborhoods that are losing districts. It’s going to happen. We all know it. They’re just not telling us right now,” Shields said.
“We can argue that crime is going down. But one of the reasons crime goes down is because of officer presence. That keeps criminals off the street. When they stop going to certain locations, that’s when the criminal comes back into that neighborhood.”
Daley’s final budget called for hiring 200 additional officers — nowhere near enough to keep pace with attrition — but the officers were never hired.
On Tuesday, Emanuel disclosed that his 2012 budget would set aside funding to hire “a class” of police recruits, without revealing how many officers would be hired. And he refused to say what he plans to do with the 1,400 police vacancies.
McCarthy told the Sun-Times in late August that he had been asked to cut at least $190 million from the Police Department’s $1.3 billion-a-year budget and would get only half way there by eliminating vacancies.
Two weeks ago, he retreated from that position, saying, “I don’t want to eliminate positions. I want to hold on to them and not fill them,” then hire officers when economic conditions improve.
Budget Director Alex Holt subsequently told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown that the 1,400 police vacancies would be placed “essentially in a reserve account.”
Last month, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) was open to the idea of closing the Wood station, noting that demographics and crime patterns have changed. But, now that Emanuel and McCarthy are planning to close two stations in his ward — Wood and Belmont — he’s livid.
“It basically pulls officers away in either direction from the ward,” Waguespack said. “They’re not even considering rebuilding the [Wood St.] station.”
Ald. Jim Balcer (11th), chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, has 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 last month.