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New chief: Chicagoans must be weaned from calling 911 with non-emergencies

Updated: July 15, 2011 12:46AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s choice to run Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications vowed Tuesday to usher in a “cultural change” in 911 dispatching to free police officers to respond to the most serious crimes.

At his City Council confirmation hearing, Gary Schenkel said it’s high time that Chicago alter an outdated dispatch policy that sends police officers to respond to 70 percent of 911 calls, compared to 30 percent in other major cities.

Schenkel acknowledged it won’t be easy to wean Chicagoans of the habit of dialing 911 at every turn, calling the emergency number even for minor matters. It will require a major public relations campaign to divert lower priority calls to 311 or convince crime victims to file their reports online, Schenkel said.

But a two-year hiring slowdown has left the Chicago Police Department more than 2,300 officers a day short of authorized strength, counting vacancies, officers on limited duty and medical leave.

The only way to ease the manpower shortage — short of a hiring spree the city can’t afford — is to find a way to stop officers from chasing their tails by running from call to call, Schenkel said..

“It’s more of a cultural change,” he said. “Peoples’ mindset — that comfort of having a police car there — it’s gonna be hard to break. It’s gonna take some time, and it’s gonna take a collective effort.”

Schenkel said the first step is to meet with the police and fire commissioners to draft a strategy that begins with a public information campaign.

“If we start with the hard-fact data — the actual emergency responses that require a body, a car, an engine, an ambulance — that’s our starting point,” Schenkel said.

“Then, we look at the other end of the spectrum and say, `These are the types of calls we’re getting. Where’s my car? I think it was stolen. No, it was booted. No, it was hooked. I don’t know.’ Then, we start pushing those over gradually. We have to start that public information campaign.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration talked for years about altering dispatch policy but didn’t amid fears of a political backlash.

Now, Acting Police Supt. Garry McCarthy is pushing for the dispatch change. And Emanuel is prepared to support him.

“There’s a reason you have 311,” the mayor said last month. “There’s a reason you have 911. We’ve got to make sure people are using 311 for the purpose it was set up and 911 for emergency. If it’s what the professionals think we need to do, we’re gonna make that happen.”

A former Marine Corps training director, Schenkel ran the Chicago Police Department’s academy under former Supt. Terry Hillard.

Before unanimously approving Schenkel’s appointment, a handful of aldermen, led by Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), himself a former cop, complained about anti-crime surveillance cameras that either weren’t working or weren’t monitored.

Schenkel said he was “not aware of a large number of cameras being down” but would look into that, as well as Cochran’s suggestion that civilians be hired to monitor those cameras.

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