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Numbers game? Cops, union wrong on school-closing protest crowd

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Updated: May 1, 2013 2:53PM



The Chicago Police Department radically underestimated the number of protesters that marched against the closing of dozens of public schools.

The department and its chief spokesman, Adam Collins, said Wednesday after the march that the number of protesters was between 700 and 900.

But a Chicago Sun-Times analysis Thursday found that number could not possibly be right, counting 2,750 people in a photo of the protest at Daley Plaza.

The newspaper obtained a photo taken at 4:46 p.m. Wednesday from a building across from Daley Plaza, where marchers gathered. The newspaper enlarged the photo, divided it into a grid and counted each person as best as it could. The conservative total was 2,750 people were in Daley Plaza at about the time protesters began leaving the plaza and walking to City Hall, before heading to the Chicago Public Schools’s headquarters, also in the Loop.

If the police estimate was far too low, the Chicago Teachers Union crowd count was far too high.The union said Wednesday between 5,000 and 6,500 people walked the streets to protest the closing of 54 schools. The police said 127 protesters were ticketed, after refusing to disperse.

Collins said Thursday the police department’s crowd number was determined by officers on the scene.

He questioned why the Sun-Times was asking at all about the police department’s estimate of how many people protested.

“This seems like non-news and the answer is pretty straight forward,” Collins said. He called a reporter’s questions “ludicrous.”

Wednesday night Collins e-mailed a Sun-Times reporter and called the newspaper’s City Desk quibbling with a reference to “thousands” in the first sentence of an online article about the protest, repeating that the police estimate was between 700 and 900.

But the teacher’s union said after the rally the police department purposely underestimated the number as part of the city’s “massive spin machine.”

“It’s damage control. You have 6,500 taxpayers, parents, educators, students out on the streets protesting a policy. It’s trying to do damage control,” CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said Wednesday. She did not respond to messages left Thursday.

When asked if he was told to lowball the crowd number, Collins said, “Absolutely not.”

“The estimate that we gave came from police on the scene and it was confirmed from the police on the scene,” Collins said.

He offered a technical explanation for the department’s crowd-counting procedure: “Crowd estimates are determined by taking the total square footage of the area and dividing it by the space occupied by the average person. If an event were wall to wall with people, which few are, that would be 3 feet by 3 feet.”

Collins was unable to provide more details about Wednesday’s official estimate.

Farouk El-Baz, the director of Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing and an expert on counting crowds, said it’s typical for both police and protest organizers to get the numbers wrong, noting each group usually has an incentive to manipulate the numbers.

He said the only way to get an accurate count is to take a picture of the crowd from straight above at the peak time of a gathering, then divide the image. El-Baz has determined that a dense crowd is made up of about six people per square meter.

“In general, what you really count from an honest-to-goodness photograph will be different than organizers and police,” he said.



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