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More cops on the streets? Don’t believe it

Updated: April 26, 2012 8:00AM

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel took another step Wednesday toward the moment he dons a blue police windbreaker, stands on the hood of a CPD squad car and declares “Mission Accomplished” on his campaign promise to put 1,000 more police on the city’s streets, the time has come to take a more active role in correcting him.

Folks, it’s just not true.

At least half the police officers that Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy have redeployed since May to help them say they’ve met that goal were already working ON THE STREET fighting crime.

About 450 of them were assigned to a pair of specialized roving units — the Mobile Task Force and the Targeted Response Unit — whose job was to go into high-crime neighborhoods and do the kind of aggressive, pro-active police work that is the very definition of being “on the street.”

Emanuel and McCarthy disbanded those units to return the officers to the Patrol Division, where most are now assigned to beats, responding to the citizen calls for assistance that are the daily grind of a beat officer.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a different philosophical approach on how to best use the available manpower, arguably more efficient because of greater accountability. But it’s not more police officers on the street.

We’ve reported this previously, repeatedly in fact, but it doesn’t seem to be getting through, either because Emanuel continues to make misleading statements — as his office did again Wednesday by declaring that since taking office the mayor has redeployed 881 officers “to the street” with the latest batch of 114 — or because you don’t believe us.

With that in mind, I tracked down a police officer Wednesday who used to work in one of those disbanded units and who now works a patrol beat to ask him about what has changed.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe him.

“These citizens are under the assumption a thousand cops have been put back on the street, and that’s not true. Most of us were there already,” said the veteran officer with more than 10 years on the job now assigned to a district on the South Side of the city.

It can be almost insulting at times when he’s out on a call and runs into a member of the public who says, “Oh, you’re one of the thousand cops they put back on the street,” as if he and his colleagues had been sitting behind a desk all these years at police headquarters instead of being sent on a daily basis to the city’s worst crime hot spot of the moment.

In his old job, the officer said, “We would go out and saturate that area and lock people up who were doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing.”

That meant looking for guns and drugs, not guys with open bottles of liquor hanging on the corner. They made lots of arrests.

“They called us ‘the thirsty police,’ ” the officer said, referring to the nickname hung on their squad by the streetwise adversaries who would shout their unique squad car numbers — “4-4’s” or “4-2’s on the block” — to alert their colleagues in crime that these were the police most likely to take an active interest in their activities, as opposed to a beat car driving past on its way to the next call.

Now his job is to respond to radio calls, usually about 20 per day, the daily potpourri of the beat officer: resolving domestic disputes, filling out accident reports, mediating complaints about a neighbor’s barking dog, all of it necessary because when citizens call the police they expect a response, preferably a prompt one.

What this officer said he’s not doing any longer is pro-active police work, looking for guys with pistols on the corner.

“I don’t have time,” he said. “I go from call to call to call.”

He said he has made as many arrests during his entire time in his new assignment as he did in some weeks alone in the old job.

I’m not using his name because I don’t want to get him in trouble. He didn’t call to complain. I sought him out. In fact, he said he has no complaint about his new role.

“I’m not bitter. I understand the districts need help,” he said.

But the real answer he said is to hire more police, not pretend a magic bullet has been invented.

The truth is the city doesn’t have money to hire many more police, which is why the mayor is so intent on creating the impression he has found another means to the same end.

“It’s like a three-card monte game,” the police officer told me. “Look, look at all these cops back on the street.”

That’s exactly what it’s like, and it ought to stop.

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