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Supt. McCarthy: We’re changing the way we respond to 911 calls

A Chicago police car passes by Kilmer Elementary School 6700 N. Greenview Thursday March 1 2012 Chicago. | John J.

A Chicago police car passes by Kilmer Elementary School, 6700 N. Greenview, Thursday, March 1, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:54AM

Chicago has quietly embarked on a dramatic change in 911 dispatch to free police officers to respond to the most serious crimes, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy disclosed Thursday.

McCarthy let the cat out of the bag while testifying before the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

It happened when West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) asked when Chicago was finally going to abandon an outdated dispatch policy that sends police officers to 70 percent of all 911 calls received, compared to 30 percent in other major cities.

McCarthy replied that the change was already under way, with the goal of creating, what he called “beat integrity.” That means leaving police officers to patrol their assigned beats, instead of chasing their tails by running from one 911 call to another at the behest of dispatchers at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

“OEMC has changed the way they dispatch calls for service — and we’ve actually changed who’s in charge of it,” the superintendent said.

“Previously, the dispatcher would direct the resources, while the sergeants in the field would basically just be receiving them. [Now], sergeants in the field are in charge of dispatching resources if they don’t like the way OEMC is doing it. They overrule OEMC when they dispatch a beat car to a job that they feel they shouldn’t be dispatching them to.”

OEMC has also abandoned what McCarthy called the “clean screen concept” at the 911 center.

“They would dispatch a car from one end of the district to the other end of a district to simply get the job off the screen. That’s the clean screen concept,” he said.

“What we’re now doing is maintaining beat integrity. … If a job comes in in a neighboring beat and it’s not an emergency call for service, that job will actually get stacked until that beat is available to handle it. That’s what beat integrity is all about. Same officers in the same beat every single day. Those officers are not only accountable for what’s happening on the beat, they also know who the good kids are from the bad kids. They’re not stopping everybody. They’re stopping the right people because they know who they are.”

McCarthy said a more dramatic change is coming soon, when the Chicago Police Department determines “which jobs we’re not gonna respond to” anymore.

“That’s a call that I’m going to make — and there’s going to be some wrankling about that,” he said.

“We don’t need to respond to calls for service because, ‘My children are fighting over the remote control.’ We don’t need to respond to calls for service because, ‘My son won’t eat his dinner.’ Unfortunately, believe it or not, those are calls we actually respond to today.”

OEMC Executive Director Gary Schenkel has acknowledged that it won’t be easy to ween Chicagoans of the habit of dialing 911 at every turn. It will require a major public relations campaign to divert lower priority calls to 311 or convince crime victims to file their reports online.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration talked for years about altering dispatch policy, only to go slow amid fear of a political backlash.

McCarthy has been pushing hard for the dispatch change and Emanuel has made it clear he’s prepared to support the superintendent.

“There’s a reason you have 311. 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,” Emanuel told reporters last fall.

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