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Manny Ramos

What's With the Demolition Dust?

What's With the Demolition Dust?

Tearing down an old home can release dust containing asbestos or lead. Curious City and City Bureau found that Chicago rarely enforces demolition laws meant to minimize exposure to these contaminants.

By Jeremy Borden, Tucker Kelly, and Manny Ramos


This report was produced in partnership with WBEZ's Curious City. You can listen to the full audio report above. 


Questioner Robert Beedle wondered if there are any health impacts associated with the demolition of old homes. He became concerned after walking past a demolition in his McKinley Park neighborhood (Courtesy Robert Beedle).

Questioner Robert Beedle wondered if there are any health impacts associated with the demolition of old homes. He became concerned after walking past a demolition in his McKinley Park neighborhood (Courtesy Robert Beedle).

Robert Beedle can still remember the frustration he felt one day last spring, when he watched two houses, located across from the daycare near his home, get pulverized to the ground. The dust flew everywhere, and the leftover debris sat there for days.

Robert is not an expert on demolitions — but he knows a lot about the old homes in his McKinley Park neighborhood. When he was thinking about renovating his 19th-century house, he learned there were harmful materials like asbestos and lead in the walls and floors. And there are many old homes like his in the neighborhood.

Which is why the demolition he witnessed that day seemed almost absurd: How was it that these two old homes could be torn down with potentially dangerous dust and debris scattered everywhere?

He says he called 311 because he was so concerned. Then he reached out to his alderman. He didn’t get any response, so he turned to Curious City. Maybe we could find out what the deal was. He asked:

A backhoe lays the foundation for the construction of a new building at the site of the McKinley Park demolition that inspired Robert's question (Photo: Manny Ramos).

A backhoe lays the foundation for the construction of a new building at the site of the McKinley Park demolition that inspired Robert's question (Photo: Manny Ramos).

What are the laws around the demolition of residential buildings in Chicago, and what implications does this have for health and the environment?

The effects of hazardous building materials has been well-documented. Dust from asbestos can cause serious long-term problems, such as the fatal lung cancer mesothelioma, and lead that is ingested can cause severe developmental delays in children. Health and environmental experts don’t agree on exactly how much exposure to these poisonous contaminants is safe, which is why they want to minimize exposure as much as possible.

The city of Chicago has numerous laws on the books to protect the public’s health, but public health experts, contractors, and some city officials told Curious City that they are rarely enforced for residential demolition sites. It’s also unclear if city officials are even aware of the potential health risks posed by these kinds of demolitions.


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What the law requires

Robert says the demolition site he saw in McKinley Park looked like a “cutaway dollhouse,” with its half-exposed inner rooms and potentially poisonous dust exposed to the elements for hours.

In order to reduce exposure to harmful dust, workers suppress dust by wetting down the debris (Courtesy David Jacobs).

In order to reduce exposure to harmful dust, workers suppress dust by wetting down the debris (Courtesy David Jacobs).

The city’s permit process — required for all residential demolitions — is supposed to ensure that developers and contractors adhere to best practices for how to handle hazardous materials.

To obtain a wrecking permit for a residential demolition, a contractor must:

• Have a license.

• Inform adjacent neighbors within a 75-foot radius about the demolition via certified mail.

• Inform the alderman in the ward where the demolition is taking place. In a written letter to the alderman, contractors are required to detail that demolition crews are adhering to best practices for environmental contamination and other issues.

• Obtain approvals from various city departments, including plans to deal with water line issues, public street closures, rodents, flammable liquids, and sewers and demolition plans.

As for how materials like asbestos are supposed to be managed on demolition sites, the law is clear. Chapter 11 of the city municipal code outlines the procedures that need to be followed: contractors should wet down a site to prevent dust from spreading, wet down and bag potentially hazardous asbestos or other materials and remove debris quickly in covered containers. These steps mirror best practices required by the Environmental Protection Agency for asbestos.

While most larger-scale demolition projects require approval from the city’s Department of Public Health, smaller projects — like tearing down single family homes — do not. The city’s Department of Public Health “strongly recommends” contractors hire an expert to handle contaminants for smaller residential demolitions — but doesn’t require it.


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So, does the law get enforced?

The city’s laws and regulations are one thing, but enforcement of those rules is another.

Environmental consultant Ian Cull inspects for asbestos at a client's home (Courtesy Indoor Sciences, Inc.).

Environmental consultant Ian Cull inspects for asbestos at a client's home (Courtesy Indoor Sciences, Inc.).

Contractors and environmental health experts say Chicago officials generally do a good job of inspecting and ensuring there are safeguards when it comes to big construction or demolition projects that involve messy environmental issues, like taking down old industrial plants or clearing old gas stations. The city also stays on top of interior home renovations, which could put the homeowner or occupant at risk.

But environmental experts and contractors say it’s another story when it comes to the demolition of smaller residential properties.

Ian Cull, a Chicago-based environmental consultant who advises contractors on how to handle and remove hazardous materials, says he believes city officials need to pay more attention to residential demolitions. Cull says he often works in nearby suburbs where enforcement is much tougher than Chicago. Cull’s office in is Logan Square, which has a high number of demolitions, according to city data. He says he frequently sees contractors failing to adhere to the best practices outlined by the city.

“I could count on one hand the number of demolition projects that I’ve seen that are using water and spraying it,” Cull says.

In 2017, the city’s Department of Buildings issued more than 50 citations for improper removal of debris out of a total of more than 1,219 demolition permits, according to city records. Just five of those citations resulted in a fine, according to the city’s data portal. The Department of Public Health, which issues citations to contractors for environmental concerns, issued just one citation and fine in 2017 for a contractor failing to minimize dust during a demolition or renovation, city records show.

Department of Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland says she is not aware of any complaints about her department’s enforcement efforts. She says the department has plenty of inspectors. She also says the buildings department is primarily concerned with ensuring contractors follow the appropriate steps to obtain a permit.

“We look for basic safety,” she says.

While Frydland says she hasn’t heard any complaints, the alderman of an area that has seen a lot of development says he gets plenty. Ald. Scott Waguespack, whose 32nd Ward includes areas of Bucktown and Lincoln Park, says he gets hundreds of complaints about contractors who don’t control dust, set up fencing, notify neighbors, or display their permit as required.

Waguespack, who drives around his ward to check on demolition sites, says contractors know the city rarely inspects for problems like debris removal and hardly issues fines, so they don’t have any incentive to follow the rules.

A worker plows through a plume of dust and debris on a demolition site in the Uptown neighborhood. (Photo: Manny Ramos)

A worker plows through a plume of dust and debris on a demolition site in the Uptown neighborhood. (Photo: Manny Ramos)

"I can’t write a ticket. If I could write a ticket, I’d guarantee you there’d be like thousands of tickets," he says.

Waguespack says he would like the city to deploy more inspectors, particularly during the busy summer construction months. He also says city officials aren’t responsive when he reports a concern.

“When there is an issue, we just don’t rely on the Buildings Department,” the alderman says.

Contractors we spoke with, like Jose Duarte, the founder of general contractor Blackwood Group LLC, say that while the permitting process is fairly thorough, the city could do a better job of sending inspectors out to sites once demolition is underway.

“The Building Department or these enforcement agencies have to be more aggressive on that and distinguish who the bad players and who the good players are,” Duarte says.

An Uptown resident watches as a residential building is torn down. There is no wet down of the debris (Photo: Manny Ramos).

An Uptown resident watches as a residential building is torn down. There is no wet down of the debris (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Waguespack says the city used to be more responsive to these kind of concerns. But he says that’s changed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and it has to do with how his administration approaches developers.

“It was always hands off the developers,” Waguespack says. “Let them get the job done. Stay out of their way. This is money coming in the door. It was always about money.”

Emanuel’s spokesman, Adam Collins, and a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health did not respond to repeated requests for comment about how the city handles environmental concerns related to small residential demolitions.


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What are the consequences of poor oversight?

So, without this oversight, how much do these small construction and demolition sites contaminate the neighborhood? What kind of health risks do they pose?

Workers are often those who suffer most from contaminant-related diseases because of weak regulation and enforcement, according to a 2015 investigation from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Workers are often those who suffer most from contaminant-related diseases because of weak regulation and enforcement, according to a 2015 investigation from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity (Photo: Manny Ramos).

When it comes to household contamination, experts mostly worry about workers during demolition or children who are exposed. The health risks are serious, and experts aren’t always sure how much contamination people can be exposed to before they develop serious health problems. Lead can cause, among other things, lower IQ and delayed development. Asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a fatal lung cancer, and asbestosis, a chronic lung disease.

It’s often workers who suffer most from contaminant-related diseases because of weak regulation and enforcement, according to a 2015 investigation from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. Thousands of workers get sick and die from contaminant-related diseases every year, the nonprofit found.

David Jacobs, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and works as the chief scientist at the National Center for Healthy Housing, conducted a federal study on the issuethat was published in 2013. Jacobs tested the quality of the air around dozens of demolition sites in Chicago. He found high levels of lead on average of 400 feet away from the construction sites — meaning contractors weren’t doing a good job containing dust.

He brought it up with city officials but they failed to address his concerns, he says. Frydland, the commissioner of the Department of Buildings, argues that smaller demolitions are not a huge problem.

Researcher David Jacobs tested the quality of the air around dozens of home demolition sites in Chicago. He found high levels of lead an average of 400 feet away from the sites (Courtesy David Jacobs).

Researcher David Jacobs tested the quality of the air around dozens of home demolition sites in Chicago. He found high levels of lead an average of 400 feet away from the sites (Courtesy David Jacobs).

“In a single family home, you often don’t have issues that you have in (larger) buildings just in general,” she says.

But Jacobs says that while the issue seems like a small one, it is imperative to change how people think about contaminant-related problems. As it stands, most leave it to the doctors to treat illnesses that are caused by these contaminants. Instead, officials should spend more time, money, and effort to ensure people aren’t exposed to as many contaminants in the first place, he says.

“Chicago has one of the worst blood lead levels in the country,” Jacobs says. “Nationwide, we know that half a million children have elevated blood lead levels, so that’s an epidemic in anybody’s book. There needs to be more done. I am hopeful that instead of just chasing poisoned children around, we would take some proactive measures, investigate the sources of exposure, whether it’s in existing housing or in demolitions.”


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What can be done?

For his study, Jacobs also measured the amount of lead in dust near residential teardowns in Baltimore. He found that contractors in Baltimore generally paid close attention to contamination issues and frequently adhered to best practices — namely wetting down demolition sites so dust didn’t spread. Interestingly, Jacobs found that compliance was voluntary. There was usually a person on the construction crew who ensured best practices were followed.

As a result, the amount of harmful lead in the air was considerably lower than in Chicago.

A research team uses a lead dust fall sampling apparatus to measure lead levels in the air during a demolition in Baltimore. (Courtesy  David Jacobs )

A research team uses a lead dust fall sampling apparatus to measure lead levels in the air during a demolition in Baltimore. (Courtesy David Jacobs)

Jacobs says the Baltimore example offers just one possible solution — a contractor community that is hypervigilant to the issues — to ensuring contaminants like dust don’t end up hurting people nearby. Other solutions involve stricter enforcement of the current laws.

“This is not rocket science,” Jacobs says. “Wet methods like this have been used in industry. … It’s a tried and proven technique. It works. There’s no good reason not to implement these things.”



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More about our questioner

Robert Beedle has mostly lived in old houses. His childhood home in the Cook County suburb of Riverside will soon turn 100 years old, he says.

It wasn’t just his personal history that made him mindful and interested in contamination. An older cousin died from an aggressive cancer that family members believe came from living near the now-shuttered Clark Oil refinery in Blue Island. (Illnesses and deaths related to contamination issues from the refinery led to a successful $120 million class action lawsuit, and the refinery was closed in 2001, according to the Chicago Tribune.)

Robert Beedle (right) visited the demolition site that inspired his question alongside  Curious City  audio producer Jesse Dukes (middle) and  City Bureau  reporter Jeremy Borden (left). (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Robert Beedle (right) visited the demolition site that inspired his question alongside Curious City audio producer Jesse Dukes (middle) and City Bureau reporter Jeremy Borden (left). (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Robert is a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and he says the university has motivated him to become more curious and ask questions.

He says he’s learned a lot about how the city enforces the rules around demolitions.

“If there was a teardown happening next door or a couple houses away, at that point I really would be more concerned,” he says.

Robert’s concern isn’t just for himself, but for the future of the McKinley Park neighborhood, where he bought a home in 2015 that was originally built in 1888.

“I love this place and want to contribute to making it an even better city to live now and in the future,” he says.

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All black and white full-size photos by Manny Ramos. 

The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in Chicago

The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in Chicago


On a mild morning in early May, two teenage boys sat on the porch of a house in West Humboldt Park on busy Chicago Avenue. From there, they could see a string of abandoned stores, boarded up and painted in bright colors. Occasionally, a CTA bus would pass in front of them, carrying commuters from the distant edges of the city to the Magnificent Mile shopping district eight miles to the east. A heavy breeze shook the blooming tree in front of the house.

At 10:30 AM, someone walked up to the porch and started shooting at them. The 16-year-old, Eddy Brooks, was shot in the head and later died in the hospital, according to Chicago Tribune reports. The 17-year-old was hit in the calf and thigh but survived the encounter.

Neighbors say they had long known the house to be a drug den. In the months leading up to the shooting, they had repeatedly complained about the building to the police and attended meetings of CAPS, the city's community policing unit, to demand that officers do something about the young men who congregated there.

CAPS community organizer John Campos was on his way to one of these public gatherings on the afternoon of May 6, when he saw yellow tape around the house. Two uniformed officers were taking pictures of the blood-splattered porch stairs. Despite a decades-long community policing system in place for reporting and preventing crime, violence had prevailed that day at the house on Chicago Avenue.

Community policing has long been a matter of life and death in Chicago. When it's worked, researchers have found that communities of color report less fear of crime and better relations with the police, which can translate into improved crime prevention and fewer shootings. And in a year when shootings have skyrocketed and community trust of the police has been severely damaged by the release of a series of videos capturing police shootings, it's been touted by politicians as a powerful crime-fighting strategy.

"Chicago is where the whole idea of community policing began," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a speech on police accountability on December 9, 2015, just two weeks after the release of the Laquan McDonald video rocked the city and sparked a crisis in police-community relations. "It remains the best and most comprehensive approach we have in changing the everyday conditions that breed crime and violence and then breed mistrust."

But nine months after that speech, an analysis by City Bureau and theReader finds CAPS in crisis. Chicago's once-trailblazing community policing program has been hollowed out by years of budget cuts and restructuring. Stretched thin, the police department no longer has the money necessary to reach out to the community and quickly follow up on citizen complaints such as the ones made about the house on Chicago Avenue. Neighborhoods like those on the city's west side struggle with far fewer resources and institutional knowledge than in previous years. CAPS today is an uneven patchwork of programs around the city. The result has been the destruction of the trust and goodwill the police department had built in the early years of CAPS.

Arguably, neighborhoods such as West Humboldt Park need strong police-community relations more than ever. An open-air drug market plagues the area, and residents live in constant fear of violence. District 11, where the May shooting occurred, has had twice as many murders so far this year as it had in the same period last year. As of September 15, CPD reports that there have been 65 murders in District 11 this year. That accounts for around one-tenth of the 519 homicides the city has had, as of September 19, so far this year. But while residents are eager to tackle crime, with CAPS a shell of its former self, they no longer have the support from the community policing program that they once did.

"It comes down to a question," Campos says. "Are our voices being heard on the west side?"

Asked for comment, Emanuel's office deferred to CPD. Meanwhile, the head of CAPS, deputy chief of community policing Eric Washington, has dismissed the idea that the program is in crisis, arguing that "Chicago has always been at the forefront of community policing."

"Community policing started in Chicago in 1993," Washington said in an interview at CPD headquarters. "We were at the forefront then and I believe we are at the forefront now."

CAPS community organizer John Campos, pictured here in 2012. (Jim Newberry/File)

CAPS community organizer John Campos, pictured here in 2012. (Jim Newberry/File)

Community policing got its start in the 80s and 90s as an innovative approach to reducing crime. Cities from New York to Seattle to Cleveland tried establishing community policing strategies during this time but failed to create strong stand-alone programs because of a lack of government funding or support.

In Chicago, however, Mayor Richard M. Daley was a staunch advocate of community policing and fueled the growth of CAPS.

The city established the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy in April 1993 during a period of high crime and poor public relations with the police. Chicago logged 940 murders in 1992 and 850 in 1993.

In a "Strategic plan for reinventing the Chicago Police Department," released in October 1993, Daley praised community policing as a "new, proactive approach to preventing crimes before they occur." He wrote that a "historic change was taking place in Chicago" with the adoption of CAPS, and that while "community policing means reinventing the way the Chicago Police Department works, it also means reinventing the way all City agencies, community members, and the police work with each other."

The strategy was rooted in a belief that communities can and should play a role in preventing crime and maintaining a safe environment. Through regular neighborhood beat meetings and district advisory councils, CAPS allowed police officers to work directly with community members to solve persistent problems like drugs and graffiti. Strategies ranged from playing basketball with neighborhood kids to holding regular community meetings and improving transparency in police operations and crime data. At the root of these strategies was relationship building, with police officers taking the time to engage with youth, business owners, and community residents.

After a brief experimental phase, CAPS was rolled out to all police districts in 1994. Between January and May 1995, more than 9,000 officers completed a three-day training on community policing's approach to problem solving.

In 1996 and 1997, CPD expanded its civilian staff in order to improve community outreach and increase participation in beat meetings. More staff members were also brought on for additional CAPS programs like court advocacy and projects targeting gang and drug hot spots.

By 1999, CAPS had a budget of $12.5 million, about 1.4 percent of CPD's total budget of $907 million—a small but significant slice. Each district was assigned a sergeant focused solely on community policing. The program was no longer dependent on the goodwill of the mayor's office, and had an established bureaucracy that could address the needs of each district. The response from the community was by and large positive, but some communities found CAPS more useful than others.

Researchers at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research studied CAPS between 1994 and 2003 and in 2004 published a report that found that the program had had a substantial impact on crime levels and police-community relations during its first decade. They found that African-Americans reported a 10 percent decrease in what they saw as crime problems after CAPS was created. African-Americans also experienced a 22 percent decrease in fear of crime in their neighborhood. Whites also saw decreases in these measures during this time, though Latinos didn't. (Researchers speculated that Latinos didn't respond as well due to a combination of factors including language barriers, fear of deportation, and a young, mobile population that wasn't interested in attending beat meetings.)

Northwestern researchers also found an improvement in how communities saw social order and physical decay in the first decade of the CAPS program. African-Americans reported a 60 percent decrease in perceived social disorder and a 30 percent decrease in physical decay problems in their neighborhoods.

Even more significant was the change in police favorability ratings among these communities during this time. African-­Americans, Latinos, and whites all felt that officers were more responsive after the establishment of CAPS than before its creation.

"From 1993 or so well into the 2000s, Chicago had the largest and most impressive community policing program in the world," says Northwestern University's Wesley Skogan, who led the CAPS study.

The early 2000s would prove to be CAPS's high point, however. While other cities invested heavily in community policing programs, Chicago began to pull back from its once-powerful tool.

"The energy went out of it after that time," Skogan says. "There was a new chief of police [Phil Cline] who wasn't interested in it. . . . And the mayor got sidetracked by a crime wave that was on the cover of the Chicago Tribune." Violence spiked again in 2001 with 667 homicides, breaking a six-year trend of a decrease in murders.

Following the rise in violence, Daley took a hard line on crime and focused the police department's efforts on guns, gangs, and homicides. Money was pulled away from CAPS and never returned. This past April, the Police Accountability Task Force convened by Emanuel gave its assessment of the state of policing in Chicago. The task force noted in its final report that "attendance [at CAPS events] dropped off significantly after 2000." (Cline declined to comment for this story. Daley didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.)

In 2010, Daley moved 111 officers from CAPS to street patrol in order to address what he described in a press release as "the most immediate and pressing problem facing many of our neighborhoods—violence in our streets and in our homes." Daley promised that the move would increase efficiency while at the same time ensuring "that the original goals and objectives of CAPS are met."

A Chicago News Cooperative/New York Times story from early January 2011 noted that because of budget cuts and shrinking staff, fewer community meetings were being held.

"The program has pretty much been eviscerated, which is tragic," 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore said at the time. "There's no substitute for an engaged citizenry and police officers taking an active role in preventing crime."

By the time Emanuel took office in May 2011, the budget for CAPS had fallen to $4.7 million, a little more than a third of what it had been in 1999. Meanwhile, CPD's total budget had jumped to $1.3 billion from $907 million in '99.

But in January 2012, Emanuel announced the "revitalization" of CAPS in order to restore "an effective community policing structure to the Department while providing the best possible services to the residents of Chicago."

"Community policing is a philosophy, and the strength of that philosophy within the Chicago Police Department and in our communities is more critical now than ever before," Emanuel said in a statement at the time. "CAPS is an important partnership between residents and police, and it's time to revitalize the program by giving District Commanders responsibility and authority to tailor programs for individual communities."

Under the new CAPS structure, community policing resources once controlled by police headquarters were moved to individual districts. Each district's CAPS program was to be handled by the commander, a CAPS sergeant, two officers, a community organizer, and a youth services provider. District commanders were given the responsibility of choosing which CAPS programs they would fund and which they would stop supporting, a strategy that the department hoped would make CAPS more responsive to local needs.

(Garry McCarthy, who served as Emanuel's police superintendent from 2011 to late 2015, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.)

While the "revitalization" changed the structure of CAPS, it didn't alter the downward trend in funding for community policing. In 2012, the year after Emanuel took office, the budget for CAPS was slashed by $178,497 from the year before. In 2016, CAPS has a budget of $3.9 million, less than a third of the funding it had in 1999 and 17 percent less than when Emanuel took office. The police department's overall budget has ballooned to $1.45 billion today; CAPS funding represents just 0.3 percent of CPD's overall budget.

"Emanuel kept CAPS in place, but there's no money there," says Jimmy Simmons, who has volunteered as a CAPS beat meeting facilitator in District 11 for 22 years. "They don't put any money into it. They continue to do these [beat] meetings, but that's it."

Emanuel's 2012 changes to CAPS also resulted in a patchwork of programming spread unevenly across districts that inadvertently isolated CAPS volunteers and staff from their colleagues in other parts of town.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CPD said that each CAPS district received between $7,000 and $9,500 in 2016 to "support local community policing activities." Funding levels are dependent on "the size of the district, levels of crime, particularly violent crime, previous spending patterns and other factors."

But in analyzing CAPS programs for the first seven months of 2016, City Bureau and the Reader found striking variations in the activity level across districts. Several districts had more than 100 public events in the first seven months of this year, while others had fewer than 40. Our analysis showed that the number of events a district held didn't correlate with the amount of money it received from CPD; some districts that received less funding had many events, while other districts that received more funding held fewer. Nor did programming levels in a district correlate with crime rates. Instead, interviews with CAPS volunteers and staff suggest that programming levels are determined more by the interests of district commanders.

Plus, CAPS teams now work in what one facilitator described as "silos" in each district, rarely collaborating with their colleagues. Campos recalls going out on "wolf pack" missions with organizers from other districts before 2013 to address problematic areas together. Now, however, he rarely talks to CAPS employees outside of his own district.

"We don't even have the opportunity to learn from each other," Campos says. "Like, 'Hey John, what are you guys doing in [District] 11 to do this?' We used to get together monthly and have meetings. We don't do that [anymore]."

In the first seven months of this year, several police districts had more than 100 public CAPS events, while others had fewer than 40. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

In the first seven months of this year, several police districts had more than 100 public CAPS events, while others had fewer than 40. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

On a Wednesday afternoon in July, two police officers roll a dusty portable chalkboard with SWAT printed on it to the front of a meeting room in the basement of District 11's west-side headquarters.

"How many chairs and rows do you think we need?" asks one of the officers.

"Ain't going to be that many people here anyways," says the other, as he arranges 36 blue chairs in the middle of the room. Indeed, when the meeting begins a few minutes later, only a dozen chairs are occupied.

District 11's Expanded Anti-Violence Initiative meeting wasn't always so poorly attended. Campos says that as recently as seven years ago, between 40 and 50 people would regularly attend the meeting. At that time a five- or six-person panel of community policing experts would help facilitate the initiative. Now it's led by Campos, beat facilitator Simmons, and the district's CAPS sergeant, who is out of the office on this particular day.

In the past, every district held monthly antiviolence meetings. That changed with the decreasing budget and recent restructuring, which allowed district commanders to choose whether or not to hold them. District 11 is now one of the few places that still does, but it's only the "skeletal remains" of the program, Campos says. A previous commander got rid of the program altogether; it was only reinstated when a new commander came in.

EAVI was originally envisioned as an ideal venue for community policing, a "beat meeting on steroids," as Campos puts it. Neighborhood leaders would meet regularly with police officers and CAPS staff and delineate problems in the neighborhood. People would break into groups around topics like public safety, community outreach, and problem buildings, and come up with solutions. Both community members and police officers were responsible for thinking up solutions and taking on "homework" that contributed to the solution. This could be as simple as finding out who a resident needed to speak to in order to get a stop sign installed on a certain corner, or talking to the principal of a school where young men loitered and caused trouble. When the group met again the following month, its members would be graded on how well they'd completed their homework and how close they were to resolving the issue.

Campos says that while those early violence-prevention meetings were "pretty successful" at addressing problems and holding people accountable, the low turnout in recent years has made the program less effective. Someone assigned an important piece of homework in one meeting could easily not show up to the next meeting, making accountability difficult.

Leticia Segura makes a point of attending the meetings, despite the fact that they fall in the middle of a workday. She walks into this one a little late, but is immediately recognized. The 44-year-old has lived in the area for more than a decade, and got involved in CAPS a year ago when she started having trouble with drug dealers near her house.

The dealers were hiding drugs in the alley, she says, and preventing her from backing her car out of the garage. When they began concealing drugs in her yard, she says, she feared for her family's safety, and began attending every CAPS meeting she could find. She called 911 frequently, determined to get the police department's attention.

Her persistence paid off. After more than three months, during which she asked the department for help, police raided the drug dealers and cleared the area.

Segura says the experience made her appreciate the power of community policing. Then, seeing that her local CAPS office was short-staffed, she started volunteering there, answering phones and doing administrative work.

CAPS "is spread very thin," Segura says. "You have only so many officers who can do so much. If we had more police help and more money, I think we could do way more things."

CAPS did indeed do more things in the past, Simmons says—when they had a bigger budget.

"CAPS was high on the list [back then]," he recalls of the 90s. "Oh, you had your little drug dealers and shootings, but nothing like this because the people were committed."

CAPS had turned his neighborhood around then, Simmons says. People weren't afraid to leave their houses, and they felt respected by the police. Thanks to the good relationship with the police, he says, the community was the "eyes and ears" of the department and helped officers solve and prevent crimes.

But when funding for community policing started decreasing, Simmons says that CAPS stopped being the cornerstone of policing in his district. The number of public meetings between officers and community members decreased, and their relationship suffered for it. Districts had to rely on donations to support bonding events like barbecues, and began enlisting volunteers like Segura to answer phones and do paperwork in their CAPS offices.

Looking at the cold and half-empty room, Simmons knits his brows.

"I think [CAPS] can do a much better job than what is being done," he says.

“It’s like building a better mousetrap.” We don’t need new or fancy methods for improving public safety, because the mousetrap “has already been invented.”click to tweet


Now, facing pressure over rising homicide numbers and poor community relations, CPD is once again looking to community policing to alleviate its problems. Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in April that CPD had made a mistake by downsizing CAPS and that the department is working on "reinvigorating" the program.

"While CAPS has been successful for decades, enhancements are being implemented to forge better relationships between police and the community," CPD told City Bureau and the Reader in a statement this week. "Over the next several months, you can expect to see more on this as the department will develop a specific community affairs platform that tackles some of the very challenging obstacles and tensions that exist between communities and the officers as well as implement better programs to work with young people and minority communities."

Still, just what the "new CAPS" will look like is unclear. So far the department has been vague and sometimes contradictory about the scale of the changes in store. In an interview at a CAPS event in August, Johnson had said his department was working on revamping CAPS, though he was "not really ready to roll out the actual details" of the change. In its statement to City Bureau and the Reader, CPD said that the formal strategy that will guide CAPS in the future is "still a work in progress."

Yet in an interview after a community meeting in July, CAPS deputy chief Eric Washington said, "We are not changing anything." In a second interview held at CPD headquarters in August, Washington hesitated to even use the acronym "CAPS" to describe Chicago's community policing program, and hinted that the letters would soon stand for something besides the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy.

"Because that 'alternative' is still there, I don't say 'CAPS' right now," Washington said. Both Washington and Johnson have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an "alternative" strategy for CPD, but rather the guiding philosophy of the department.

"Every officer that works for CPD should be engaging in some type of CAPS activity," Johnson said. He didn't elaborate on what that work should entail, or how it would be paid for, however.

The talk of making CAPS a department­wide doctrine and not just an "alternative strategy" may stem in part from the Police Accountability Task Force's review of CAPS in its final report, in which it asserted that community policing should be "treated as a core philosophy throughout CPD."

"Community policing cannot be relegated to a small, underfunded program," the report stated.

Since the CAPS "brand is significantly damaged" and its "civilian staff has dwindled to the point of ineffectiveness," the task force recommended getting rid of the program altogether. (The task force is not the first to call for the death of CAPS. Last year, District 14 commander Marc Buslik said of the program, "We need to drive a stake right through its heart.")

The task force recommended replacing CAPS with what it called "Community Empowerment and Engagement Districts." These CEEDs, one for each of Chicago's 22 police districts, would be more responsive to community needs, the task force argued. But there has been no indication that the police department or the mayor's office is considering such a change.

Meanwhile, as CAPS withers, police departments across the country are bolstering their community policing offices with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice. Last year, President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing included community policing as one of its six pillars for police reform and recommended that community policing be "infused throughout the culture and organizational structure of law enforcement agencies."

Johnson and other CPD officials have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an “alternative” strategy, but rather the department’s guiding philosophy. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

Johnson and other CPD officials have said that going forward, community policing will no longer be an “alternative” strategy, but rather the department’s guiding philosophy. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

On a hot afternoon in August, Superintendent Johnson grills hamburgers and sausages in a park set up for the 11th District's National Night Out. Nearby, Campos applies temporary tattoos of the CAPS logo to children's arms, and seniors take refuge from the sun under white tents. The event, which is held by police departments across the country, aims to create stronger community-police bonds.

"We are celebrating the community for being our right hand and helping us solve crimes," explains Daniel Allen, District 11 CAPS sergeant and an organizer of the event.
 For some, like a 13-year-old named Xavier, the event marks the first time residents will meet a police officer. For others, it's a chance to learn about ways they can help prevent crime and become involved in CAPS.

Campos says he remains optimistic about the power of community policing to make neighborhoods like his more safe. He says that community policing can "absolutely" help reduce the homicide rate and that he saw its power at the peak of CAPS, when the program "had the resources [and] ways of pulling in the community."

"It's like building a better mousetrap," Campos says. "We don't need new or fancy methods for improving public safety, he argues, because the mousetrap "has already been invented."

"The philosophy of community policing should work," he says, "if that philosophy translates into action like it's supposed to do." 

This story was produced in partnership with the Chicago Reader.