Chicago Changes 911 Response Rules to Focus on Homicide

By: Chicago Sun-Times Email
By: Chicago Sun-Times Email

(Chicago Sun-Times) - With aldermen bracing for the political fallout, Chicago is implementing a dramatic change in 911 dispatch to free the equivalent of 44 police officers a day to respond to the most serious crimes.

As of Sunday, police officers are no longer responding in person to reports of a vehicle theft, garage burglary, or crime where the victim is “safe, secure and not in need of medical attention” and the offender is “not on the scene and not expected to return immediately.”

Instead, those 911 calls are being transferred to the Chicago Police Department’s Alternate Response Section, staffed by officers on light duty. Police reports will be taken over the phone. If necessary, evidence technicians will be assigned later.

Last year, the Alternate Response Unit processed 74,000 reports. Crime victims had the option of filing reports on the phone or they could insist on an in-person response and wait until a squad car was free.

Now, they won’t have that option. That’s expected to more than double the number of case reports taken over the phone—to 151,000 a year — and free the equivalent of 44 officers a day for patrol and to respond to more serious crimes.

City Hall says dispatchers have been told to transfer calls if: the offender is gone, not expected to “return immediately” and an officer is not needed for a prompt investigation; an officer on the scene would “not result in an immediate arrest” and the victim is safe, secure and not in need of medical attention.

All “non-criminal” reports will be taken over the phone, including lost property and damage caused when a window is broken or a tree falls on property. Police will also no longer respond in person to a variety of criminal reports, including: vehicle or other theft; garage burglaries; bogus checks; lewd, obscene or threatening phone calls without “imminent danger”; simple assault and animal bites.

Deputy chief-of-patrol Steve Georgas said law enforcement agencies across the nation are searching for ways to use their resources more efficiently.

“This is just a little piece that we think is gonna help us in keeping cops up and free for patrol work. I don’t think we’re looking for huge gains. It’s probably only gonna equate to 40 to 45 officers-a-watch,” he said.

Georgas played down the potential for political backlash.

“It’s a traumatic thing being the victim of a crime. This will be a little more convenient for them as well,” he said.

“They’re still getting police service from a sworn police officer. But, it’s over the phone and it’s only in certain situations. Those officers are trained in what to ask. If certain things come up, they’ll be able to transfer that back over to dispatch and we’ll immediately send an officer out.”

Despite those assurances, Chicago aldermen are battening down the hatches for political fallout.

“I can understand if it’s [to report] somebody spray-painted my trash can. But, people want to see an officer when it gets up to a certain level of crime. They’re setting the bar pretty high for police not to respond,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).

“When you’re talking about someone’s garage being broken into and you’ve had three or four neighbors with the same thing, people have an expectation of having an officer on location to assess the situation. If no officer shows up, they’re gonna assume it’s gonna keep happening. They’ll feel this is scaling back even more. There’ll be a lot of people angry.”

Waguespack said some of his constituents are already being asked to file reports over the phone when there are “10 calls stacked up” and there is no police car available to respond.

If the policy becomes mandatory and citywide, he said, “I suppose, in time, people will get used to it. But, aldermen will have to learn to respond” to the political fallout.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said he’s willing to “take the heat” if it means freeing police officers to respond to more serious crimes.

“I’d rather them be upset than not responding to a domestic battery or burglary or some other crime going on in real time,” Sawyer said.

“We respond to a lot more calls than other cities do. Is there gonna be some push-back? Initially, there will be. But, this seems to be a reasonable response to the volume of calls we get to free officers who sometimes go on calls that turn out to be frivolous.”

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) added, “I’m sure there will be some push-back. But, it’s necessary to put more cops on the street. We want our police officers pursuing crime — not just writing reports.”

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy responded to the murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton by announcing plans to shift 200 officers from desk jobs to street duty to double the size of “area saturation” teams already focusing on gang violence.

The mayor acknowledged that Chicago needs more police officers on the street, but he won’t ask taxpayers to foot the bill until he’s certain existing officers are being used effectively.

Like Emanuel’s earlier plan to write tickets for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the long-awaited change in 911 dispatch is yet another step toward that end.

Last summer, McCarthy warned aldermen that he would soon decide “which jobs we’re not gonna respond to” anymore and that he expected “some wrankling” about the change.

But 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.”

One alderman, who asked to remain anonymous, said he’s concerned about 911 dispatchers making the wrong decision.

“What if there’s an emergency and they decide it’s not? The city could be open to more lawsuits,” the alderman said.

“It makes sense not to dispatch police for nonsense calls. I just hope we get it right.”

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