Not long after Mayor Daley pledged to add 200 more Chicago police officers to the streets as part of his 2011 budget, Austin’s 15th District saw cuts in its community policing program.

A reassignment of police personnel throughout the city resulted in the number of 15th District CAPS (Community Alternative Policing Strategy) officers dropping from five to two, leaving some residents worried. Three CAPS officers – Cassandra Norman, Carla Johnson and Craig Williams – are now working as regularly assigned officers, said 15th District CAPS Office Community Organizer Christine Perez.

“These officers are patrolling on the streets now in Austin. We are expecting two new civilians to come into the 15th District to perform some of their job duties, but no word yet,” Perez said. “I do not know what the civilians or the officers that stayed are responsible for yet.”

Community members, the officer adds, are needed to fill this critical gap.

“Residents can get involved by attending their monthly beat meetings, and getting connected to their local police department and block clubs,” Perez said.

Confirming the reduction in CAPS staffing, Chicago Police Deputy Chief John J. Escalante of Area 5, which includes District 15, said the cuts have affected each of the city’s 25 police districts.

Speaking last week at a Westside Ministers Coalition meeting, Escalante confirmed there is now one sergeant and two officers in each CAPS office; the changes moved one sergeant and roughly three to four officers back on the street. Each district, he says, will recruit a couple of civilians who are already working with the CAPS program to help fill the void.

He said the CAPS restructuring “is something that’s still being worked out and will happen throughout the rest of the year.”

The reassignment did not come as a huge shock considering the lack of support the CAPS program has received, according to Elce Redmond, who works with the South Austin Coalition Community Council.

“There’s no real sense of commitment to keep it going,” he said. “Ten to 15 years ago, they [Chicago Police Department members] were touting it, but now it’s not as glamorous.”

The CAPS officers serve an important need, he insists, and their reassignment will unravel the relationship of trust that’s been established between the Chicago Police Department and West Side residents.

“Now there’s no real partnership. Remember, communities are not numbers or statistics; until there is a good relationship, this will mirror what happened in the 1960s and 1970s,” Redmond said.

The news caught others by surprise.

“The Austin community was shocked and in disbelief of the quick changes in the CAPS program,” said Mary E. Brown, president of the Quincy Street Block Club.

Brown asked what will happen to CAPS programs and long-standing relationships built between officers and seniors, youths and other residents.

“This change in the CAPS has created another manpower shortage,” Brown said. “These officers were interested in our feeling and concerns.”

Philip Burke, co-coordinator of the 5500 Quincy Block Club, said it’s important to increase the police force on the streets, but it should not result in a reduction in services like community policing-including programs like 100 corners/100 blocks from this past June, which drew scores of people to various Austin streets for an hour every Wednesday night that month to take a stand against violence.

CAPS officers, while not out in the streets patrolling a beat, have made the community feel safer, said Burke.

“I like to have that one-on-one connection to help fortify trust, being able to speak to officer and develop a rapport,” said Burke, insisting that less sensational crimes such as loitering needs to be addressed just as much as violence and drug activity. “One of the biggest complaints I have is that it’s one thing to focus on big crime issues, but there are always limited resources on quality of life and nuisance issues where people don’t feel safe.”

In the last eight years, the Chicago Police Department has lost more than 5,000 officers. In Austin, the number of officers dropped from 345 to 264 in a span of four years. There had been six CAPS officers at one point, an all-time high in the 15th District.

According to Chicago Police Sgt. Glenn White, the department plans to go back to the original intention of the nearly 20-year-old CAPS program: having an equal partnership between citizens and police.

“It got off track,” he said. “We [the police] are doing 80 percent, and the citizens are doing 20 percent.”

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