“Officers from the 11th District were [recently] on a chase at Homan and the Blue Line,” recalled Interim Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante during a March 2 meeting with the community organization West Side Community Stakeholders.
At the meeting, held at United for Better Living, 4540 West Washington Boulevard, Escalante introduced the rollout of various non-punitive forms of policing, such as a measure that would make narcotics treatment an alternative to arrest for non-violent adult and juvenile offenders on the West Side.
He also argued on behalf of what he insisted is the majority of good apples on the force — officers like the ones who risked their lives to catch the man, suspected to be involved with narcotics, who had led them onto the ‘L’ platform, where he jumped onto the tracks. The cops, not missing a step, jumped, too.
“I was coming up the Eisenhower anticipating that this young man was going to try to jump [onto the expressway],” said Escalante. “That track was a live track, electrical, and these officers didn’t stop in pursuit of this young man.”
The interim top cop said he had to phone emergency dispatchers to contact CTA officials and tell them to stop the trains, one of which Escalante said he had passed while whizzing down the expressway.
“My fear was that, if we didn’t get it to stop, it was going to keep going down the tracks,” he said. “That’s the dedication I see from our officers. They didn’t hesitate to jump onto live tracks. I think … those officers represent the overwhelming majority of [the Chicago Police Department].”
The March 2 gathering had been one among many Escalante said he’s attended since temporarily stepping into the role that was vacated when former top cop Garry McCarthy was forced out last December in the wake of the release of dashcam video footage showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
The video footage sparked a brush fire of criticism and put political pressure on the police and the city. In the March 15 Democratic primary, Cook County State’s Anita Alvarez Attorney was thumped by her former employee, Kim Foxx — a former prosecutor and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff—in large part due to what many perceived to be her slow response to charge Van Dyke after witnessing the footage in 2014.
And Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who many feel sat on the tape until a court order ultimately forced it from the city’s grasp, has turned into a political pariah both in Chicago and nationwide. An astonishing fall from grace for someone who had been at the center of Democratic politics at least since the Clinton presidency.
Now, Escalante has been on the frontlines trying to rebuild some of the community trust that the department and the city has lost. The meeting in West Garfield Park was also attended by police commanders of the 11th and 15th Districts. It was convened by the organization’s head, Rev. Walter Jones, who openly expressed his support for the police.
“For those of us who know and appreciate and respect our law enforcement, there’s a serious push to show those in the community that we need our law enforcement and that all our law enforcement folks aren’t bad,” said Jones. “There are bad folks in everything, but we’re bridging that gap between law enforcement and the community.”
Jones praised the department for stepping up patrols of Madison Street, which he said has been something of ground zero for the city’s bustling underground market for illicit cigarette sales. He also recommended the department step up various community policing tactics, such as a new program created by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or NOBLE, “to teach students about police work, citizens’ civil rights and how to interact safely with police,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Escalante’s modulated his message — acknowledging the department’s prior missteps and ensuring the group that reform was happening, while insisting, sometimes in colorful anecdotes similar to the cop chase, that the conduct of officers like Van Dyke wasn’t representative of the entire department.
“I’ve lost track of the community meetings and forums I’ve attended,” he said. “At some, we’ve had our critics; but in all those meetings, even in those where there’s been severe criticism, nobody has ever said they want less police or don’t want police or don’t need them.
“What we hear is people who want to be treated fairly and with respect. I think we are taking several steps to try to accomplish that. We have a lot of work to do, but I think we’re in the process of trying to build bridges or repair them.”
Escalante announced a new initiative to rollout on the West Side that would emphasize treatment alternatives for narcotics-related crimes; rather than arrests.
“We can’t arrest our way out of some situations, because without alternatives, without social service providers, we’re not going to have an impact,” he said, before explaining the new initiative.
“If we have an adult arrested for narcotics and we know, based on their history, they’re not violent persons, and as long as we know there’s not violent history there that could impact a trial or sentencing, we’re going to start making referrals to substance abuse programs. The same will apply to juvenile arrests.”
Escalante also noted that the department will create more incentives for officers to undergo more training in community policing measures, which are currently not mandated, and increase the number of officers who either walk or bike throughout the communities. In addition, Escalante said the department will try enhancing the NOBLE program Jones referenced.
Alderman Chris Taliaferro (29th), who was at the meeting, praised Escalante’s performance before recommending that the department hire an African-American first-line supervisor for the 25th District.
“I think you’re doing a good job,” said Taliaferro, himself a retired Chicago Police officer. “I think your application is well-deserved for the position on a permanent basis.”
“You did speak about bridging the [trust] gap [between police officers and residents] and that’s very important on the West Side. I’ve been advocating for a black front-line supervisor in the 25th District since I’ve been in office. When I left that district, I was the only one there. I think it’s important for that district. The calls I get in my office demand it.”