Last January I went to the CAPS meeting for the neighborhood immediately south of me. I live in Chicago, which is all about neighborhoods, but in this liminal space that’s on the border to several different official boundaries and claimed by or inserting itself into several unofficial ones. If somebody local asks me where I live and I answer with anything other than the nearest train stop, I’m giving away something about what I think of them and my relationship to the situation.
CAPS is the program the Chicago police have for community engagement. The city is divided into police districts, each district has a beat, and each beat, in theory, has its own CAPS staff and regular meeting. I went to one when I lived in Rogers Park, at the very north edge of the city, fully intending to be a good citizen who regularly attended. My memory of the meeting is that the Italian Beef I’d ordered from a to go joint while rushing over to the meeting was actually a French Dip, that the CAPS officer in charge of the meeting seemed very interested in being useful but also was at a bit of a loss about why he was there or what he should do, and that for being a very small crowd of senior citizens, I was learning entirely too much about other people’s vexations regarding noisy dogs. When the time for the next CAPS meeting rolled around, I had other plans.
My little sister and I are very close. When people comment on it as being notable or unusual, I tell them a story about something that happened shortly after my mother came home from the hospital with her. My grandparents had come to visit and help out and had stayed in my parents house with me while my parents were at the hospital. I was three and a half years old, and my grandfather handed me the infant that was my brand new sibling saying, “This is your baby sister. That makes you a big sister, which means you have to look out for her.”
What I heard was that she was mine. And that something being mine meant I was responsible for it. There are standards. Expectations. Years later, when circumstances called for it, I informed some of my baby sister’s peers about these facts. I understand you had and altercation with my sister, I said. You will henceforward understand that upsetting her means crossing me. Make better choices. There were no more altercations.
This is what it means when I say I love you. It means you’re mine. It means I’m responsible for you. I take my responsibilities seriously.
I love Chicago like it’s the salt in my blood.
The CAPS meeting in January, in Lake VIew, was very different from the one in Rogers Park I went to over a year before. For one, it was at a police station rather than a park. For another, it was packed. A long table ran along the front of the room and it had authority figures from all over. Lots of them CPD. Some of them CTA. My alderman was there, even though this wasn’t in his ward. Representatives of the alderman who was in charge of that ward were there. I showed up just a few minutes before the meeting was supposed to start (without a disappointing sandwich) and could barely get a seat because it was packed with people who’d turned out for the meeting. The back row had reporters with video cameras squeezed in. I took one look at the room, reflected on the differences between Rogers Park and Lake View, and shook my head. Even with the shift in location and demographics, the difference was too big. Too much a certain kind of difference. This was not a typical CAPS meeting.
Which is not to say it wasn’t normal.
There are some stats about CPD I come back to over and over and over again. Police misconduct cost $113 million in lawsuit settlements in 2018 alone. That was a banner year for expensive misconduct, but not all that unusual. To put those numbers in perspective, the city had a projected budgetary shortfall of $838 million that had to be closed in order to pass the 2020 budget. (Page 33) Misconduct settlements over the last ten years could very nearly, by themselves, have plugged that gap. That’s without accounting for ancillary expenses like lawyers, servicing overhead, and loss of economic growth resulting from having a police force that mistreats its citizens, having a reputation for same, and the mistreated citizens experiencing consequences of that misconduct. Also, since we don’t actually have cash on hand to make those payments and they exceed what’s budgeted for them, we’re borrowing money to do it. Which costs even more.
That’s not the whole picture, though. The police do more than frame, torture, and shoot people. If you’re white and get murdered, odds are almost 50:50 that the CPD will clear the case. If you’re black it’s closer to 1:5. (These numbers are an improvement from what they were before 2019.) All that for a measly $2.7 billion spent on public safety. (Same PDF as above, page 61 this time).
The CAPS meeting in Lake View that I just happened to wander into because I didn’t have other plans that evening and I do things like go to public meetings for fun was unusual because there was an uptick in crime at nearby train stations in December. Community members were angry and frightened. Public officials wanted to alleviate fears and make a show of doing something. People at the table of authority figures at the front talked a lot. People in the overflowing seating area got mics and got to talk a lot. One of the officials said something I really appreciated by pointing out that even with a few highly publicized incidents, public transit is safe. One of the community members very comfortably and frankly shared their feeling that, “I don’t care what you say about whether it’s safe. I don’t feel safe and it’s your job to make me feel safe.”
A mom who works as a nurse shared that she’s too worried about safety to let her children ride transit, so she’s ordering them rideshares all the time, which is expensive and she can’t really afford. When a man from a youth intervention program got up to say hey, we all know it’s kids coming over here because it’s where the money is and causing trouble, I could use some funding to do more of my work and prevent that from happening, this mom sneered at him and said something along the lines of, “Why should we diaper your kids?”
I started doing the math on the cost of diapers versus car share then kept the answer to myself because she wasn’t actually concerned about the best way to spend money. Also, the diapers were figurative.
Summer before last I was leaving from work in the Loop to meet friends for dinner along the blue line. That was not my normal commute, so I didn’t cotton on fast enough about train delays. I wound up trapped between stations in a sweltering train car. Then inching forward to a packed and stuffy platform with trainloads of people making their way up to the street. Service was suspended for an unknown amount of time due to an incident further along the tracks. The blue line runs diagonal across a rigidly gridded map. There is no equivalent alternative. All of the buses were overloaded with an influx of erstwhile train passengers and also it was rush hour so you didn’t want to be commuting on the streets anyway.
I walked something like two and a half miles in a crowd of similarly stranded train passengers, evening summer sun absolutely baking us, and periodically texting my friends with updates on how very late I was going to be. A trip I’d expected to take half an hour wound up closer to two hours. I don’t deal with heat well and I once got a sun burn in under eight minutes.
It was a mini natural disaster. A horde of people overwhelming sidewalks, the crowd pockmarked with people calling home with status updates or calling friends for a morale boost. Every once in a while an overladen bus would go by, not bothering to stop unless somebody wanted to get off because there was absolutely no chance of anybody else squeezing on.
When I got to dinner I collapsed at the table, chugged a glass of ice water, and cowered under an awning so the dregs of sunset couldn’t burn me any further. “Fun evening?” a friend asked.
I sighed, resigned to the truth. “Actually, kinda? I mean, it was terrible, but also, everybody was enduring it together and just plunking along. I feel like I bonded with five hundred strangers I’ll never have to see again.”
My friends exchanged knowing looks. “So, you’ll forgive Chicago for absolutely anything.”
“I think so. Yes.”
Getting home after dinner was a breeze.
Scared white people ask for cops. The Lake View CAPS meeting was packed to the brim with scared white people. They wanted cops. Cops on platforms. Cops on train cars. Cops lingering near turnstiles. These particular white people pay some of the highest property taxes in the city. CPD needs to make them feel safe.
I was somewhat annoyed when I got home.
I lived in Seattle for three years. Their one train line is absolutely lousy with police hanging around to make people feel safe, mostly by keeping homeless people off the platforms. They never made me feel safe. Instead they reminded me that the fare system is an enforced honor system, which means a city that prides itself for anarchist tendencies accepts raids by fare enforcement officers demanding proof of payment as a matter of course. That the city isn’t even pretending its transit system isn’t premised on antagonism with people who use it. “Why are there cops everywhere? This is Seattle. I don’t think I’ve seen cops around like this in New York or Boston, and you definitely don’t get it in Chicago.”
A week ago Friday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a plan to bring safety to the Red Line. She was at the Roosevelt station when she did it, which is the southern end of downtown Chicago. Lightfoot is unusual for a Chicago Mayor in that she will ever say anything unkind about CPD. Last year she fired the police superintendent ahead of details going public about what would, ideally, be a fairly bizarre scandal but is, in context, tame. I’m personally fond of the incident where she, not realizing she was within range of an active mic, called a representative from the FOP a clown when he showed up to defend officers who helped cover up for the cop who murdered Laquan McDonald. “I’m sorry that I said it out loud,” is a feeling I, personally, can get behind pretty fervently here.
It wasn’t surprising, but it did sour fondness, when the safety plan was more cops.
Shortly after the distressing CAPS meeting for the beat south of me, the meeting for my beat came around. I went. It was in a meeting room at the library that was about a quarter the size of the one for the other meeting. My alderman was there, but he sat in the audience. The official CAPS liaison was there and she sat up front. Two beat officers were there, too, but they stood to the side, answering questions as needed but otherwise just hanging out.
Counting me and excluding the alderman, there were three people from the community. The meeting lasted fifteen minutes.
I also went to one of several community outreach sessions CPD was having around the city in February in order to get input about desired policy changes. They made a very big deal about this being about engaging with the community but it is, in fact, because CPD was placed under a consent decree as a consequence of not only murdering a teenager in the street, but covering it up and trying to protect the murderer. The session was actually pretty well run, even if little of it inspired confidence that it was more than show in response to reporting that despite the consent decree coming down from the Feds, CPD is mostly ignoring it.
There were topic specific breakout sessions where people could make suggestions for policy. I stalked the ones related to use of force and deadly force. There weren’t any about misconduct discipline. I had questions. What, exactly, are the current policies? When were they last overhauled? What have the demonstrable effects of those overhauls been in terms of incident rate? Did they trigger organizational cultural changes? Does policy even drive the organizational culture inside CPD? I mean, policy is great and all, but it’s just so much paper if it isn’t where behavior and norms originate.
This is a session for suggestions, not questions, the breakout facilitators urged. What do you want? Tell us that.
But I can’t know what policy to ask for without understanding the relationship between policy and conduct. What I want is different conduct. What I want is police who don’t walk into tense situations and escalate them, antagonize people, draw batons on children, shoot teenagers. And cost us a fortune for the privilege. What I want is that if I see the cops arrest somebody, to feel confident this was a reasonable response to the situation and the person in the back of the car, my fellow resident, isn’t going to disappear down a back channel. I want to feel like the police are who stands behind me when I tap somebody on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, but I understand there was an altercation between you and my city. You will henceforward understand that harming it means crossing me. Make better choices.”
That is, instead of feeling like they’re the ones with a shoulder I need to tap.
When I was looking for a job ahead of moving back, I had a phone interview with a promising prospective employer. I explained that no, I couldn’t drop in for an in-person interview later that week, I was relocating from Seattle and wasn’t going to move until I had work lined up. How long have I been gone? Ten years, but I’ve had it with being away and, come hell or high water, I’m going back. “Why? Everybody here wants to leave.” I didn’t pursue that job any further.
Chicago is the third largest city in the country behind New York and LA. Frankly, LA cheats and shouldn’t count. It is the only major city where the population is shrinking instead of growing. It’s in a state that spent most of the ten years I was away failing to pass a budget of any sort, which meant loss of basic, expected funding on a slew of fronts. Most of the population loss is from the Black and Latinx populations because those are the ones who’ve had their schools shut down. Those are the ones getting harassed and shot by the police. When I hear a white person sneer and talk about how they want to leave Chicago, I like them less. When I hear somebody else say it, I find myself staring down an existential threat poised to choke my city to death.
The Red Line runs north to south down the eastern corridor of the city. It starts at the northern border. The lake eats away at the coastline of the city as it moves north, meaning the train is fairly near the shore at the northern end, and miles away by the southern end. It runs through the loop but doesn’t participate: it and the blue line are both underground while they’re downtown. If you ride all the way down, north to south, you can see the whole picture of the city. You’ll pass four major college campuses. Two baseball stadiums. Glance signs for the underground pedways that people working downtown use to avoid winter and weather as they move from municipal buildings to food courts and malls mostly for tourists and spit you out at parking garages and Millennium Park or City Hall or or or.
Further south you pass Chinatown. Later, the tracks nestle down between two sides of the Dan Ryan Expressway and the train blows past traffic backups with smug abandon. By then the cars have fewer passengers. The atmosphere changes. People seem to know each other more, at least recognize fellow commuters. Chat. Pass through doors from one car to another to avoid somebody sleeping along a row of seats, or get away from somebody blaring music or just to stretch their legs. The Red Line has the most frequent service of any of the trains, especially during rush hour. Trains don’t hang around at stations for people to get off and change cars. No need. Just go through the doors between cars. In winter you get a blast of cold air. In summer, humidity pours in thick and sticky. This is normal enough that I’m more likely to settle down with my bike near the passenger doors than block the end of the car.
When I was commuting down from Rogers Park to the Loop every day for work, if I missed the best train for getting in on time and wound up with second best, I’d get the Red Line train with the conductor who loved his job more than anyone I’ve ever met. “Good morning Chicago, and are you ready for your day?” He was a relentless pep talk from Morse to Lawrence, urging students to focus on their studies, encouraging workers to focus on their day, and assuring everyone that it was going to be a good day. I hate mornings and that much cheerfulness that early is torture. I loved him anyway. Because he was right, fundamentally. I was in Chicago, crammed in with a bunch of other Chicagoans, riding a train to go do things that make Chicago work, keep it here, give it life. Totally worth getting out of bed for.
A week ago Friday, hours after Mayor Lightfoot announced more police would be put on the Red Line to keep it safe, a man passed from one car to the next through the doors at the end. It was afternoon rush hour. The train was downtown. With the workers. And the tourists. Packed with people who want to feel safe.
Since the Red Line is underground downtown, that’s where you’ll get musicians setting up and busking. Sometimes it’s a guy with a sax and a speaker filling out smooth jazz covers. Sometimes it’s a guy with a guitar. Or a guy with a guitar and a partner doing vocals. Sometimes it’s a group of teenagers rapping over a prerecorded beat. I don’t care who it is or what they’re doing because it’s awesome absolutely every time. Those platforms are alive when they have people and performers. They’re thriving.
During rush hour a man passed from one car to another in violation of a safety ordinance that is never, ever followed. There were cops on the train.
Before it was over, he and the police were on the train platform at Grand (tourist central). They shot him. Twice.
What kind of standard is that? Where is the responsibility? Is CPD really too devoted to itself to love the city it’s supposed to guard? Am I really supposed to find that acceptable? To want more of it? To think it solves anything?
On my way home from a play Friday night, I got to the platform just as a northbound train was leaving. I didn’t mind. The play was intense and left me a lot to chew over. The trains come pretty often and there was still a decent crowd of people on the platform, enjoying their Friday night. At the center, taking up most of the space, was a ring of six cops. They were turned in, talking with each other, large and conspicuously unusual. The guy with the shaggy hair and harmonica plunked down on one of the benches was only making a half-hearted attempt to play anything.
A southbound train pulled in. The cops piled onto a mostly empty car. The train left. I thought about watching for fare enforcement on the train platforms in Seattle. Waiting for them to board the car and descend on the people inside, demanding proof you had a right to be there. How nice it’s been not to deal with that.
A few minutes later another northbound train came. I got onto a car where most of the seats were filled. In a few minutes we’d be stopping at Grand. There were no cops in sight.
I still didn’t feel safe.