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Story Publication logo August 19, 2013

Chicago: Officers Beneath The Downpour

Graffiti in Humboldt Park on the West Side of Chicago where Latin and black gangs control the streets.  Image by Rieke Havertz. Chicago, 2013.

As the discussion about tougher gun laws gains momentum in the U.S. after mass shootings in Colorado...

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Police in West Englewood. The past year was one of the most violent in the history of Chicago. Image by Carlos Ortiz. United States, 2013.

This translation of the original German version of an article by Pulitzer Center grantee Rieke Havertz' published Aug. 7, 2013, in taz newspaper was prepared by Kerstin Egenhofer.

It looks like rain in Austin, one of the poorest districts on the West Side of Chicago. For police officers Brenna Scanlon and Brent Antesberger this means that their job gets easier. When it rains people people don't spend their free time hanging around on the street and there are fewer shootings.

The police officer have been working this beat for years and know the streets inside-out. Still, it is clear that Austin is not their home. The relationship between the police and local residents is anything but simple. There is a lot of crime, and when the officers make an arrest they see not only a perpetrator but someone's son, husband, neighbor.

On the streets in Austin, a predominantly African American neighborhood of 90,000, there are no big supermarkets, no cafes. Unemployment is around 21 percent, a staggeringly high number, approximately twice the average unemployment rate of the city. Police statistics tell us that there are 34.5 murders per 100,000 residents here.

Officer Antesberger puts his hand on the car he just pulled over. He touches the car three times inconspicuously–he leaves fingerprints on the trunk, the roof, and the frame of the driver's window. In this case, the driver was pulled over for ignoring a stop sign. It's a small infraction but the police officers are still prepared. If the driver is armed, shoots, and flees the scene the police officer's prints link the car to the incident. This time, however, the driver remains calm, even when it turns out that he is driving without a license. No one draws a weapon.

Pistols are the weapon of choice in Austin, a neighborhood where rival gangs fight for control of the neighborhood block by block. The police are outnumbered even though with approximately 12,500 officers, Chicago's police force is the second largest in the nation after New York City's.

Last year was one of the deadliest in the city's history. Five hundred and six people were murdered. Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to make a change. He installed a new police chief and dissolved the task force that supported precincts in times of crisis. The focus now is on a new anti-gang strategy that aims to closely monitor gangs by having more officers spend more hours in the community, working the same beat.

Chief Bob Tracey is happy with how the strategy is working thus far. In the first months of this year the murder rate dropped by 34 percent. He doesn't mention the fact that this spring was unusually rainy.

Tracey is satisfied with the lower numbers and he thinks they can keep the numbers low. But the improvements come at a high cost – the police force is understaffed and overworked. According to The New York Times $31.9 million of the $39 million allocated for overtime this year has already been spent. Tracey argues that the new anti-gang strategy is not the cause of the overtime.

There are many rookie cops, newly minted graduates of the police academy, on patrol in Austin. One former Chicago police officer who spent more than 30 worked for over 30 years on the force is with their lack of experience. He argues that there are too few police officers working in Chicago–although 820 new officers were hired between 2009 and 2012; during that same time 2,200 left the force.

More officers, a larger police presence on the street, tougher legislation–these are the proposed answers to Chicago's problems. Mayor Emanuel wants to raise the minimum penalty for unlawful possession of a weapon from one year to three. But these legal scare tactics will take time and it remains to be seen whether tougher laws will yield successes. In July alone 52 people died violent deaths in Chicago.

Brenna Scanlan and Brent Antesberger do not have time to wait on new strategies and laws. They rely on their weapons. They need to pull over another car. It's the same game: touch the trunk of the car, then the window frame. Today there are no shots fired in Austin during their shift. The heavens open and the rain comes down.

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