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Shortcomings revealed in Chicago’s implementation of community policing initiative

Program could offer a framework to improve safety and police-community relationships

EVANSTON, Ill. --- As cities seek ways to reduce crime while improving relationships between police and communities of color, interest in community-based policing efforts is on the rise.

A report by Northwestern researchers at CORNERS (The Center for Neighborhood Engaged Research and Science) assesses the impact of one such strategy — a pilot community policing initiative adopted in 2019 by the Chicago Police Department in partnership with the Policing Project at New York University (NYU) — found the promising Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative (CNPI) has shown no conclusive impact on public safety, likely due to the Chicago Police Department’s failure to fully implement CNPI.

“The city and the police department have time and time again stressed the desire to invest in improving their relationship with Chicagoans. This initiative is one way to perhaps move in that direction. But it requires committing to a new philosophy and demonstrating commitment to it — even given all of the other constraints facing our city,” said sociology professor Andrew Papachristos, faculty director of CORNERS and a fellow with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.  

The report highlights key successes and challenges and includes data and insights from CNPI stakeholders from the initiative’s start in 2019 through present day. The report also tracks progress on key metrics related to perceptions of public safety, 911 calls for service and violent crime rates.

Despite a lot of interest and initial on-the-ground support, the researchers found that the Chicago Police Department has yet to fully implement CNPI in the districts where it has been rolled out, which has hindered the initiative’s progress. Consequently, the report finds no conclusive impact on key measures of public safety and community sentiment across districts where it has been implemented.

How CNPI works
The Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative (CNPI) creates specialized district-wide units of police officers who work closely with neighborhood volunteers to address safety and low-level crime concerns through intensive problem solving.

CNPI engages officers and community members through two new roles, respectively called district coordinating officers (DCOs) and community ambassadors. DCOs primarily engage in problem solving and community engagement work, and community ambassadors help establish public safety priorities for their district and assist DCOs in identifying and responding to community issues. Through their problem-solving work, DCOs address chronic public safety issues with non-enforcement means, including by connecting community members to existing services in the community. 

A day in the life of a DCO
Program evaluators found DCOs regularly problem-solved on a wide range of issues. In one example cited by researchers, a DCO responded to individuals who were experiencing homelessness, including some with substance use issues, by bringing staff from a local medical center along for the officer’s regular premise check. As a result, “two people accepted treatment and a few people got the COVID vaccine, which is a great win for that area,” said the DCO. In another example, a DCO placed flyers that looked like standard orange Chicago parking tickets on cars to draw attention and ensure that residents read them. The “tickets” contained information about parking restrictions to help residents avoid ticketing and towing and in some cases provided detailed information on how to avoid carjackings and theft, particularly in areas where cars were regularly being broken into and stolen.

District coordinating officers feel generally satisfied in their jobs, according to researchers who reported that DCOs often expressed that they felt called to serve the community. Similarly, community ambassadors felt they were forging important relationships with DCOs in their districts. “You finally have a group of officers who believe that the community should have a voice in a relationship with the police officers, and in such a way that it’s not just talking about it,” said one ambassador. “It’s creating space where you have that relational exchange…and [DCOs are] trying to find a way to be as proactive as they can, to be as preventative as possible.”

Key challenges
While demonstrating some promise in terms of community buy-in and DCO satisfaction, the report also found that, despite being four years into CNPI, CPD has not yet fully implemented the initiative, even as stakeholders push the department to do so.

One of the key barriers examined in the report has been a lack of clarity in differentiating CNPI from the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS).

According to key CNPI stakeholders, CAPS, which has been CPD’s primary community policing strategy since the early 1990s, serves the role of community engagement planning, while CNPI intends to bring about a new “philosophy of policing” that integrates community voice and problem solving into police activities more broadly.

CORNERS’ report points to CPD staffing shortages as another key barrier to CNPI’s full implementation. The data revealed that DCOs are often pulled from their assigned roles and districts to fill in for beat officers in understaffed districts. When DCOs are expected to fill both their community role and beat role at the same time they have less capacity to engage in the intensive problem solving and community engagement work required by their role. DCOs and community members expressed concern that this work was not properly prioritized by the department, which continued to stunt the overall implementation and impact of CNPI in CPD districts. 

“A significant amount of work has gone into putting in place CNPI’s community policing infrastructure, and there are dedicated stakeholders on both the policing and community sides,” said Soledad Adrianzén McGrath, executive director of CORNERS and a member of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s public safety transition team.

“CNPI represents a strong foundation upon which to build a real community policing structure that can help meet consent decree requirements and help advance the goals of the new mayor,” said McGrath.

Funding for program research and evaluation was provided by the Joyce Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Polk Brothers Foundation, the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.