Chicago police broke up far more gatherings of people on the West Side than any other part of the city during the early days of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to official police statistics.
More than half of the at least 930 reports where Chicago police dealt with “coronavirus loitering” across the city in an 11-day period from late March through early April occurred in just one of the city’s 22 police districts, the Harrison patrol district on the West Side, according to data on coronavirus dispersals obtained by the Tribune through an open records request.
Of Harrison’s more than 500 reports, many generated by 911 calls, about a quarter of them occurred within Beat 1112, a four-by-four block area on the northern end of the district, the records show.
The Ogden district, which borders Harrison to the south and serves the Little Village and North Lawndale communities, placed a distant second in the number of reported dispersal incidents with 99. And the Austin district, located immediately to the west of Harrison, had the third highest with 98, according to the data.
The fourth highest with 32 reports was the Grand Central district, which covers part of the North Austin and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, areas that also border Harrison.
Harrison has long been known as one of Chicago’s high-crime districts, routinely producing among the highest numbers of homicides and total shootings in the city each year. And that trend has continued in 2020.
Overall crime in Harrison has dipped sharply since the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic led to Pritzker’s statewide public health order on March 21, though violence remains stubbornly high there.
The imbalance in dispersal orders suggests to some that police may be using them as a policing tactic that goes beyond concern over the coronavirus. It was images of people playing sports and congregating at the lake that grabbed headlines in the early days of COVID-19\u2032s spread here, after all.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois raised concerns about the high number of apparent dispersals in Harrison, including whether the more frequent orders there increases the chances of unconstitutional policing. The ACLU has previously expressed concern over CPD checkpoints for the same reason.
“The concentration of the dispersals in one district raises questions about whether people are acting differently in that district, or if officers in that district are enforcing the health order in a different way than officers in other districts,” said Karen Sheley, director of the police practices project for the ACLU of Illinois.
“We’d like the department to say that officers will assume that individuals who are walking or driving in their cars alone or in small groups are engaging in essential activity and not question or cite those people,” she said.
William Sampson, an emeritus professor of public policy at DePaul University, said people from impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods that are predominantly African American or Latino are most likely to not trust the police and won’t heed their warnings to take the stay-at-home order seriously.
“We know for sure about the virus that if people are close to each other, there’s a very good chance of spreading,” said Sampson. “If you don’t grow up having trust in authority, you don’t think the same way.”
He also said a lot of these residents don’t have access to health care and wouldn’t know what to do if they get sick. Sampson said they’re less likely than someone from a more stable background to be fully educated about the hazards of the disease.
The violence in the area remains entrenched. Through Sunday, Harrison had recorded 90 shootings this year, 20 more than a year earlier, official CPD statistics show.
Not only does Harrison lead the city in shootings this year, but it has seen twice as many as even the other most violent districts in the city, the statistics show. Harrison’s 21 homicides are just one more than last year, but it’s tops among all 22 districts in 2020.
The district, serving such communities as West Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park, is a regular focus of elite citywide units that conduct sensitive investigations related to city violence. FBI agents and other federal law enforcement also work on long-term cases there.
In areas of the district where open-air drug markets are rampant and prostitution remains a problem, people involved in that life could be especially vulnerable to the pandemic, said Sampson.
“Part of that is the failure of our society to provide decent jobs at decent wages for a lot of these folks,” he said. “These folks, who a lot of the times don’t have the education, don’t have the training, don’t have the skills, don’t get jobs. So a lot of them are turning to the underground economy, and that requires people to be together.”
Dr. Michael Angarone, an assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said drug addicts could be in danger of acquiring or spreading COVID-19 not only if they’re purchasing narcotics as part of a large group, but if they use IV-based drugs, they could be at a higher risk for infections, such as HIV, that weaken their immune systems.
Once that happens, he said, they could become more susceptible to COVID-19.
“They may fall into a risk group that we worry about getting sicker,” said Angarone.
Beyond the dispersal orders, citations and arrests for violations of the stay-at-home order have been few and far between for police, who aim more to educate the public about the importance of social distancing and staying home as much as possible during the pandemic. But there have been some less subtle police enforcement efforts to discourage large gatherings.
For instance, in late March, Chicago police temporarily closed down certain streets in Harrison “as part of a strategic and public health effort to disrupt the open-air drug market in the area and prevent excessive gatherings of people,” Chicago police said at the time. And in early April, three West Side liquor stores, including one in Harrison, agreed to shorten their hours to lessen the chance of congregating inside or outside those businesses.
“Dispersal orders have proven to serve as an effective enforcement tool to ensure compliance with the (public health order), without having to resort to citations or arrests unless absolutely necessary.,” said Luis Agostini, a Chicago police spokesman. “While the (Harrison district) continues to experience high levels of congregation … we remain committed to working closely with all community partners on ways to further engage our residents with the latest public health guidance, while also working to keep our neighborhoods safe.”
As for the concerns of the ACLU and others, Agostini said the department is acting with care.
“Public safety and constitutional policing are not mutually exclusive concepts,” he said. “Department leaders will continue assessing their approach toward enforcement to ensure the rights of individuals are always protected, regardless of where in Chicago they call home.“
At the Police Department’s request, officials said, the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications issued several wireless emergency alerts to residents’ cellphones in areas of Chicago with the most gatherings to get the message out about the stay-at-home order.
Since April 3, Chicago police have taken other steps to enforce the order while also trying to maintain a presence to curb the uptick in violence.
Officers set up checkpoints throughout the city to educate people about the stay-at-home order. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office has worked closely with street outreach organizations in some high-crime neighborhoods to make sure they have the most current public health guidance to share with residents, officials said.
On Wednesday night, Chicago police Superintendent David Brown started to order dozens of officers from North and Northwest Side districts to beef up patrols in high-crime areas of the South and West sides. The officers were moved from seven patrol districts that cover the northern end of Chicago — from the Rogers Park to Galewood neighborhoods — to the Harrison district and the Gresham, Englewood and Deering districts on the South Side.
High-crime patrol districts have experienced many surges in police resources over the years. But one police supervisor whose district had to give up officers to the latest surge said he’s never heard of such a large-scale effort to reallocate officers from safer areas of the city to those with more crime.
On Thursday night, officers were moved to the West Side’s Austin district, where numerous squad cars were seen patrolling the streets with their emergency lights or sirens on. In each instance, the surge of new cops lasted for just a few hours.
In Harrison on Friday morning, Chicago police met with food safety inspectors and workers from other city agencies near Madison Street and Springfield Avenue in West Garfield Park before heading to various businesses in the area to make sure they’re complying with the stay-at-home order. The intersection has special significance after it was the subject of viral video on social media earlier this week showing some tense moments between numerous police officers and a large group of gatherers.
Sampson, the DePaul professor, said it’s possible the department could be over-policing in Harrison, but acknowledged dispersals are for the greater good if it’s for public health concerns. But he believes the police will have a difficult time trying to win over some in those neighborhoods.
“If you grow up never thinking you can do better in life, then there’s no reason to do right,” Sampson said. “So when authority tells you, ‘this is what you need to do. … Screw that. I can do what I want to do. The worst thing that can happen to me is I’m going to jail.’ Right now, that’s a dangerous place to be.”
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.