PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday April 14th, 2014, 7:09am

ACLU's Lawsuit Alleging Chicago 911 Dispatch Disparities Moves Forward

A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois against the city of Chicago alleging discriminatory police deployment practices moved forward last week after a circuit court judge granted the plaintiffs' motion for discovery in the case. Progress Illinois takes a look at the case and newly-released figures on police dispatch times across the city.

A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois against the city of Chicago alleging discriminatory police deployment practices moved forward last week after a circuit court judge granted the plaintiffs' motion for discovery in the case.

Now that discovery is open, additional Chicago police deployment information will eventually be made accessible that could "pierce the veil of how deployment affects response times across the city in a much more clear and comprehensive way," said Ed Yohnka, ACLU of Illinois' director of communications and public policy.

The additional data made available through discovery could bolster the plaintiffs' case about "the need for a more equitable deployment strategy all across the city," he added.

Back in 2011, the ACLU of Illinois filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago on behalf of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA). The suit alleged that police are deployed inequitably across the city's communities. The organizations say Chicago police officers are not dispatched to 911 calls in a timely manner in minority neighborhoods, a problem that the Chicago Sun-Times has done extensive reporting on over recent years.

A circuit court judge previously sided with the city of Chicago and tossed out the case. An appellate court in November, however, reversed the case's dismissal.

The ACLU filed a motion for discovery in late March. Also last month, the group released new data it obtained from the city through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The data revealed that predominately minority Chicago neighborhoods, mostly located on the South and West sides, continue to face inequitable police services, the ACLU asserts. 

"These are precisely the type of disparity in response that we identified when we filed this case in 2011," Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement. "Our clients in Austin have reported countless incidents when they phone police in response to an act of violence in their community, only to wait without any response. We need to move this matter forward. Still, the city has resisted disclosure of information that would help us — and the public — get a full understanding of its deployment of police officers across the city."

The new figures include the average time it took the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) to dispatch a police car to a "Priority 1" emergency call in Chicago's 22 police districts during the months of June through September of 2013. The most serious 911 calls involving an imminent threat to life, bodily injury or major property damage or loss are categorized as Priority 1 emergency calls. 

Overall, the top three police districts that had the longest officer dispatch times to Priority 1 calls included Calumet, Grand Crossing, and South Chicago — all of which are majority minority communties that are located on the South Side of Chicago. The shortest dispatch times were in the Albany Park, Central, Lincoln/Foster, Near North and Rogers Park police districts. The Central district covers portions of the downtown area.

South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), whose ward includes the Calumet, Grand Crossing, Gresham and Englewood police districts, said he has heard concerns from local police commanders about delays in the time it takes 911 calls to get passed from the OEMC to the impacted district.

"Talking to my commanders, they're saying that there is actually a communication problem between the time that the call comes in and that call getting dispatched to our affected districts," the alderman told Progress Illinois. "That seems to be the bigger lag time, so to speak."

Back in July, those in the predominantly minority Grand Crossing district had to wait an average of 10.41 minutes for an officer to be dispatched to a Priority 1 call. That same month, those in the Jefferson Park district, which has a majority white population, experienced an average police dispatch wait time of 2.26 minutes, according to the data. 

In another example, the average police dispatch time in the majority white Near North district was 2.4 minutes in September, while the average in the predominately minority Gresham district on the South Side was 5.22 minutes.

The figures released by the ACLU do not include average police response times to the scene of a call, as the city reportedly does not maintain that type of information. 

The Chicago Police Department did not return to Progress Illinois' request for comment on this story. But in a recent interview with the Sun-Times on police dispatch times, police spokesman Adam Collins stressed that, “Dispatch time does not equal police response time.” He said officers commonly respond to radio calls for shootings and other crimes that are said to be in progress before they are officially dispatched in response to a 911 call.

City documents analyzed by the Sun-Times show that the city's 22 police districts had a collective 6,412 beat cops as of January 6, which is down from 6,746 at the start of 2011, just a few months before Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was sworn into office. The Emanuel administration has been focused on ramping up foot patrols and police presence in areas with the highest rates of violent crime on the South and West sides. These high-crime areas have also seen an increase in officers that work in special units focused on gangs and guns, among other priorities, Collins told the newspaper.

ACLU officials, however, say the newly-released data illustrates that "nothing that the Emanuel administration has done in reshuffling police officers and districts has had a meaningful effect on reducing the inequities in police deployment," a news release from the group reads.

Sawyer said he would prefer to see more officers moved from lower-crime districts to those with higher rates of criminal activity.

"I have districts that could be affected positively by that, but I know my colleagues will fight tooth and nail to keep the police resources that they have," the alderman said. "But I think it's something that we need to look at to distribute the police manpower to where it's needed most. There are some districts that don't need as much as manpower as they currently have, and they can afford to dispatch officers to districts that are more in need of services like that ... I'm hoping that we can come to some kind of happy medium to accomplish those kinds of things."

Meanwhile, the ACLU also found that majority minority police districts had approximately one-and-a-half times more Priority 1 calls per beat officer than majority white districts in September. This finding "largely explains the continuing disparity in response times," according to the ACLU.

"What is really important here is the human side of what happens in terms of this data," Yohnka stressed. "You talk to people who live on the South and West Side, and there is this terrible thing that occurs when you call someone. When you have a circumstance that would cause you to call 911... and response times are this long, that's an incredibly distressing and coercive thing."

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