Chicago Tribune Editorial - Cline pays the price
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published April 3, 2007
Philip Cline leaves the job of Chicago police superintendent knowing that many people are alive largely because of his creative strategies for curbing homicide and other violent crimes. As Mayor Richard Daley searches for Chicago's next top cop, we hope he emphasizes the need for the kind of aggressive crime-fighting that earned Cline the job in 2003.
Oddly, crime-fighting hasn't always been City Hall's top policing priority. That's why, before Daley installed Cline, Chicago chronically had the nation's highest big-city murder rate. For decades the street carnage here escalated as some feckless aldermen focused on such secondary factors as the speed of officers' response time to 911 calls, how often police patrolled lakefront streets and -- for City Hall operatives who like to play racial politics -- the very color of a police chief's skin.
Cline focused instead on saving lives. He disrupted Chicago's killer combo of gangs, guns and drugs. His innovative Deployment Operations Center and Targeted Response Unit put more "cops on the dots," police parlance for flooding blood-soaked neighborhoods with officers to interrupt escalations of lethal retaliation among warring gangbangers and drug peddlers.
As a result, the number of murders here, after soaring to more than 600 a year for a solid third of a century, has declined to the mid-400s -- a drop counter to rising homicide numbers nationwide.
Cline's success repudiated critics who charged that the presence of extra officers would make citizens feel they were under siege. Instead, community groups in Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods have clamored appreciatively for the high-intensity policing to expand -- and have begged Cline for more of the police street cameras that make gun-toting drug peddlers nervous.
Cline is leaving his post early because of a scandal: the brutal misbehavior of off-duty cops in tavern beatings and his department's sluggish response in punishing the rogue conduct. He condemned the actions of the cops, but acknowledged that his department didn't react quickly and thoroughly enough in the cases. When a watch commander told police to harass reporters covering a hearing for an officer involved in one beating, it left the impression that some police still thought it was OK to harass civilians. Cline demoted the commander, but the damage was done.
So Cline pays the price. His successor will have to deal with the question of whether some cops in Chicago still think the real mistake in the brutality cases was in getting caught on tape.
Those cases shouldn't come to define Cline's tenure as police chief, though. His success against crime should. As Daley picks a new chief, the overriding question will be this: Who will keep making Chicago neighborhoods safer?
That's the issue -- just as it was in 2003 when the mayor appointed Cline because he was the candidate most likely to drive down murder numbers, particularly in the impoverished neighborhoods that criminals most often victimize. Chicago faces few challenges as infuriating as the street slaughter of its young people by the hundreds every year.