“Community policing,” the new doctrine here in Chicago, is hard to get a grip on. Sentiment conjures up the amiable constable of yesteryear strolling down an urban lane, woolgathering with local merchants while cocking an eye at young miscreants gathered on the corner.

But that’s not what it is.

“Simplistic, sensationalized, and at times downright inaccurate reporting of community policing promotes a misunderstanding of the philosophy,” asserts an article in the most recent issue of Neighborhoods, a quarterly newsletter published by the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety (CANS).

“Despite media representation to the contrary,” the article by community organizer Laura Hermann continues, “community policing is not the equivalent of police officers wandering (or, as highlighted by some, bicycling) through neighborhoods. At one point last April, the media’s nostalgic imagery of the mythic beat cop got so out of hand that Superintendent Matt Rodriguez had to write a letter to the editor of the Sun-Times debunking ‘the common misconception that under CAPS [Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy] beat officers work strictly on foot patrols. If this were the case,’ Rodriguez wrote, “it would be highly inappropriate (not to mention highly inefficient).'”

Nor is community policing the age-old practice of working a string of informants. Hermann scoffs at a Sun-Times article that gushed, “Thanks to community policing, a tip from a neighbor led to the arrests,” and at a Tribune piece–on a cop who set up anonymous drop boxes–that explained, “It’s one man’s variation on the concept of community policing.”

There’s more to community policing than riding in like Shane. To quote from the new CAPS manual, “In the past, the community was relegated to the role of a passive source of information–the “eyes and ears’ of the police. With CAPS, the community is an active partner throughout the problem-solving process.”

Enter the modest but pinpoint resources of niche journalism. Last November CANS signed a $2.9 million contract with the city to organize and train residents of all 279 police beats in the principles of community policing. Looking at the example of the Community Renewal Society, which had founded the Chicago Reporter to cover race relations and Catalyst to cover school reform, CANS concluded that successful community policing required a journal that championed, monitored, and analyzed. Federal VISTA funds gave CANS the wherewithal to hire an editor, and last winter it launched Neighborhoods.

“We’re coming from a community perspective,” editor Linda Lutton told me. “There’s a danger if all the information and all the education on community policing comes from the police.”

So what do the police think of your product? I asked her. Conciliation isn’t at the top of her list of must-dos. One article reported, “Widespread disrespectful treatment of youth by police–in addition to infringing upon youths’ human and civil rights–makes trust between the police and the community impossible.”

“Reactions have been really varied from the police department,” Lutton said. Some have been angry and defensive, but, she adds, “There are some things the newsletter says that people in the police department can’t say openly, so they’re glad the community voice is there.”

She pointed to the lead story in the summer issue, “Where, Oh Where Has My Beat Officer Gone?” On paper the police department practices community policing by assigning permanent beat officers, familiar faces who learn the turf and show up at community meetings. In practice, Neighborhoods found, local commanders often don’t make these assignments or ignore them. And beat officers who take the program seriously resent this.

But Lutton doesn’t think the police department is necessarily the program’s biggest obstacle. “There’s 13,000 officers, and changing that department will be a long-term project,” she said. “But I think changing how three million community residents think about their crime problems and their solutions to those crime problems is probably an equal challenge. We’ve thought for a long time our solution to crime is to call 911. That’s what we’ve been educated to do. This will involve the fundamental reeducation of the community.”

Community policing works, in theory, by training cops and civilians to sit down together at civilian-run neighborhood meetings. There the community defines its problems, sets its priorities, and with the police creates strategies for fighting back. “If you have a crime problem you need to get organized, and if you fear a crime problem is coming your way you need to get organized,” Lutton said. She concedes this involves a certain amount of sweeping crime from one neighborhood to the next.

The story Neighborhoods hasn’t written yet is the one that questions Chicago’s commitment to community policing and wonders whether the program’s going to collapse. With its $2.9 million CANS expected to hire 50 community organizers who’d move through Chicago beat by beat training the local leadership. But CANS had only hired 25 when the city ordered a hiring freeze.

“The mayor has called this vital to CAPS,” says Warren Friedman, executive director of CANS, referring to the street-level training. “But they’ve cut outreach in half. No department has taken a hit like that.” What this means, he said, is that the demoralized high-crime areas where people need extra help to organize aren’t going to get it.

To the extent that community policing turns out to be a new broom, it might push crime back into the same hapless corners.

Echoes of the Times

A gripe oft aimed at the Reader’s Digest is that when it recycles journalism it edits out everything that made the original articles worth reading.

For example . . . Dang, my old stack of Digests must have been tossed by mistake. No matter. The dubious merits of condensation can also be appreciated by examining the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune enhances its editorial package by subscribing to the New York Times News Service. It then offers abridged versions of material presented intact in the Times the same morning.

On Sunday the Tribune offered its readers the Times’s revelation that that raucous, racist “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup” for lawmen we read so much about this summer may have been concocted by a former cop who used to distribute campaign literature for David Duke. It’s suspected that a videotape of the 1990 roundup in Tennessee was turned over by the cop to the National Rifle Association, from whose custody it made its way to the Washington Times, which broke the story.

The cop may have been angry at the roundup organizers because they wouldn’t allow him to campaign there for Duke, a former Klansman. Suspicions abound that the videotape’s centerpiece–a banner that according to the Times said “Nigger check point” but in the Tribune was simply “a banner warning of a “checkpoint’ for blacks”–was hung by the cop himself.

The Times article, which was at least three times as long as the Tribune’s rendering of it, offered nothing that the Tribune didn’t–except background, comment, and specificity, in particular the names of the two NRA officers who are the likeliest candidates to have delivered the videotape to the Washington Times.

On to a more poignant example of Tribune piggybacking. Last week the astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who’d joined the University of Chicago in 1936 and won the Nobel Prize in 1983, died at the age of 84 in the university hospital.

The Tribune cut the New York Times obit in half and ran it in place of its own. The Tribune retained the curriculum vitae and edited out the anecdotal evidence that a vital life had ended.

In death Chandrasekhar seemed more significant to the Times as a national figure who happened to have lived in Chicago than he was to the Tribune as a Chicagoan. This is surely not because Chandrasekhar was a household word in Manhattan. The Times’s long obit was an act of grace: it allowed readers to feel reverence and loss at the death of someone they hadn’t known existed.

Of course cutting the New York Times down to size isn’t the worst of sins. On Monday the paper carried a piece on a march led by Jesse Jackson to the Cook County Jail. The Tribune didn’t run a word.

And what of the Sun-Times? Their coverage of the Tennessee roundup was a Reuters piece Monday on the New York Times’s Sunday story. Their Reuters obit of Chandrasekhar was half the length of the Tribune’s. And they didn’t cover Jackson’s parade either. A photographer came back with pictures the Sun-Times didn’t use.

Michael VerMeulen

Michael VerMeulen dropped out of college to write. His early pieces for the Reader were so clumsy that one became a dry run given to aspiring copy editors to measure their ability to scrub dross from gold. But the gold was there; he knew what readers wanted to read. VerMeulen made himself our drama critic as enfant terrible, raising both the quality of Chicago theater and his own notoriety. Then he left town.

In recent years VerMeulen edited the British edition of GQ, the largest men’s magazine in the U.K. “We set the tone and standards for the rest of the market,” he told the Guardian a couple of years ago. “There are no rules, so I get to make the rules. And that’s about perfect.” Like the British editors who’ve triumphed in the U.S., VerMeulen was an irreverent outsider. His staff thought he was wonderful. Cocky, outrageous, gallant, and extremely able, he cut a large figure as a Yank in London. He took up smoking at an age when most men are praying to stop; he gourmandized and held court at what he termed “secret, seedy places.” Those of us who remember him from the Reader’s infancy felt old this week when we heard he’d died suddenly in his sleep. VerMeulen was only 38.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.