Captain Roger Bay: "We could ticket and arrest all we want, but the problem remains in the way people treat this community."
Captain Roger Bay: "We could ticket and arrest all we want, but the problem remains in the way people treat this community." Credit: John Sturdy

Captain Roger Bay has been making arrests in tough neighborhoods for almost three decades, but in the last few years he’s come to believe that’s not good enough.

He was thinking about this again one evening recently as he pointed to an inch-wide bullet hole in the wall outside an empty storefront at Chicago and Ridgeway—the mark left by a shooting a year ago that killed a 29-year-old.

Police believe the violence was likely the direct result of a gang or personal dispute. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. Like so many other parts of the west side, that corner had been troubled for decades. “People just felt this was a spot to be out and do whatever you want,” Bay said. He nodded toward the empty storefront. “This right here used to be Titanic Subs. The sign says, ‘Best gyros in town,’ but in five years I never saw them sell one gyro.”

Instead, the store was selling cigarettes brought in illegally from out of state to avoid local taxes. “People from all over came here for cheap cigarettes, and this place was open 24 hours a day. That causes chaos, because then a person can come out here and buy that pack and sell it as single cigarettes, and so it creates an open-air market that looks like a drug market. And when [the driver of] the car wanted something different, they would point to somebody else”—the heroin dealer down the block.

At the same time, the liquor store next door made its sales through a walk-up window. Customers would drink on the sidewalk.

“There used to be guys sitting on milk crates on almost every corner,” Bay said. “You don’t know if they’re waiting for drugs to get delivered, you don’t know if they’re selling, but they don’t like being around when the police are there. We could ticket and arrest all we want, but the problem remains in the way people treat this community.”

Things began to change when area residents worked with police and city officials to shut down the sub shop. Next they convinced the liquor store to hire security and move its sales counter inside. And last year police brass began deploying additional officers throughout the 11th police district, including cops on bikes and rookies on foot patrol who are charged with getting to know the neighborhood.

As Bay spoke, a burly security guard emerged from the liquor store and handed him a bottle of water. “Here you go, captain,” the guard said. “Nice night!”

Bay agreed. He noted the scores of people out patronizing businesses on Chicago Avenue or just taking a walk. “And right now there are no milk crates.”

Since he began working as a watch commander in the 11th District five years ago, Bay has been on a mission to immerse himself in the neighborhoods where he’s charged with fighting crime. His goal is to be able to notice the small details that signal trouble, and to work with residents and businesses to change the fabric of the area in ways that busts alone will never do.

It’s the result of a long evolution—one that much of the police department and political establishment have yet to make. “When I was a [rank-and-file] police officer I didn’t talk to people on the block—I wasn’t trained that way. I was trained to chase people down and lock them up, and I enjoyed it,” Bay said. Most police “don’t have a lot of experience with crime prevention.”

Bay, 50, is six foot two and solidly built, with a long face crowned by a graying flattop. He grew up on the northwest side in a family that believed strongly in public engagement. His father served in the navy in World War II and then worked as a supervisor for the postal service, while his mother was a crossing guard for the police department.

“When you look at a corner like North and Damen, when I worked there as a police officer 25 years ago I could not imagine that was going to be a destination for nightlife, that bars and restaurants would be thriving.”
—Police captain Roger Bay

After graduating from Lane Tech High School in 1981, Bay trained to become a paramedic and worked for a private ambulance company. His initial plan was to join the fire department, but then he decided it wouldn’t hurt to apply for the police department at the same time. The police responded first. His first permanent assignment out of the academy in 1986 was in the 14th District, a chunk of the near-northwest side that includes Wicker Park and Logan Square. Both neighborhoods were then struggling with bloody gang conflicts. “People were getting shot over their colors on the corner,” Bay says. In 1987, 38 people were murdered in the district; by last year the number had fallen to nine. “When you look at a corner like North and Damen, when I worked there as a police officer 25 years ago I could not imagine that was going to be a destination for nightlife, that the bars and restaurants would be thriving.”

In 1995 Bay was on patrol when he saw a driver peel out of an intersection and speed off. When Bay pulled him over, the driver didn’t have a license, and Bay discovered that the car had just left the scene of an accident. “After I get one cuff on, he turns around and strikes me, getting one solid punch to the face.” It fractured Bay’s cheekbone. The offender was caught after a short chase and, after sitting in jail for 17 days, was sentenced to time served, meaning he walked out of court free. “He was back on the street before I was,” Bay said.

That wasn’t the only incident that left Bay thinking that much of the criminal justice system was based on quick fixes. “We need smart sentencing and smart release, but everything is done for expediency,” he concluded. And policing practices were a big part of the problem. Day after day, “we did what we were asked to do, which was chase 911 calls. But did it make a difference?” As the cycle repeated itself, he realized something else had to be done.

The issues were even more acute in the 11th District, a stretch of the west side that’s been saturated with gangs, drugs, and violence since businesses began leaving in the 1960s. Police periodically responded with stepped up enforcement, including a surge of officers and arrests in the early 2000s. Crime went down, as it did citywide, but community residents sometimes saw the police as an occupying force, and the area remained one of the most dangerous in Chicago.

To get a handle on where the problems were centered, Bay started by studying years of crime data. He discovered that beats 1112 and 1121, which make up most of West Humboldt Park, were consistently near the top in shootings and drug arrests. When he was moved from nights to afternoons in 2010, Bay decided to start spending more time there.

The captain soon became a fixture at community policing and block club meetings. “This is a man who’s visible,” says Chet Jackson, executive director of the West Humboldt Neighborhood Development Council. Even better, Bay seemed to understand the view of Jackson and other leaders that “the standard [police] role of rounding people up on the corner isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Bay came away similarly impressed with the commitment of Jackson and the core group of residents who showed up month after month for community meetings. In many neighborhoods, the city’s community policing program does little more than offer people a chance to gripe. But Bay found people in West Humboldt who were trying to transform the area with fresh ideas, development, and jobs, starting with a new restaurant on Chicago Avenue called Turkey Chop. “I haven’t seen anything like that in other districts,” Bay said. “It’s driven by the people.”

When police superintendent Garry McCarthy deployed additional police to the west side last year, Bay set out to send the message that the measure of their effectiveness won’t be how many arrests they make, but whether they’re minimizing the disorder that breeds crime. If that happens, he says, residents and businesses will respond and lasting change can occur.

Not that police don’t make “good arrests.” Bay himself helped snag a shooting suspect a couple weeks earlier—he figured something didn’t add up after seeing the man walking near the crime scene without a shirt on despite it being a chilly day. “If we have a good arrest—if he’s a felon with multiple convictions and we put him away for a gun or a delivery—maybe he comes back in five years. Is the corner different in five years?”

Ideally—as with North and Damen—it is.

A relatively long winter didn’t hurt, but something appears to be working. While homicides and shootings went up citywide in 2012, the 11th District ended the year with 38 murders, the lowest total since 2006. Earlier this year more than three months passed without a killing, and shootings were down 29 percent from last year as of mid-June.

At the same time, police are locking fewer people up. By the end of 2012 arrests in the 11th District were down a third from a decade earlier, and 11 percent since 2008. They’ve continued to fall this year.

Jackson says it’s the presence of police—starting with Captain Bay—that’s had the biggest impact. “Does it stop all the drug activity? Absolutely not, because they keep changing,” Jackson says. “But it gives people some security that they’re not going to get caught in the crossfire.”

Bay doesn’t argue that problems remain on the west side. One person was killed and seven others were wounded in a drive-by shooting near Flournoy and Francisco on July 6—the third shooting in that area in three days. Police believe they were gang conflicts.

“All over West Humboldt Park and Garfield Park, groups are trying to get their neighborhoods back block by block,” Bay said. But around the site of the drive-by, “we are still in need of people to stand up and speak out.”

At the same time, the drug trade remains so entrenched and sophisticated that dealers continually adapt to new police strategies. For years customers—many from the suburbs and out of state—have traveled to west-side corners to buy heroin and other drugs directly from street dealers. But that’s not always how it works anymore. At one operation, just a few blocks away on North Trumbull, police discovered this spring that the workers on the corner were taking orders and then phoning them in to a supplier at another location. Customers then waited nearby for delivery.

“Some residents think it’s getting worse because they keep seeing those guys standing on the corner, but they’re not carrying anything,” Bay says. “We try to get the guys delivering from the stash house in the suburbs. It takes a long time.”

Still, Bay predicts crime will continue to fall in West Humboldt Park—in large part because it’s poised for more community and business development. He says that the new Bloomingdale Trail, just six blocks north, is sure to bring bicyclists through the area as they connect with the boulevard park system to the south and west.

“I hope the city keeps hiring” officers, he said, “because that’s the way we can sustain this.”

Bay was interrupted by a loud crash from across the street as a middle-aged man in a white T-shirt pushed over a road construction sign. He then flipped off passing cars while weaving across Chicago Avenue.

“And then there’s Pumpkin,” said Bay. “We all know him. When he goes off his meds, or when he drinks and it’s with his meds, he’s not all together.”

Pumpkin made it across the street and grumbled as he walked as close to Bay as possible without touching him. Then he continued on down the sidewalk.

Bay watched him go. “A detective told me 27 years ago in the academy, ‘You have to know what’s normal to know what isn’t.'”