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When the Police Fail, Then What?

"National Guard troops patrolled the streets of Chicago's Negro West Side last night and early today. For the first time in four nights there was no major violence in the riot-torn ghetto area."

That was the first paragraph of a New York Times article that ran on Saturday, July 16, 1966.


If Illinois state representatives John Fritchey (D-District 11) and LaShawn Ford (D-District 8) have their way, the scene could soon be ripped from today's headlines, of course with different language and different circumstances.

Fritchey and Ford called on Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Chicago police superintendent Jody Weis to deploy the National Guard to patrol parts of the South and West Sides because violence is convulsing the streets of some neighborhoods.


The representatives made the call on April 26, five days after 2-year-old Cynia Cole was caught in the cross hairs of a gang shootout on Chicago's South Side. The bullet had Cynia's father's name on it, fired by a rival gang member, the police said. Instead, it pierced her head as they sat in a parked vehicle. A 21-year-old man was charged with first-degree murder in Cynia's death, the police said.

Her death and the call for the National Guard unleashed a firestorm of controversy across the nation. Both came at a time when the city's death toll was 113, which was higher than the number troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, Fritchey said. But as of May 18, the city's death count had reached 141, compared to 151 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, he said.

Officials have been cool to the idea, but Mayor Daley has not ruled it out. Superintendent Weis flat out rejected it, saying the police department could handle the job. He said there is a perception of rising violence because of a recent spike.

"While the public perception is that violence has increased to unprecedented levels, the facts do not support that conclusion,'' Lt. Maureen Biggane said. "Through April 2010, overall crime is down 6.9 percent, and violent crime is down 11 percent when compared to the same time last year.''


Still, some community leaders and residents support the idea of calling in the National Guard, Ford said to The Root. He read aloud an e-mail that he received on Tuesday, May 18: "Before I heard about the arrest of 16 students at Bogan High School [on Tuesday, May 18, for fighting], I didn't support your idea of bringing in the National Guard,'' Ford read. "Now, I do.''

But John Timoney, the former hard-nosed police chief of Miami and police commissioner of Philadelphia, who rose through the ranks of the New York Police Department over 29 years to become first deputy commissioner under William J. Bratton, told The Root that the idea was "stupid'' and dangerous.


"The National Guard is trained to kill,'' Timoney said. "The police are trained to use deadly force as a last resort. They try to disengage and deescalate a situation. The National Guard is not going to come to patrol the streets of Chicago; they are going to shoot people. Their mission is completely incongruous with that of what the police do. If you have any questions, look at Kent State.''

At Kent State on May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed, college-student, war protesters.


Timoney said calling the National Guard is synonymous with the police washing their hands of the problem. All that's required, he said, is hard-core detective work to get at the root causes, which usually are drug gangs and illegal firearms. He should know. While coming under criticism for his management style over the years, he knows police work. He reduced homicides from 70 to 62 annually in Miami by the time he left and from about 420 to 292 in Philadelphia, he said.

The 1966 incident involving the National Guard in Chicago came after the community erupted in anger when the police turned off fire-hydrant sprinklers that Mayor Daley (the current mayor's late-father) had turned on to help cool neighborhood children on hot summer days, the article says. The sprinkler agreement followed a 90-minute meeting with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


"We're both fathers and lawmakers,'' Ford, who is black and represents much of the violence-scarred areas, said of himself and Fritchey, who is white and represents the largely white North Side. "We had to come up with some solution to stop the violence, to stop the crime in the neighborhood. The state is laying off state police, the Cook County Sheriff's Department could not assist us because of staff cuts, and the Chicago Police Department is short 2,000 officers. If done right, the National Guard could serve a purpose. We're not talking about coming in with tanks and heavy artillery.''

Tommy Boyd, a 45-year-old fast-food employee who is a lifelong resident of Englewood, agrees. Gang violence and drug trafficking have long plagued Englewood, one of the neighborhoods targeted for patrol by the National Guard. Thieves, likely junkies looking for items to sell to get a fix, have broken into Boyd's home and car, he surmises.


"I think it's a good thing because the police aren't doing anything,'' Boyd told The Root. "I was having dinner at a Chinese restaurant the other night and teenage drug dealers were selling right outside the restaurant. The owner didn't even bother to call the police. He walked right by them with fresh produce and other products while they dealt drugs. I guess he didn't care or he was too scared to call the police. I don't know, but something has to be done.''

But for some blacks, especially those who lived through the civil rights movement, the National Guard conjures up negative connotations. Most poignantly, in September 1957, the Arkansas National Guard was ordered to hold back black students, known as the "Little Rock Nine,'' as they went to a previously all-white school.


Fritchey said he was aware of the racial and historical implications of calling in the National Guard, but he is tired of the violence.

"It wasn't an accident that Rep. Ford and I made this announcement together," Fritchey told The Root. "He represents some of the areas hardest hit by violence. If I had done it alone, I would be accused of being the white guy trying to send tanks into black neighborhoods. Rep. Ford and I are both parents. We didn't look at this as a color issue. We looked at this as a human issue. It's very telling that some of the strongest support that we've received has come from people who live in these areas. The police department will tell you the murder rate is below the five-year average. Well, that tells me the five-year average was too high. Let them argue that to the mother who just lost a 2-year-old daughter. That is what we care about, the people, not averages or numbers.''


Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

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