Mid Winter in Chicago

I’m pleased to say we are now settling into life in Harlem. It’s amazing how quickly a new area can become familiar. This time last week we were yearning for life back on the Upper East Side, but after some committed exploring, we are now set up nicely in our new ‘hood. Whilst the subway line up here (the 2 and 3 line) is not quite as new / reliable / clean as that we were used to (the Q line), otherwise all is well. A trip to the cinema on Saturday to watch Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart in ‘The Upside’ was really good – I can recommend it.

The weather was due to get steadily colder this week, and it didn’t disappoint. My good friend from home, Aiden, was out here on a work trip, so in an act of male bonding we went to Uniqlo together and purchased some long johns – they were very much needed! We had a fun night at the New York Comedy Club in East Village, dinner out at one of my favourite diners on 2nd Avenue and a trip to the theatre to watch ‘Pretty Woman’ the musical. Top price tickets picked up at 25% of face value – there is alway a bargain to be found in this city. A busy few days, but very nice to have a familiar face in town.

One of the great things about NYC is the unexpected things you stumble across. As I headed down to the subway at 42nd street on Tuesday morning, I could hear some seriously impressive singing coming from the station. Busking is everywhere here, much of it very good. But this was something really special. I spent the next twenty minutes mesmerised by an amazing group singing a cappella (spelling according to google). The ‘Cover Story Doo Wop’ quintet were absolutely brilliant. I’m not quite sure this video does justice to their talent, but hopefully you get the idea!

The subway really is the heartbeat of Manhattan. With driving so difficult in such heavy traffic, it is the only way to get around. The responsibility for making sure everything runs as it should is entrusted to a Brit: Andy Byford. He started his career in 1989 as a station foreman for London Underground and worked his way up through the organisation, before moving onto South Eastern Trains and later Southern Railway. Clearly seen as something of an expert in his field, he was then headhunted to become COO at RailCorp in New South Wales, then on to a role as CEO at the Toronto Transit Commission. Since January last year, he has held the top job at the MTA (NYC’s equivalent of TFL). He’s very visible and is often in front of the cameras explaining a new policy decision or defending a transport related catastrophe. This week it was a water main flooding the ‘L’ train subway around Union Square that was causing plenty of angst. In this city of directness and saying-it-as-it-is, Byford’s gentle manner and stands out as being something a little different.

It was up early on Wednesday morning to jump on the bus to LaGuardia for a flight to Chicago. I had been invited to take part in Chicago PD’s annual Crimefighters conference – an opportunity to review their performance over the past year, consider the tactics they have been employing to reduce gun crime and share ideas.   It was bitterly cold as I arrived in Chicago. Fortunately, an officer was at the gate to meet me and take me to the warmth of a police vehicle and straight to the hotel. They call Chicago the windy city and I now know why!

The conference was jointly hosted by the police department and the University of Chicago Crime Lab – a research body that exists to develop evidence based approaches for reducing crime. The city has experienced some very difficult times recently. Four officers have been killed in the line of duty in the last year and gun crime remains rife in the city. Since the appointment of a new Chief of Police in 2016, Superintendent Eddie Johnson, significant reductions in inter-gang violence have been seen. See below for these statistics over the past 4 years:

Whilst murders are reducing in number, there is clearly still much to do. Already this year, 18 people have been shot and killed, 3 of them last week. There are some really insightful stats captured on this website:


Beyond Chicago, there were also senior cops present from Memphis, LA, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland & Portland – and that was just those I spoke too. No doubt there were many more as well. I was able to share some of the work we do in London in relation to work based assessment for promotion, independent advisory groups, direct entry and PCSOs. Diverse subject matter and all stuff which I enjoyed discussing with colleagues here. Because of the lack of federal direction for police policy in the US, there is a huge sense of reinventing the wheel across different departments. Remember, there are almost 18,000 police agencies in the US, all with a different take on recruitment, training, use of force, promotion processes, investigation tactics and every other part of the policing landscape. Conferences such as this one in Chicago are essential to bring some uniformity to police work and expand good practice to other parts of the country.

Day 1 of the conference opened with a very impressive presentation from a gent called Jahmal Cole. He has founded an organisation called, ‘My Block, My Hood, My City’. The premise of his work is that young people in Chicago lack aspiration, by virtue of the lack of exposure they get to a world beyond the block on which they live. He described a generation of young people who only feel connected to their block, not knowing that Chicago has a lake, not knowing that Chicago has amazing opportunity, architecture and music. Never been downtown. Never hailed a taxi. Never held a boarding pass. He explained that young people in Chicago’s housing projects have a world view that was unfairly limited by their difficult circumstances. He explained what it was like to only ever order food through three inch thick bullet proof glass, when you want a bag of crisps – and that is all you know for the first 15 years of your life. With this as the context, the aspiration of these kids is, at best, to be a rapper. Jahmal’s organisation shows these kids that other jobs exist and gives them ambition. As he perfectly put it: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. These ‘bad kid done good’ stories are arguably quite common, but Jahmal’s ability to hold a room and make extremely powerful arguments, from a position of genuine experience, was incredibly impressive.

Much of the reduction in violence in Chicago over the past couple of years has been attributed to the introduction of ‘Strategic Decision Support Centres’ in many of the policing districts across the city. These are akin to what Met colleagues will recognise as Grip & Pace Centres: a single point of oversight and control that can direct resources to the right place, at the right time, with the right intelligence to disrupt criminal activity. There is a big emphasis on technology here, particularly the use of CCTV, which is monitored 24/7 and predictive policing – using mind-boggling clever algorithms to determine where crime is likely to happen, before it does. ‘Shot Spotter’ is also a key piece of the technology landscape – a gun shot detection system that will ‘hear’ when shots have been fired (through sensors mounted all around the city) and deploy officers with incredible accuracy to the scene of the firearms discharge. There really is a great feel about the Chicago PD. There is warmth and respect for Superintendent Eddie Johnson, the mission to reduce violence was clearly shared by everyone I met and I get a sense that the tragedy of losing four officers last year has made an already tight team even tighter. Whilst of course I was engaged in a conference that was all about fighting crime, so I was only seeing that bit of the organisation, I got the impression that the distracting noise of bureaucracy and administration is not quite so loud here as in other police organisations I have seen – which is great to see! From a cultural perspective, I also noticed that there was not a constant obsession with deference up the hierarchy here. Plenty of healthy professionalism, but a much more grown up communication style than that which constrains creativity and acts as a barrier to getting things done in so much of the Met. I recognise that much of this can perhaps be attributed to American culture in general and the ease with which people interact, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also think about how to get much better at this at home. Food for thought.

I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with officers from the Gresham patrol district,  about 10 miles south of police HQ. I observed the daily management meeting and saw how intelligence coming into the team is developed and actioned accordingly. There was a great atmosphere around the building, I’m sure it even seemed to smell the same as the police stations in London! The final presentation of the day went under the ‘Cops + Nerds’ brand which the Chicago Police Department have established in the last couple of years. This tongue in cheek terminology is all about getting data and intelligence analysts to work more closely with warranted officers, bringing together expertise to maximise crime fighting opportunities. They are seeing some great results and there is clearly a strong bond between the ‘cops and the nerds’.

With it only being a two day trip – and long days at that – the chance for sightseeing was limited. However, through a friend of a friend I managed to get a trip to the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. The viewing deck on the 103rd floor was pretty special, even at night. Chicago really is an impressive city. The Great Chicago Fire of October 1871  left more than 100,000 people homeless and destroyed around 3 square miles of the city. The rebuilding that followed was a massive task and some of the best architects in the country brought together their collective wisdom to rebuild the city. The result is a wonderful blend of skyscrapers, interwoven with some much more traditional buildings. The City really is a great place. Noticeably cleaner than New York, no incessant use of the car horn and a more easy going atmosphere was apparent. Despite the cold, I would love to have had more time to explore. It’s definitely somewhere I would like to go back to.

Day two of the conference started with a number of workshops, for smaller groups to discuss some job specific subject matter. I hosted a ‘Police Legitimacy’ workshop for a group of Sergeants and Lieutenants, discussing with them issues such as trust and accountability and the role that police leaders have to play in further establishing legitimacy with the communities that they serve. We exchanged some really interesting views and had a great debate about the Met’s use of tactical contact to deal with yobs on mopeds. They were surprised that the tactic is being used, but seemed reassured by the footage released by the Met a few weeks ago nonetheless. The event was held at McCormick Place, the largest conference centre in the US – 2.6 million square feet! It was absolutely huge.

I wrapped the day up at a brief press conference with the senior team from Chicago and LA and then battled against the snow to get back to the airport.

So an extremely busy week comes to a close, it’ll be nice to get back to John Jay next week for a few days in the office to process some more research data and start preparing for the lectures I’ve got coming up this semester.

That’s all folks!


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