Police often late with community alerts

The 10-year-old boy was walking home from school when it happened: A masked man grabbed him and tried to kidnap him.

The boy was able to break free from his attacker. Police responded to the incident, which occurred in the 8100 block of South Ingleside Avenue, and began a search for the suspect. As many police departments do, Chicago cops turned to the public for help, issuing a community alert about the incident and asking anyone with information about the crime to call them.

But there was a problem with the Chicago Police Department’s efforts to enlist community help. The boy was attacked on Nov. 28. The police did not issue a community alert until Dec. 14.

Such delays are hardly unusual. The Chicago police often issue alerts between seven and 14 days after a crime, a procedure that law-enforcement experts say reduces the likelihood that witnesses will remember key details about the incident and increases the chance that the offender will commit more crimes before he’s identified.

“The quicker you get the information out, the better position you have in terms of memories, and in terms of anybody being able to help you with information they have,” said Don Zettlemoyer, a former Detroit police detective who now directs the Justice and Safety Institute at Pennsylvania State University.

Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said the department must get accurate descriptions from witnesses, convince sometimes reluctant victims to talk, and verify each detail of a crime before it issues a community alert.

“We would do disservice by putting out the wrong information,” she said. “It takes time to talk to witnesses, to victims, to get the best description we can. We’d rather lose the week or two weeks than put out wrong information or the wrong description.”

But John Doherty, a former Poughkeepsie, N.Y., police captain and criminal justice professor at Marist College in New York, said the department needs to speed up the process.

“There should be some method that Chicago police could use to hasten these releases,” he said. “Sooner is better. People’s memories fade,” he said. “Think about this from the community’s point of view. It looks like the police just don’t care,” if it takes officers two weeks to begin asking the public for help.

While lauding the Chicago police for enlisting the community’s help in looking for offenders, Doherty said delays could also encourage criminals.

“It may embolden them. If they haven’t read anything, they think, ‘The police must not be on to me,’” Doherty said. “You have the potential that the suspect will commit more crimes.”

Currently, uniformed patrol officers respond to an initial crime report. They compile information about the suspect and forward it to an area detective bureau. Investigators there determine whether a community alert should be issued. If so, they send details about the case to the department’s news affairs office, which releases an alert.

Several recent cases illustrate the delays in that process:

  • On Nov. 27, a man unloading groceries in the 1800 block of North Howe Street was approached by a robber who brandished a knife and stole the man’s vehicle. On Dec. 13, police issued a community alert. Bond said she could not discuss the specifics of any cases for which community alerts had been issued, but said the 16-day period between the robbery and the community alert was “not a long period of time.”

  • On Nov. 30, two men in a van approached a woman at Wellington and Spaulding avenues, pushed her against a garage door and tried to sexually assault her. The next day, men with similar descriptions assaulted a second woman near Kilbourn and Belmont avenues. Police put out a community alert on the first incident on Dec. 5. A community alert on the second incident was issued Dec. 12.

  • On Nov. 28, a man attempted to lure a 14-year-old girl into his vehicle in the 6600 block of South Langley Avenue. The offender pulled alongside the victim and grabbed her arm. The girl broke free and ran home. Police issued a community alert on Dec. 9.