Local Musings: The #IAm911 Movement

This blog is primarily dedicated to news about Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood and surrounding areas, but I wanted to take a moment to delve into a broader topic very near and dear to my heart: the work of 911 call-takers and dispatchers.

Nationwide Movement

The hashtag #IAm911 is currently trending on Twitter. It was started by a 911 worker from Michigan who runs a podcast-based blog called Within the Trenches. The hashtag is a response to the classification by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that 911 call-takers and dispatchers are considered “Office and Administrative” staff, the same label given to secretaries and office clerks.

Recently, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) made a recommendation for 911 workers to be labeled under “Protective Services,” which is an umbrella category for not only police officers and firefighters, but also lifeguards, fish/game wardens, etc. The reasoning is simple: 911 call-takers and dispatchers are specially trained individuals that employ their skills to help protect not only the public, but to ensure the safety of responding units as well. They are, in effect, the first “first responders.” They are the first point of contact the public has during an emergency. They coordinate response efforts involving different types of agencies (police, fire, EMS, etc.) In order to demonstrate that 911 work is much more than simple “clerical duties,” 911 workers around the globe have been utilizing the #IAm911 hashtag on Twitter to promote a greater understanding of the significance of (and sacrifices involved in) their work. They share both heartbreaking and uplifting situations that they have dealt with.

Local Significance

Chicago’s 911 center is a component of the city’s Office of Emergency Management & Communications (OEMC), which also houses the 311 city services request line, employs Traffic Management Aides, and more. To show how this national #IAm911 trend is relevant on a local level, I’d like to highlight some of the work completed by 911 call-takers and dispatchers pertaining to emergencies in Back of the Yards. (Please note that content provided in the links may be disturbing to some.)

Most recently, a call-taker and two dispatchers were recognized by CBS Local after they helped a woman who had gotten lost while taking a shortcut through a large train yard, and ended up falling and breaking her ankle. She didn’t know where she was, she was unable to stand, and she was located in an industrial area far from passerby. The call-taker stayed on the line for over an hour and kept the woman as calm as possible until she was located and rescued. The dispatchers coordinated back and forth with responding fire department paramedics who were searching for the woman.

Last year, there was an incident on the 5300blk S. Aberdeen involving 5 gunshot victims. A pregnant mother and a grandmother were killed. One of the other victims was an 11-month-old infant. Chicago Police officers opted to take the infant to the hospital themselves, rather than wait for the ambulance. In dispatch audio provided by the Chicago Tribune, the police dispatcher can be heard calmly and clearly disseminating information to responding units, throughout the chaotic scene. When the unit announces that they will self-transport the baby, the dispatcher works with her partner to see if any fire stations along the way to the hospital have available ambulances. As it becomes apparent that they don’t, she coordinates police resources along the route to limit cross-traffic so that the officers can bring the baby to the E.R. as soon as possible. During an award ceremony for the officers, it was stated that the infant might have died, had it not been for the quick thinking of the officers and the superior level of coordination involved.

Almost 3 years ago, a mass shooting at Cornell Square Park rocked the neighborhood and garnered national headlines. 13 people were shot, including a 3-year-old child. In dispatch audio provided by the Chicago Tribune, the dispatcher’s calm voices can be heard, punctured by an exclamation of “Jesus Christ” after a responding officer relays that another victim has been just found, and that he’s a toddler.

To me, this is the reason why the #IAm911 movement is so important. Dispatchers are trained to be calm and detached by nature, but they are human, too, and handling life-or-death emergencies can take a toll. Posttraumatic stress and anxiety are commonly exhibited by 911 workers. This clearly sets them apart from other administrative and clerical workers. If the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics actually listed 911 workers under “Protective Services,” which they clearly are, not only they would be getting some much-deserved recognition, but it could also open up opportunities for funding and studies surrounding the resources that are (or are not currently) offered to 911 workers, to help them cope with trauma and continue doing their important jobs to the best of their ability.

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Hitting Speed Bumps to Progress

According to news sources, 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez has proposed using around $400,000 from the infrastructure budget to install traffic circles and speed bumps in Back of the Yards (particularly in the area around Davis Square Park) in an effort to combat crime. The idea is that by hindering vehicles involved in drive-by shootings, crime will be somehow dissuaded.

The area surrounding Davis Square Park is known as “Halo City,” home of the “Latin Saints” gang, which used to be known as just “The Saints” when the neighborhood was dominated by Polish immigrants. Currently, 47th Street serves as the boundary between Latin Saints territory, and territories of other nearby gangs, such as La Raza, Two-Six, Satanic Disciples, and others. Gang conflict has been an issue in Back of the Yards for decades. Even though demographics have changed considerably throughout the 1900s, the problem persists. One has to ask: is stopping crime really as simple as installing speed bumps and traffic circles?

The answer: of course not. But to really understand why gang violence is so pervasive in this particular area, it’s important to examine the root causes, none of which have to do with pavement.

Back of the Yards1

The intersection of 47th and Ashland. Photo by Daniel Webster.

According to the 2010 census, over one-third of Back of the Yards residents were under the age of 18. This is much higher than the 22% average citywide. Not all gang members are under 18, and certainly not all individuals under 18 are in gangs, but the prevalence of youth gangs in splintered factions tied to both imagined and real geographic boundaries must be addressed. Alternatives to gang life, like after-school activities, can provide a stepping stone, but according to a 2015 survey by the Resurrection Project, around 60% of youth are not participating in after-school or youth programming, even though “100% of focus groups targeted violence as a major hindrance for youth and families.”  Cost, lack of information about available programs, and safety concerns were listed as top barriers for parents in terms of their children’s participation. To add insult to injury, a few years ago a city-run mental health clinic at 4313 S. Ashland Ave. was closed, along with 5 others throughout the city. Cuts to public schools have left many area students with less access to counselors and nurses. Simply put, it’s a perfect recipe for youth gangs to flourish: a high concentration of youth in an area struggling with poverty, a lack of accessible youth programming that could provide an alternative to gang life, a lack of mental health services to combat PTSD and other ailments, and a lack of support staff at schools to help mediate conflicts before they escalate. The safety nets that can help deter a certain amount of gang recruitment, activity, and conflict are being whittled away year after year, budget cut by budget cut.

Apart from the preventative measures that could help combat crime in Back of the Yards, another challenge includes dwindling numbers of police officers throughout the city. Earlier this year, Alderman Lopez procured help from the Cook County Sheriff Department by having additional law enforcement personnel deployed throughout the neighborhood, but this drew mixed reviews from residents. Some were grateful for the extra police presence, while others just felt it was merely a band-aid for a much larger and deeply-rooted problem. The Cook County Sheriff deployment was only temporary, and statistics regarding stops and arrests don’t appear to be immediately available.

And even when police officers arrest suspects for violent crimes, such as weapons violations, there are many documented cases involving the offenders getting probation, early parole, or light sentences. In 2013, there were 13 people (including a toddler) shot in a single incident in Cornell Square Park in the southern portion of Back of the Yards. One of the shooters had been previously convicted of a weapons offense in 2012, but instead of spending 7 years in jail, he was given a 4-month “boot camp” and released back into the public, only to help perpetrate the Cornell Square Park incident about a year later. One of the other gang members involved in the Cornell Square Park incident pleaded guilty to two felony charges, but was given only 2 years per count and credited with 688 days spent in jail prior to sentencing, which means that he will be released back out into the public next year, in 2017.

Suffice it to say, there are many challenges to combating Back of the Yards crime, from preventative measures to law enforcement presence to holding perpetrators truly accountable. Adding speed bumps around a park won’t affect any of those issues. In fact, they may just prove to be more of a hassle. Shooters don’t always use vehicles. Sometimes they are on foot. Even when they use vehicles to conduct a drive-by shooting, they aren’t always cognizant of damage to their getaway vehicle, because sometimes the vehicles are stolen and are going to be dumped elsewhere anyways. However, speed bumps can be problematic for responding emergency vehicles, such as police cars and ambulances, and at minimum an inconvenience for area residents who are not involved in criminal activity.

Existing traffic circle at 45th and Marshfield. There was a homicide about a block south in late June 2016, per CPD Clearpath data.

As a public safety employee and Back of the Yards resident, I simply don’t see $400,000 worth of speed bumps and traffic circles making much of a dent in crime statistics if the root causes behind crime aren’t sufficiently addressed. It feels akin to sailing on a river instead of a lake while ignoring the leak in your boat. Also, the speed bumps and traffic circles will only be added near Davis Square Park, yet there are other parks that have had shootings within the last few years (Cornell Square Park, Little Venice Park, etc.), not to mention all of the shootings that occur on blocks not bounding a park, like this one, this one, or this one.

The funding comes from the infrastructure budget, so I understand that it can’t necessarily be re-appropriated for youth programming or mental health, etc. But as Alderman Lopez is a staunch supporter of Mayor Emanuel, who shuttered our mental health clinic, several schools, and keeps advocating for public school cuts, I don’t foresee him fighting hard for the amount of preventative programming and community resources we require. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong.