NAVY PIER — About half of the city's 59 newest police officers will end up on foot patrols in Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said.
At a graduation ceremony Tuesday at Navy Pier, police officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the new class that they are entering the force at a pivotal moment in the city's fight against crime.
"We have an opportunity to reverse an historic trend that has plagued this city for far too long," McCarthy told the graduates. "That trend is now turning, and it's not turning by accident."
McCarthy attributed the downward turn in crime in recent months, most notably in homicides, to a number of factors, including policing initiatives, community programs and gang reduction strategies.
"This represents a return to community policing for the Chicago Police Department," McCarthy said at the ceremony. "For far too long we've relied on specialization, moved away from the beat officer, which we all know is the backbone of the department."
Built on a model he conceived in New York City, the initiative will team rookies with veteran officers, making police more visible in communities.
By taking officers out of their squad cars and onto sidewalks, police have potential to build relationships with community members that will help prevent, fight and solve crimes, experts say.
"When you develop some rapport with a group of people and they begin to respect and trust you, they are more likely to work with you," said Dennis Rosenbaum, the director of University of Illinois-Chicago's Center for Research in Law and Justice. "They are more likely to cooperate with you."
During his graduation remarks, Emanuel said the foot patrols are a key tool in driving down crime rates in the city that he says are heading in the right direction.
"In February, we had a great month," Emanuel said, citing a 50 percent drop in homicides in February compared with February 2012. "What's better is that in March we have seen that decline accelerate" he added, noting the month isn't over yet.
Emanuel said the strategy of beefing up foot patrols is an essential step to improving public safety throughout the city.
"I do not want anybody to rest until Roseland is as safe as Ravenswood," the mayor told the new officers. "Until South Shore is as safe as Sauganash. Until Woodlawn is as safe as Wildwood."
After the ceremony, McCarthy said that the officers' inexperience will not be an issue when they are on foot patrols.
"What makes a difference is they are very excited and engaged in what they are doing," McCarthy said.
Such enthusiasm and lack of experience could actually prove effective in changing the culture of policing in the city, Rosenbaum said.
"I would think that the recruits are more open to these new ideas because they have never done it any other way," Rosenbaum said. "If foot patrols becomes a part of life to them, they won't object to it the way more senior officers would."