COP Houses. Art credit: Illustration by Emma Punch.
COP Houses. Art credit: Illustration by Emma Punch.

Who Is the “Community” in Community Policing?

As Chicago waits for its first ‘COP’ house in Roseland, some residents say community policing needs work.

When Elaine Sharp, a Roseland community organizer who has lived there for forty-eight years, found out that a COP house—a community policing strategy that exists in a few other states—was coming to her neighborhood, she was angry and upset. And she had a lot of questions. 

“What is the COP house?” she asked. “What is the purpose? What is the objective? We don’t know nothing!” Even though the plans for the house have been two years in the making, Sharp only found out about the COP house plans in February, through her alderman Anthony Beale’s newsletter. She feels that the community was not appropriately consulted on the decision by Beale, who is spearheading the plan.

“The alderman really should have consulted everybody,” Sharp said. Cleopatra Draper, a Roseland activist who ran against Beale (as Cleopatra Watson) for 9th Ward alderman in 2019, feels similarly. She said she learned about the COP house plans through the Tribune, not through her alderman, and said that as a community organizer she knows that this was how many others in the Roseland community learned about the COP house too. 

Community Oriented Policing houses, colloquially known as COP houses, are neighborhood homes renovated into bases for police. They were first piloted in Racine, WI more than twenty years ago; there are now six houses there. 

COP houses have the two-fold aim of reducing crime and gaining a community’s trust, largely by providing the police with more opportunities to interact with residents. The houses are often advertised to neighbors as resource centers offering after-school activities and educational programs. 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, has framed his successful bid to bring a COP house to Roseland as a chance to “start building confidence and relationships back between the police and the citizens.” 

The COP house will be located on 102nd Place. Beale has said that Chicago can “craft” its COP house to meet the city’s specific needs. But according to Draper, a COP house would not address Roseland’s most pressing needs. “I just look at it through the lens of prioritization,” said Draper, who works in a food pantry as one part of her organizing. Greater needs, she said, include addressing Roseland’s food desert, lack of affordable housing, and the need for mental health facilities.

“When you look in the eyes of people that don’t know where their meal is going to come from tomorrow, a COP house can’t be the priority. It just can’t,” said Draper.

Beale has described the COP house as a type of community wraparound center, with reading and tutoring rooms as well as arcades and computers that allow communities to potentially interact with police in more positive ways.  “This might sound strange, but I have been trying to do exactly what [Ald. Beale is] trying to do, but not from a police perspective,” said Antione Dobine, a resident of West Pullman who works as a community activist in Roseland.

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According to outgoing Racine Police Chief Art Howell, COP houses allow officers to become “intimately familiar” with the neighborhood and more effectively prevent crime. Howell, who retired at the end of March after thirty-six years with the department (eight as chief), pointed to a drop in Racine’s crime rates as an indicator of the house’s effectiveness, and added that offering resources helps to “bridge the gap.”

Local organizations in Racine, including the Racine Literacy Council, Cops n’ Kids, and several churches have partnered with COP houses for food pantry collection, to provide services for the communities where the houses are located, according to Racine police officer Chad Andersen, who works at a COP house in Racine’s Anthony Lane neighborhood. Andersen said the house also means that officers are “not tied to the radio,” and can be “proactive” with the community. 

However, some residents of Anthony Lane, who declined to be identified for this article due to concerns about retaliation, feel that the COP house falls short in terms of community engagement and outreach as well as the activities on offer. One resident who has lived in the neighborhood for three years sees the COP house as a “PR stunt.”

Another Racine resident said she has no inclination to go into a COP house, even though the houses have been advertised as spaces for the community. “I am a law-abiding citizen, I have no criminal history,” she said. Despite her lack of a criminal record, she “still can’t figure out any reason why I would go into the COP house.” 

Andersen responded to this by saying it is “rare” for people to come into the COP house he oversees, and that this is a “misconceptuali[zation]”—it is more about going out and talking to residents, he said. But the same resident, who can see the COP house from her own house, said that she has never interacted with a police officer in her neighborhood. 

“There are some officers that I see on a regular basis that have never ever once said ‘hello’ or ‘hi’, never waved a hand, never gave a head nod,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a bad program, but I don’t think that it is all it’s cracked up to be or publicized to be.”

“A.B.,” another Racine resident, is a mother with children, and said that while she has seen other COP houses run activities, she hasn’t seen much with her neighborhood’s COP house and hopes for more activities, especially for children and teenagers. “I’m a parent, I look for those things. I would have seen or known about it by now.” 

“It’s not a community-based house,” she said, calling it more of a small headquarters for police and saying that she barely knows any of the officers who work there. 

Akosua Aning, who lives a block down from another Racine COP house on 6th Street, says she feels similarly. She has lived there for five years and says she has personally never seen anything going on in her area’s COP house.

Aning, who chairs the Demilitarization Committee for the social justice organization Voces de la Frontera, also questioned the need to “force a relationship between these communities and police,” adding that COP houses are placed in majority communities of color. “Why don’t we try a different approach? Let’s try a less law-enforcement based approach,” she said. Instead of police, it could be community organizations reaching out to residents, she added. 

Other activists such as Markasa Tucker, executive director of the African American Roundtable in Milwaukee, support this view.

“Why not just put the money or the opportunity into a community-based organization?” Tucker asked. She added that although the fact that there are multiple houses in Racine seems to highlight community support, there also aren’t many funding opportunities for community organizing in Racine that might allow the development of cohesive community opposition to the houses.

Officer Andersen acknowledged that “maybe we need to take a survey of how we can better communicate,” or host a roundtable. “I would honestly love that time to sit down with them and [ask] what can I do and what can we do moving forward,” he said. When told that residents may fear retaliation from the police if they expressed complaints, he expressed surprise and questioned what sort of retaliation they would feel. 

In response, one of the sources said that he feared being targeted by the police. The COP house officers “might harass me and pull me over,” he said. Like Andersen, he said “the best way for them to know what the community wants” is to have a meeting such as a town hall, but that the meeting needs to include “everyone.” 

Collaboration with community partners and face-to-face engagement with neighbors are emphasized as key to the program’s success in the “COP House Playbook,” a comprehensive guide to establishing and running a COP house, published by Racine’s police department under the direction of Chief Howell. “A [COP] house needs to be customized to the needs of the neighborhood,” says the guide.

But Corey Prince, an organizer and Racine resident, says the COP house program as a whole does not revolve around the community. While the theory of COP houses is good, said Prince, “the application is not.” He listed officers and supervisors who have made themselves accessible to the community. But in his eyes, these individual officers do not represent the COP house program, which he believes ignores certain groups of people. 

“You have to first listen to people, not talk,” said Prince. “Until the COP—the Community Oriented Policing—house can really be oriented with the community, it can never be effective.” 

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In Chicago, Roseland’s Alderman Beale has similarly been accused of not hearing everyone out. 

“I think his leadership is awful,” said Draper, the Roseland activist who ran against Beale, and who also founded the organization Roses in Roseland, which provides resources to community members. She outlined Beale’s lack of communication with his residents, adding that he has had “plenty of opportunity” to speak with constituents about the COP house plans. (Beale told the Weekly he had “never heard” of Roses in Roseland.) Another Roseland activist and life-long resident Eric Wilkins, fifty, also said he thinks that Beale lacks a sufficient relationship with his constituents, particularly younger people. 

In response, Beale said that he has had “numerous community meetings” about the COP house plans and that “the community is embracing it 100 percent.” He added that the project has been in the works for two years and “is nothing new.”

“All my community leaders embraced it before I even started pursuing getting it done,” he said, and when asked which the community leaders he was referring to, named the president of Rosemoor Community Association, the board chairman of the Chesterfield Community Council, and the president of the Roseland Heights Community Association. He said that he sees his job as being to work with “registered” and “legitimate” organizations, “not somebody who just formed something last week.”

“I’m sure you can always find somebody who says I don’t know something about anything,” he said, when told that community members don’t feel as though they have been consulted about the COP house. He listed email blasts, robocalls, and his newsletter as the main ways he communicates with his community during COVID, noting that he hasn’t had any town hall meetings for over a year due to the pandemic.

According to Draper, Beale’s methods of communication are not enough, in part because they assume that all constituents have internet access. “That’s not true engagement,” she said. “There’s a lot of people. They’re not brought into the fold.”

Beale’s COP house idea is on its way to being realized: the City Council approved a proposal for the house in January, marking a victory for the 9th ward alderman, who spent two years advocating for it. 

Racine’s “COP House Playbook” warns against bringing political discord into the plan, and states that “the police chief must be fully on board and willing to champion the strategy.” But Chicago’s COP house proposal has been the subject of political conflict between Ald. Beale and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Before the proposal was passed in City Council, Lightfoot had said she “cannot support” the proposal. 

“Neither I nor Supt. [David] Brown believe that this COP House approach makes sense for the moment that we are in here in Chicago,” Lightfoot said. She expressed concerns that the COP house wouldn’t fit with the city’s existing community policing plans, and raised questions about the security of police officers and who or what would fund the houses. After the proposal was passed (under conditions that included identifying a sustainable corporate sponsor), however, Lightfoot’s office said she had given it her approval. According to Ald. Beale as of March 4, Chicago’s police Supt. Brown had not yet expressed his approval for the house.

Lightfoot’s question about who would fund Chicago’s Roseland COP house was answered in January, when Beale revealed that a Racine corporation, the Fortune 500 company SC Johnson, would donate $250,000 to the Chicago Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) to renovate the house. The company also supports Racine’s COP houses and allegedly approached Beale first with the idea for putting one in Chicago. 

SC Johnson has manufacturing facilities near Roseland, in neighboring Pullman. Beale has also cited Roseland’s violent crime levels—which are roughly twice as high as the citywide average—as another reason to put the COP house in that neighborhood, saying that violent crime has gone down by seventy percent in Racine. The Racine COP house website also makes this claim, but according to FBI data violent crime actually increased in Racine, from 639 per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 672 per 100,000 in 2017.  

Dobine, forty-two, started a Roseland youth basketball program and has long wanted to create a place to host block club meetings, job training programs, mental health services, and education and housing opportunities. Ideally, he said, there would also be a playlot on the side for children and a community garden for seniors to walk in. Dobine isn’t against the COP house—in fact, he would like to see more than one house, spread out along an eight- or sixteen-block radius, as he believes that it could help young people learn how to interact with the police.

But Roseland resident and activist Wilkins is “totally against the COP house.” Wilkins, fifty, has lived in Roseland all his life and was shot and paralyzed in the neighborhood; he has since started a foundation called Broken Winggz to support people who are quadriplegic. According to Wilkins, no one in the neighborhood “will trust nobody who go there.” He sees the proposed house as “more like a surveillance.”

Wilkins also believes that true community policing “takes years, and it takes the right people and chemistries.” He added that officers need to get out of their cars and get to know people. 

An example of “the right people,” according to Wilkins, are Roseland’s two abandoned-building police officers, Rodolfo Gomez and Marc Poblador. The two officers have been stationed in Roseland for five years, and in that time have worked to clear Roseland’s abandoned lots. The officers also shovel snow in the winter, according to West Pullman resident Brenda Scott, who works alongside them as a volunteer. In Scott’s eyes, the officers are building trust by getting out of their cars and working out on the streets. Scott says that residents are usually surprised to see police officers doing this type of work, and often come out to help. 

But Scott is also concerned: Gomez and Poblador are potentially being moved to another area by their sergeant. She emphasized the need to have the right people doing the community policing. 

“I’m not interested in the COP house,” Scott said. “That money can go into buying [Gomez and Poblador] a van” to help clear out the lots, she said.

Tucker, the Milwaukee activist, believes that COP houses unnecessarily expand the reach of police. She is “not interested” in community policing as a whole, largely because she feels it is not effective. She said that she has witnessed repeated attempts at reform, but none have worked. This was what caused her to stop advocating for reform and instead start fighting for abolition and systemic change.

“People have been working to try to make sure police won’t kill us. That hasn’t worked,” Tucker said. She added that COP houses do not allow for what she sees as necessary healing. “Cops aren’t proactive,” she said. “Their job is to be reactionary.” 

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Jade Yan is a staff writer for the Weekly. She last reported on Illinois’ redistricting process. 

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