How did a Chicago Police 'Community Safety Team' end up in such an unsafe situation?

ByChuck Goudie and Ross Weidner, Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel WLS logo
Tuesday, August 10, 2021
How did a 'Community Safety Team' end up in such an unsafe situation?
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The I-Team acquired a still frame of police bodycam from the night of the fatal shooting, that shows the moment before a firefight began.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In the wake of the fatal traffic stop shooting that left Chicago Police Officer Ella French dead and her partner fighting for his life, the I-Team is looking into the specialized Chicago police unit that officers were assigned to last Saturday night.

The I-Team acquired a still frame of police bodycam from the night of the fatal shooting, that pictures the moment before a firefight began. It shows Officer French shining her flashlight into the driver's side of the car that authorities charge Eric Morgan was driving. The passenger is not being identified by ABC7 at this time, as she has not been charged in the incident.

RELATED: Surveillance video shows traffic stop before fatal shooting of CPD Officer Ella French; 2 charged

Why were the officers there and what were they were doing that night?

They were part of a fairly new, special, South and West Side police unit comprised of two separate groups. The program goes by the benign-sounding name "Community Safety Team."

On Saturday night, neither the team nor the community were safe when an expired license plate traffic stop turned into a gun battle.

There were three police officers in a CPD vehicle, all assigned to the Community Safety Team, when they stopped a vehicle near West 63rd Street and South Bell Avenue. That's when investigators say the gunfire started.

Stopping suspicious vehicles or known stolen vehicles have been primary tools of the Community Safety Team since it was formed by Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown a little more than one year ago.

"It consists of almost 300 officers, combined with summer mobile, for a total of almost 500+ officers," Brown said in July 2020. "The team is deployed based on several factors: one request from district commanders or area deputies, community input, and crime data. CST will operate in two separate groups -- one on the South Side, the other on the West Side."

RELATED: Chicago police officer shooting is biggest test of Mayor Lightfoot so far

By last Saturday night, that community unit had grown larger by the hundreds, with most officers assigned by what's called "reverse seniority," not veteran tactical officers, as were assigned to similar units the past 40 years.

Current and former police officials tell the I-Team that officers drafted to the new Community Safety squad are generally younger, less experienced and may be less likely to have their weapons at the ready in critical situations.

When Supt. Brown was asked about that on Monday, he focused his answer on those who have been charged:

"One person did this -- no reverse seniority, not any other reasons that this person killed her and tried to kill other officers, and I won't entertain finger pointing at anyone or anything else," Brown said. "They need to be fully held accountable for her murder."

Since the 1970's Chicago police superintendents have re-branded these programs by various names including special, targeted, mobile and strike force. All the superintendents' pet projects were tweaked in different ways with the fingerprints of the new boss.

Law enforcement observers tell the I-Team that the real measure of how well any program is managed is what police call "span of control," which is the number of supervisors there are per officer. Ideally it is said to be one sergeant for every 8 or 10 officers, but police sources said the current Community Safety Team falls well short of that mark.