Chicago's top cop says using police stations as short-term migrant housing is burden for department

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Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Chicago Police Superintendent Larry Snelling responds to a question during an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Chicago. Snelling says the citys use of police stations as temporary housing for the growing population of migrants seeking asylum has been a "burden" on the nations second-largest police department. One of his main concerns with the housing plan is officer well-being. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO – Chicago's new police chief said the city's use of police stations as temporary housing for the growing population of migrants seeking asylum has been a “burden” on the nation's second-largest police department.

Police Superintendent Larry Snelling told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that among his main concerns is the toll the city's approach has taken on officers' well being because it is unfolding in their workplace.

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“We were the first to open our doors to the migrants and they’re still coming. And we have not turned them away,” Snelling said. “But what we need are other people to step up in these situations because the burden has been on the police department to house people.”

Currently, over 3,000 new arrivals are sleeping at police stations with hundreds more at airports. Some stay a few days — others months — while they await longer-term placement at shelters set up throughout the city, including small hotels, a park field house and unused commercial space. More than 18,500 migrants have arrived in Chicago since Texas Gov. Greg Abbot began sending buses last year to so-called sanctuary cities, or largely Democrat-run places that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Some new arrivals stay inside police station lobbies, many sleeping close together on cardboard and sharing bathrooms. Others congregate just outside the stations, sleeping on mattresses or in tents on the sidewalks and adjacent lots. Volunteers provide food, clothes, hygiene items and medical care.

Snelling would not say whether he disagreed with the approach, which was put in place under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. He said would continue carrying out the program with her successor, Mayor Brandon Johnson, as long as required.

He said there was the possibility of people being deterred from making police reports because they wouldn't want to walk through crowds of people. But he was more worried about officers having to witness tough situations in the workplace, like seeing nursing or pregnant women sleeping on floors.

“Those officers now have to go out and serve the public," he said. “This could have a negative effect on our officers.”

Johnson, who took office in May, has proposed using winterized tents and to stop using police stations and airports as temporary shelters. But there has been pushback on that idea as well.

Multiple city council members have argued that the $150 million set aside in Johnson’s proposed budget isn’t nearly enough to address the issue. Social service groups, including volunteers who deliver meals and supplies, worry how tents will stand up to harsh Chicago winters.

This week members of Johnson's administration left for border cities to establish “better lines of community” with Texas officials and discuss “extreme housing and weather conditions” for asylum seekers in Chicago.

Some police stations have been criticized for their handling of the new arrivals, many of who have experienced trauma and deep poverty. Many migrants are from Venezuela, where a political, social and economic crisis in the past decade has pushed millions into poverty. More than 7 million have left that country, often risking a harrowing route to the United States.

In July, authorities investigated an allegation of sexual misconduct involving a migrant teen and an officer. The investigation was closed when no victim or corroborating witnesses could be found.

One volunteer doctor group said physicians weren’t allowed see patients in the lobby, forcing them to examine patients outdoors. Some migrants have complained of their belongings being tossed out or gruff treatment from officers.

Snelling said discarding items was a sanitation issue; stations need to be deep cleaned regularly with people living in close quarters, particularly after sickness. There have been bouts of flu and other illnesses spreading quickly in the stations. He said in one case there were bedbugs.

Snelling said that officers have been generous, buying books, toys, food and winter coats for migrants.

“I do worry about the wellness of officers who see these conditions every single day because they’re concerned human beings,” he said, adding that the new arrivals "should be treated with the same respect that we expect our own family members to be treated with and our officers are doing that.”