Close to 300 residents of the greater Albany Park and Ravenswood Manor community packed the auditorium at Our Lady of Mercy Church, 4432 N. Troy St., Wednesday night to voice their concerns about increased gang violence in the neighborhood and to hear how Ald. Dick Mell (33rd) and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy intend to combat the problem. (Ald. John Arena, 45th; Ald. Margaret Laurino, 39th; Ald. Tim Cullerton, 38th; and State Rep. Deborah Mell also attended.)
Tree Kuberski’s garage was broken into shortly after Thanksgiving. “I’ve lived here since 1987,” she said. “In the ’80s and ’90s, I left the house unlocked; I don’t do it now. There’s no reason I should be unsafe in my home.”
“I hear gunshots going off at night. I can tell the difference from what it’s been like before. It’s more violent,” said a resident who preferred to be identified solely as Harry. “I’d like to hear a plan of action.”
After a three hour meeting, many residents felt Police officials failed to provide a clear path forward.
Though the alderman’s office had solicited comments via email prior to the gathering, giving attendees the impression that these topics would then be systematically addressed, following opening remarks by McCarthy the meeting quickly devolved into an open mic free-for-all. The vocal crowd frequently booed what they considered to be inadequate responses from Ald. Mell and jeered long-winded neighbors who veered wildly off topic.
Frustration was palpable as McCarthy and 17th District Commander Melissa Staples (on the job for 11 months and uniformly lauded by attendees for her accessibility) delivered progress reports at odds with attendees’ personal experiences. Where McCarthy listed some impressive statistics: 700 members of the Maniac Latin Disciples arrested in 2011, more than 4,400 firearms confiscated, and 500 officers shifted from administrative positions to street patrol, attendees disagreed that much progress had been made.
“I don’t see any squad cars,” said Ray Steigerwald, a 70-year resident. “We don’t see police on the street.” Suggesting that many of the reassigned officers were likely approaching retirement age, he asked Superintendent McCarthy, “Are these people qualified to be chasing young kids?” McCarthy’s response: “That’s not something I can address.”
Commander Staples noted that the 17th District ranks third in the city for the largest reduction in major crimes and pointed out that shooting victims have decreased from 34 in 2009 to 25 in 2011. Yet attendees repeatedly said they were feeling less, not more, safe.
Members of the Irving Park Concerned Neighbors Association turned out in force to ask for increased patrols, disturbed by baseball bat beatings taking place on their front sidewalks and shootings in their alleys. “[Beat] 1723 is our biggest problem,” conceded Staples. With 202 officers covering a district that measures 10 square miles, home to six active gangs and more than 100,000 citizens, “It isn’t possible to be on every corner at once,” she said.
That wasn’t the response Kip Conwell and Chloe Jensen had hoped to hear. The couple are raising their two small children in Albany Park and while fully aware of the pros and cons of city living (“I grew up near Irving and Kimball,” Jensen said) they didn’t anticipate having to call 9-1-1 a half-dozen times in a single weekend. “I’ve never heard so many gunshots,” said Jensen. “I feel like our house has been encircled by violence.” Two murders took place in their alley and recent shootings have occurred in broad daylight. “I worry about the safety of my kids,” she said.
“I love our neighborhood; all our neighbors are here tonight. I want to stay, but this is not how I imagined raising my kids,” added Conwell. “We do feel a bigger police presence would make a difference.” Though encouraged by the large turnout for the meeting, the pair felt the conversation was lacking in particulars. “I feel quite helpless,” said Jensen. “I’m not confident it’s going to change.”
If the meeting highlighted anything, it’s the gulf that exists between community expectations–put more cops on the street–and McCarthy’s long-term approach to policing strategy. “We can’t arrest ourselves out of crime,” he said.
Poverty, education, dysfunctional families, these are the root causes of crime, according to McCarthy. “If we’re not in control of the causes of crime, how can we cure crime?” Instead, his goal is to form coalitions with elected officials, faith-based organizations, schools, community organizations, community service providers and businesses to tackle these broader issues. “We can’t do it all by ourselves.”
Fo Albany Park and Ravenswood Manor residents looking for tangible steps to take to reduce violence beyond “call 3-1-1-, call 9-1-1, be our eyes and ears,” coalition-building was more than they bargained for. Plainly stated by the Irving Park neighbors: “Right now we have a crime problem in our district and we’d like to see more resources.”