Portage Park residents updated on shootings
by JASON PORTERFIELD
At a community meeting held Feb. 6, 16th (Jefferson Park) Police District commander James O’Donnell encouraged residents to report suspicious activity in the wake of two recent shootings in the Portage Park neighborhood.
About 150 people attended the meeting, which was held at Portage Park School and led by O’Donnell, Area North deputy chief John Escalante and 38th Ward Alderman Timothy Cullerton. Alderman John Arena (45th) also was in attendance.
In the more recent of the two shootings, a 21-year-old man was found fatally wounded in an apparent gang-related shooting at about 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1, outside his apartment building in the 3900 block of North Central Avenue, according to police.
A 16-year-old girl reported that she saw the man sitting with his back against the front entry door and that when she pushed it open, the man fell to the floor of the hallway, according to police. O’Donnell said that when he arrived at the scene, he found the man slumped over. Officers found a bullet hole in the door of the man’s apartment, and witnesses reported hearing multiple gunshots.
O’Donnell said that the 21-year-old man was a gang member and that he had been arrested 11 times. He said that the man recently moved into the building to live with his mother and that he had never been arrested in the district.
In the other shooting, a 17-year-old male was shot in another apparent gang-related shooting at about 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, in the 5600 block of West Montrose Avenue, according to police.
O’Donnell said that as the teen was walking with his girlfriend, a sport utility vehicle stopped and the passenger asked his gang affiliation, and that after the teen responded, the vehicle left and then returned and a man got out and fired several times, hitting him once in the buttocks. He said that the teen had never been arrested or even stopped by police in the 16th District but that he has a record of 29 arrests over the course of 2 1/2 years.
O’Donnell said that that while both shooting victims were known gang members, the two shootings appear to be unrelated.
O’Donnell pointed to the number of arrests for each victim as evidence that police are aggressively going after gang members. “Our people are out there,” he said. “They know who to arrest. It’s not illegal to be a gang member and live in the district. We see people who we think are gang members and we stop them.”
O’Donnell said that crime in a 10-block area centered on Portage Park is down 9 percent from last year and that major crimes are down 11 percent, while arrests are up 120 percent in that area. Officers stopped more than 6,000 people in that area in 2012, he said.
O’Donnell said that officers have worked to make the 16th District unattractive to gangs and that gangs have not established a firm foothold in the area. He said that the gang members who live in the district do so because of the area’s relative safety.
“In the 16th District, gangs tend to be nomadic,” O’Donnell said. “They don’t hold down a particular store or corner or block. If they drive by Portage Park or Dickinson Park and they don’t see other gangs, they’ll pull over and conduct their business.”
Escalante said that he commands nine teams consisting of a sergeant and four or five squad cars that can be used to saturate an area and that two teams have been working in the 16th District.
“There’s a concern that there’s not enough police here,” Escalante said. “We do the best we can with what we have.
“This district recently picked up eight more officers, and this month the 17th District picked up eight. We’re now in a hiring process, and for the next 2 years we will have a continuing hiring process”
Escalante said that he supports a recent move to take 200 police officers out of administrative roles and put them on the streets. “I do believe it has to be done,” he said. “Every sworn member is a police officer. If we can get them out of the office and into the field, that’s where they need to be.”
“No matter how many officers we get, we’ll never be at 100 percent because of retirements,” O’Donnell said. “The only officers we have lost have been due to retirement. Every commander wants more officers, more help. We have to work smarter and work harder to put officers where we see problems.”
O’Donnell said that officers will still respond to 911 calls reporting a suspicious person or suspected gang activity, despite a recent Chicago Police Department policy shift that no longer has officers responding to take reports on incidents in which no offender is on the scene, no one is injured and there is little chance of a suspect returning to the scene. Those crimes include garage burglaries, motor vehicle thefts, thefts and telephone harassment. O’Donnell said that residents who call to report one of those crimes should let the dispatcher know if a suspect is still on the scene.
O’Donnell told residents to call police if they see something suspicious, such as a car parked where it does not belong or a person loitering at an unusual time or location. “This is still a work in progress,” he said. “If these are paper jobs and the offender is long gone and no one needs medical attention, it frees up officers to look for bad guys.”
Cullerton told residents that they should contact his office or the 16th District if they see gang graffiti in the neighborhood. He also said that media reports on the number of tickets issued in Portage Park for possession of small amounts of marijuana do not indicate that the park has become “the pot capital of the Midwest.” Cullerton said that the high number of tickets is due to diligence on the part of officers patrolling the park.
A resident said that his 911 calls have been transferred to the 311 nonemergency system. O’Donnell replied that if residents call 911 about an incident and no officer responds, they should call the 16th District station to report it.
O’Donnell said that dispatchers at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications are not police officers and that they prioritize calls based on their apparent urgency. He said that officers at the district station can radio to cars in the vicinity and get an officer to the scene. O’Donnell also said that if 911 callers feel that their call is not being taken seriously, they can ask to be connected to a supervisor.
Responding to a question from a member of the audience, O’Donnell said that the Police Department will not resume a former practice in which officers pay visits to the homes of known gang members.
“We have to adapt to the modern age,” O’Donnell said. “You can’t just go to the criminal’s door. It’s borderline harassment.
“We’ve gotten complaints on that, and the officers who do it really stick their necks out. I would really rather try to get them on the street, but if they’re on parole or probation we can make checks, and we do that.”O’Donnell said that residents can help keep gangs from establishing a foothold in the district by getting out in the neighborhood and calling police when they see trouble. “You can’t be trapped in your house,” he said. “Gangs set up in locations where no one calls the police. That’s how neighborhoods turn bad. You have to be involved.”