Monday, August 27, 2012

Notes from Neighborhood Watch

I haven’t lived in Bridgeport all that long but I am already proud of the place as if I’ve lived here all my life, and sometimes a little defensive about its media image as a hold out of the uglier parochial sentiments. Living in Bridgeport really is like living in a small town. There are a lot of good things about that, though there are some things that are not so great. Some of both came out after a sensational murder last fall.

I hear there have been sensational murders in Bridgeport before, guys shot down outside their houses or tortured to death behind closed doors, but they often seemed to be criminals reaping the wages of their chosen careers. This was a 73 year old woman, bludgeoned to death in her garage on a nice block east of Halsted St. And it followed close on 2 startling incidents of people robbed at gun point in broad daylight around Normal and Parnell.

It was more startling because of where it was. Years ago, I’m told, Parnell was a tough street and the rail yard on Normal was inhabited by hobos who carried big sticks to beat the rats with. But since then the yard on Normal has been paved for White Sox parking and Parnell has been rebuilt with big houses with soaring atriums, in ground pools and second kitchens in finished basements (whose inhabitants still spend summer evenings sitting the garage, an unfamiliar custom that seems quaintly old world).

Our regular CAPS beat meetings used to be held at Wentworth Gardens, the public housing complex on the other side of the viaduct. After the Parnell murder in October, there was a special CAPS meeting held at Nativity of Our Lord on Lowe.

Over 400 people filled the church basement. The 9th District CAPS officer, the District Commander, the Alderman and the Chicago Police Department’s second in command, all came to address their fears.

The crowd was restive and suspicious, they seemed ready to boil over. They want to know what police were doing to address the crime wave in their neighborhood. The police seemed to be telling them there wasn’t a crime wave. At least Commander Jarmusz started out running through statistics of actual crimes for each of Bridgeport’s beats, in almost every category the number was down from the previous year.

Eventually a woman from the crowd told him, “I don’t care about statistics, I know crime is up,” a sentiment the crowd heartily approved. They told the CPD’s second in command “You’re not from here,” and they left muttering that the police were “lying through their teeth.”

The uglier sentiments were amplified through the ether in the months afterwards, through Facebook groups and reports on EveryBlock. Neighbors provoked each other with veiled, or not so veiled, references to people of other ethnicities who don’t share our values. “It’s Black Friday on Halsted Street” I see a friend post from a bar on the afternoon after Thanksgiving. He describes black youths walking Bridgeport’s quiet retail strip “in gangs of 3 and 4.” There were reports of crimes, and rumors of crimes that would never make it to the police blotter -- black men trying to lure young girls into cars and other creepy things.

I helped spread a couple of those stories myself. They were reports of home invasions I’d read about on EveryBlock this spring. In the first, a woman left the apartment building door unlocked for just a minute while she ran to the neighbor’s next door. While she was gone 2 black men walked in the building and pried open the lock on her apartment with a screw driver. Her son woke form a nap to find them in the kitchen. Luckily, when they saw him, they made excuses and left. In the second incident, a man answered his front door and 2 black men were outside. One of them punched him in the face, they grabbed everything they could get quickly and ran back to a waiting car.

These were both reported within doors from where I live – a block so confident in its security that the neighbors in my building are ideologically opposed to locking the building entrances. In fact my landlord likes to leave them standing open to let the breeze in, another custom I thought was quaint when I first moved in. It drives me nuts since I started reading EveryBlock.

Dan from Bridgeport Citizen’s Group made a point of asking about these incidents at the next CAPS meeting. The sergeant sent someone to check the database, and it turned out neither incident had actually happened. At least there had been no home invasions reported to the police on those blocks in recent months. It’s hard to imagine someone would get punched in the face and robbed in his own home and not call the police. But if he wouldn't, that’s another public safety problem.

There are people who believe the police are lying through their teeth. I don’t believe that – I think the police want us to keep our doors locked and our eyes open for trouble. I don’t believe Bridgeport’s crime wave is all hysterics either. But I wish some of that attention could be re-directed toward crime that originates here.

There was just a new murder on Friday night. A 30 year old man was gunned down on 31st and Wallace in broad daylight. Shortly after rush hour, Lynn from Bridgeport Citizen’s Group went by the police station as Commander Jarmusz was turning in. He flagged her down to tell her what was going on. He said it was a Satan’s Disciple who was killed, they didn’t have a suspect in custody yet, but he wanted her to spread the word. He asked that people stay away from the scene while police worked their investigation.

The loud complaints at the Nativity CAPS meeting last fall were balanced out by other voices. “If we’ve learned anything,” the CAPS officer reassured the crowd “It’s that statistics don’t mean anything if you don’t feel safe.” He went on to encourage us to make ourselves more safe by stepping up to participate. Come to CAPS meetings, call in tips to the police, join the Bridgeport Citizens Group, which coordinates a neighborhood watch. People in the crowd reinforced that advice, they urged their neighbors to act on their concerns and get involved.

It was April before I made it to my next CAPS meeting. By then, the beats had been redrawn and the monthly CAPS meeting was moved to the 9th District Station on Halsted Street.

I worried about the elderly ladies who had traveled from Wentworth Gardens to make the meeting, who probably face crime threats as serious as anyone in Bridgeport, and who now found themselves in a room full of white people, many of whom seemed to think all the crime that didn’t come through the viaduct came from those “Section 8 people” in public housing. One woman at the meeting asked if we couldn’t start a petition to just build a gate around the Bridgeport Homes, the public housing complex just beside the police station on 31st Street.

When the Wentworth Gardens ladies got up to leave, our CAPS Officer made a point of acknowledging them from the podium, and they explained they had to go because they’d paid a driver to bring them over, and the driver’s hour was up. But one of the ladies took the opportunity to describe some of the activities they were organizing over at Wentworth Gardens. When she’d finished, the room gave her a round of polite applause. They came back for another month or two, but I don’t see them at CAPS meetings anymore.

Dan and Lynn, who founded the Bridgeport Citizens Group, live across the street from Bridgeport Homes. They say they see more trouble coming from buildings run by absentee landlords than from public housing.

Last Spring, Dan had just gone to court to testify against a Latin King whom he’d witnessed chasing someone with a drawn gun. The police were delighted he’d do it – they thought they’d have to settle on more minor charges associated with violation of his parole, because they thought witnesses would be afraid to testify in court.

The guy went away for 6 months. While he was away, Dan and Lynn were reaching out to his grandmothers, who live on either side of the street, and an aunt who denies he lives with them, but then seems to admit he might. Dan says he and Lynn disagree to a certain extent on how to handle a situation like that. He says he has no problem pressing landlords to evict families if the family harbors a gang member who runs around with guns, though Lynn has more qualms about it.

But their strategy with landlords who harbor dangerous tenants has been to call the landlord and ask him to take responsibility first. If that doesn’t work, the alderman can sometimes send in teams of inspectors looking for violations. That might encourage a negligent owner to evict, or sell. Though sometimes, when you push a problem tenant out of one house, they reappear in a house down the block.

This summer the Citizens Group has been active on Carpenter Street. People say Carpenter has had trouble for a long time. There is nothing about the way Carpenter Street looks that would explain why that is. It has the same mix of cottages and 3 flats with pretty roof-lines as other streets in the vicinity. Neighbors can point out buildings whose 3 apartments were once occupied by 3 generations of a family, until the older generation died and the younger ones moved away. Now absentee landlords play a role here, like they do on Lituanica.

At the moment, there is one particular cottage that has been a hub of activity. The tenant in that house has a long resume with the corrections system, and it’s not just him, it’s all his friends. If you’d drive a strange car down that street they’d come out to peer in your windows when you slowed for the speed bump.

Neighbors have been calling the owner of the building, who lives in the suburbs. She’s been defensive, eventually she told them the tenant was going to move out at the end of July, though the date came and went and he’s still there.

The Bridgeport Citizen’s Group have used smoke-outs to good effect in other parts of the neighborhood. A smoke-out is a cook-out where neighbors assert their presence immediately in from of a safety hot spot. The neighbors on Carpenter had some trepidation about trying that on their street – they feared it would just rattle the hornets. But they went ahead and hosted one at the end of June.

The event itself was a success – neighbors rallied from across the neighborhood, and Commander Jarmusz came out to show his support. But once we were gone, the gangbangers held their own event, starting around 1 in the morning. And when the neighbors called the police, it took a half dozen calls and 3 hours for them to arrive.

The July CAPS meeting was acrimonious. One Carpenter Street neighbor has been working for several years to get criminals off her street. More than once she has seen bad neighbors pushed out of one house, only to have problem tenants reappear down the street. Her husband has been assaulted, they have had bricks and hand tools thrown through their windows. Now she’s alienating the CAPS officer by implying he’s personally ineffective, and she is skeptical about ideas from the Citizen’s Group, because she’s tried a lot of it before.

The police sound just as frustrated – they are understaffed, and overstretched, and Bridgeport isn’t the most dangerous part of the 9th district. Dan says when they first launched the Bridgeport Citizens Group a couple years ago, the 9th district had 9 CAPS officers. Now there are 2, 1 of them is part time, and they have to balance their policing duties with tasks like making wellness calls to seniors during heat alerts.

For his part, Dan’s not convinced police alone are the whole answer – didn’t Carpenter Street still have gang bangers when the police were fully staffed?

In the weeks since the smoke-out and the CAPS meeting where the frustrations all came out, representatives of the Bridgeport Citizens Group sat down with police to try to work out how the chain of communication might be improved. Among other things, they learned 911 calls are prioritized by an independent dispatch center. The officers responding in the car don’t know what time you first called. If they show up 3 hours later and you’re mad at them, they just absorb your frustration. The police helped the Citizens Group work out a script for following up on calls that don’t get a timely response.

The Citizens Group has also been brainstorming next step strategies for Carpenter Street -- creative ideas to make it harder to flee through gangways and vacant lots, and to hold landlords accountable. Call the landlord with problem tenants, but also call other landlords with apartments for rent to ask what their screening practices are.

And they can always use more volunteers for the neighborhood watch. On the neighborhood watch in my beat, we don’t see a lot of suspicious activity in progress. We report a lot of graffiti so no one thinks he can mark a spot and own it. Just as important though, we’re tied in to the activities of our neighbors in other beats, and to the kind of communication that might actually make the neighborhood safer, as frustrating as that process may sometimes be.