Police talk crime prevention with residents

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By SETH STERN

Nearly 40 residents assembled at village hall last week to discuss growing concerns about crime-specifically gang and drug-related-in Forest Park.

The meeting was, in part, a response to an apparent drive-by shooting on July 6 on the 900 block of Dunlop which resulted in a home being hit by a bullet and a startled resident being hauled off by paramedics after he began hyperventilating. Fliers announcing the meeting were distributed to about 200 residents in the area surrounding the home.

"If a firearm is discharged in this village by anyone besides a police officer, it's the concern not only of the mayor, but of every police officer and most importantly every resident of Forest Park," said Mayor Anthony Calderone at the outset of the meeting, which took place Tuesday, Aug. 8.

Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas said police have a suspect in the shooting and are working with Berwyn police to track him down. "I think he knows that [we're looking for him] and that's why he hasn't been around," said Aftanas. He said there were no witnesses and police were, at first, unable to verify it had indeed been a bullet that caused a chunk of concrete to break off from the home's porch.

Aftanas said news of the shooting was not released to the media because the incident was the subject of a pending investigation that could have been hindered by the release of information to the public.

Calderone said he believed many of Forest Park's problems with crime are the result of overcrowded housing, specifically in rental apartments throughout the village. "We think that in various areas throughout the town we have a drug problem. We're owning up to that," he said.

More than 50 percent of Forest Park housing units are rentals, according to Calderone.

Calderone said he believed many of Forest Park's drug problems, including frequent drug arrests at Thornton's gas station on Harlem Avenue, are the result of drug dealers from the West Side of Chicago making Forest Park a meeting place to conduct business with dealers from the suburbs farther west.

Police strategies

Following Calderone's introductory comments, Police Chief James Ryan gave a brief overview of some of the department's current policing strategies and plans for future adjustments. He noted the significance of implementing a "community-oriented policing strategy," which he said includes ensuring that officers are consistently assigned to the same beat.

"Officers know that if you have a problem and they don't solve your problem, they'll be back the next night trying to solve the same problem," Ryan said, noting the significance of the village's neighborhood watch group, which he called "the backbone of our department." The group meets on the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at village hall, 517 Desplaines Ave.

Ryan said the police department is working on implementing a "crime-free multiunit program," which would basically involve police teaching landlords how to screen tenants and prevent crime by properly maintaining their properties.

"We call it crime prevention through environmental design," he said, adding that this includes proper lighting and trimming of bushes as "We don't want to give [criminals] the opportunity to hide in bushes or in the darkness."

He said the program would also include workshops by attorneys to discuss the eviction process with landlords.

Building Department head Michael Boyle encouraged residents to inform the village of rental apartments that appear overcrowded or poorly maintained. "We'll let the landlord and occupant know about the problems, and if they don't straighten it out, we'll cite them and bring them to court," he said.

Aftanas added that the police department plans on reassembling its tactical units, which he said were dismantled about five years ago due to manpower issues. He said the village's five part-time police officers will allow the department the flexibility to reassemble the units, which enable teams of officers to concentrate on particular crime trends or high-crime areas. Ryan said he expected this to occur within about three months.

The village currently has 38 police officers and about 30 auxiliary officers.

Aftanas, like Ryan, encouraged residents to call police to report suspicious activity. "We can't just stop [gang members] on the street at any given time. When you call us, we have to have a reason to stop these people," he said.

Another concern that arose was the perception that Forest Park's public schools are full of students who actually live out of town. Both Calderone and Sturino agreed with residents that this is a problem.

"In my humble opinion, some surrounding districts do a better job [with residency issues]" said Sturino. Calderone added, "We pay a lot of tax money for public schools and that's intended for the kids in Forest Park. ... We should demand of the school board that they need better standards of checking residency."

School District 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder has said he believes perceptions of the number of out-of-towners at the schools to be exaggerated, noting that many students may have one parent in town and one parent elsewhere. A surveillance of local CTA stations recently conducted by the school district confirmed this belief, according to Tinder.

Aftanas said he was impressed by the turnout at last week's meeting. Only five people raised their hands when asked who had ever been the victim of a crime in Forest Park. "Most people only show up when something happens to them, so it's good to see other people getting involved," said Aftanas.

Calderone, however, said the turnout left something to be desired. "We delivered notices to a couple hundred houses and what do we get? How can you not want to be involved in your town?" he asked.

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