The Park District of Forest Park is considering installing security cameras at low-visibility locations throughout its 11-acre facility in order to crack down on a recent rash of apparently gang-related graffiti.
Some of the graffiti, according to park officials, has been confirmed by police to include signs of the Latin Kings gang. At its Thursday night meeting, the park board instructed staff to solicit bids for security cameras to catch the vandals in action.
“This won’t stop it, but at least you’ll know who’s doing it,” said board member Mike Espinoza. According to a report on file with the Forest Park Police Department, six instances of graffiti at the park were reported between April 15 and 17, on garbage cans, street signs, and building walls. Numerous other seemingly gang related tags were reported in the area around the same time, including several on home garage doors.
While park staff has been able to clean the graffiti promptly, Executive Director Dave Novak said that, in addition to park rangers keeping an eye out for taggers, the after hours presence of auxiliary officers from the village’s police department patrolling the park could be increased.
“This is the first year we’ve dealt with [so much] vandalism and graffiti,” said Novak.
“Maybe it’s a sign of the times.”
Police Chief James Ryan said he was in favor of the idea of security cameras. Using technology that enables security cameras to be monitored from laptop computers, he suggested, the cameras would allow police to keep an eye out for graffiti and other crimes at the park.
Though nobody on the board spoke against the cameras, some noted the importance of keeping teens busy through programming that might prevent them from getting involved in gangs and vandalism in the first place.
“The other side of the coin is what do we do to avoid it,” said Assistant Director Larry Piekarz. He mentioned summer plans including three “teen nights” at the park, currently planned for June 2, July 21 and August 18, in addition to the Battle of the Bands event on July 15.
In cooperation with neighboring park districts, the district is also hosting numerous trips for teens during the summer including events at Great America, Magic Waters and other destinations.
“Maybe that will help them get involved more on a positive note,” he said.
Still, some feel that the programming being offered is not enough.
“The reason we have graffiti is because we have kids just hanging around,” said Negale T. Jackson, who attended the meeting. “We need after school programs for low-income students. We need direct, positive role models they can identify with who share the same sociological and cultural values.”
Jackson said he and his organization, the Forest Park Restorative Institute, had attempted to initiate such programs but that officials had been unresponsive.
“It’s a case of the gatekeeper syndrome,” he said, claiming that he has been referred from the village to the park and back without being given any answers in the process.
Novak said that he, along with Village Administrator Michael Sturino and School District 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder, had met with Jackson in January but had not heard from him since.
“If this is a group that has activities in mind, we could sit down with them,” said Novak.
He said he hoped to meet with Jackson to further discuss his ideas in the near future.
Piekarz noted during the meeting that some programming geared toward low-income residents had been initiated in the past but had to be discontinued due to low attendance.
Jackson also questioned the decision to tear down the park’s basketball hoops in order to make room for the skate park which will open later this spring, arguing that the move further limits recreational options available to young people.
Novak said that this choice was made both in response to high demand for a skate park and to eliminate crime, which he said the basketball courts seemed to attract.
“There were activities going on there other than basketball. It just became a hangout for bad activities,” said Novak. “It’s nothing racial or anything like that…there were gang related problems and drug related problems,” he said.
Novak said that the district will explore the option of installing portable hoops at the park sometime in the next few years.
Commissioner Cathy McDermott noted at the meeting that a space had specifically been reserved as a possible future basketball site in the park district’s five year comprehensive plan for its current renovation project.
“We have not taken replacing the basketball courts off the table,” she said.
The old backboards and rims, meanwhile, were donated to the Forest Park Community Center,7640 Jackson Blvd., though they are not open for public use. They will primarily be used for the center’s summer day care program for children aged 4 to 11, according to director Bev Thompson. In regards to basketball programs for older kids, Thompson said, “there’s nothing at the moment but that’s not to say we can’t do something.”
The village’s Youth Commission will also organize a summer basketball program with the help of the village’s police department, as it has the last two years. The program is free of charge, and is funded through Cook County’s BADGE program, which pushes activities that allow youths to interact with police officers.
Games will be held twice a week for kids under 16 and once a week for ages 16 to 19 at the Field Stevenson gym, 925 Beloit Ave., according to commission member Mary Win Connor. Registration information will be sent to the parents of District 91 students and will be printed in the Review once it becomes available.