Forest Park police believe that a surge in gang graffiti in town over the last few weeks may be the work of a group of Proviso West students attempting to recruit in Forest Park.

“A lot of complaints say it’s happening on the way home from school or at the park after school,” said recently appointed Deputy Chief Thomas Aftanas.

He said that police have identified residents on the north side of Forest Park who they believe are connecting to these Proviso West students, while gang activity on the south side of town seems to be more connected to Berwyn area factions which have been the cause of much of both Oak Park and Forest Park’s gang challenges in the past.

Police Chief James Ryan said it is uncertain whether the recent graffiti has been the work of recruiters from out of town or of recently recruited local youths.

“It may be young wannabes with shirttail connections or people who are not in a gang at all, because a lot of the graffiti isn’t accurate,” said Ryan.

Ryan said that in many of the tags that have been discovered, the tagger seemed to be promoting one gang while simultaneously disrespecting another gang which is actually affiliated with the gang they are supposedly affiliated with.

“They sometimes seem a little confused,” he said.

Ryan declined to name the gangs that police believe are involved, stating that gangs often thrive on seeing their names in the newspaper and that giving them extra attention could help recruiting efforts. Aftanas acknowledged that much of the recent graffiti in town seems to come from Hispanic gangs.

Graffiti reported in Forest Park, according to Ryan, is cleaned up by the Cook County Sheriff’s Police. “They come out within two or three days and clean graffiti on private property ” they’re pretty efficient,” he said.

Oak Park, by contrast, dispatches its own staff, including police and community relations personnel, to remove tags. Oak Park Deputy Chief Bob Scianna said the village is usually able to remove the tags within 24 hours.

Though he said he was not familiar with the County Sheriff’s program, he said that “It’s the same philosophy. We try to remove it as quickly as you can after it’s been put up to dissuade future instances.”

“When you tag an area you’re saying that it’s ours ” we’re saying that our village belongs to citizens, not to some misguided youth,” he added.

District 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder said he had not been made aware of recruiting efforts as students left school, noting that there had not been any known instances of gang related activity on school grounds.

“We have not seen any indications of any behavior that would indicate [gang activities] in the schools. I’m not foolish enough to believe it might not be going on in the community or in the area but we haven’t seen anything to indicate that it might be going on in school,” said Tinder.

He said that school district staff is assigned to monitor students as they leave the schools, but that this is regular procedure and not a response to any recent gang matters.

“We haven’t been made aware by anybody that this is a thing we should be on the lookout for,” he said.

Aftanas said that police have been able to step up surveillance during after school hours due to a $13,000 Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant (JAIBG) obtained through the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by Lt. Steve Weiler.

That grant, he said, allows police to place an extra patrol car in the area from the Middle School to the park district during after school hours.

The grant, he said, expired in November, but police are in the process of requesting additional funding for the future.

Ryan noted that the BADGE grant obtained by the department through the county allows police to conduct outreach programs for troubled youth, including fishing trips and the Youth Commission’s summer basketball program.

“We know that the kids involved in this stuff aren’t going to go on fishing trips, but when we have a relationship with the kids and they hear stuff, they do let us know,” said Aftanas.

Aftanas said that the police department’s resident gang expert, Officer Michael O’Connor, meets regularly with Chicago police to stay up on the latest gang trends, and has also been in touch with Hillside police to get names of potential recruiters from Proviso West.

Ryan said that recruiters are attracted to Forest Park due to its accessibility by CTA trains, noting that there has been “quite a bit of activity on the El platform.”

Ryan and Aftanas both recommended that residents stay on the lookout for possible gang activity to help combat the recent trend.

“The public has to call the police department,” said Aftanas. “When you see three or four people walking in an alley and they don’t look like they’re from the area, call the police,” he said.

Though some residents may worry that they are bothering the police or sending them out on false alarms, Ryan said this is not the case.

“The premise behind community policing is that as calls go up, crime goes down,” he said.