Rachel Walther had never seen the spray painted mark of a gang in her neighborhood before, but when she stepped out of her condo at 315 N. Marengo Ave. last spring, she knew immediately what the blue symbol on her building was.
“Obviously, I recognized what it was and obviously I was a little disturbed,” Walther, 73, said.
At a recent meeting between residents and members of the Forest Park Police Department, Walther was one of 50 residents with concerns about gang activity. Since the incident last spring, Walther hasn’t seen any other gang tags in her neighborhood, but at a similar meeting in early August another 40 residents were on-hand to discuss gang activity.
A three-man tactical unit focused on street crimes will work its first shift on Sept. 7, according to Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas. This announcement was made during the second gang-related meeting with residents, but Aftanas said the special police unit should not be misinterpreted.
“It’s really not to address the gangs at all,” Aftanas said.
Gang activity falls under the umbrella of street crimes, Aftanas said, but the unit is not born specifically from an increase in gang activity. Investigating burglaries and drug crimes simply requires more resources, he said.
Officer Michael O’Connor is the department’s gang expert. Aside from his personal experiences growing up on Chicago’s South Side, O’Connor has been trained to work on gang-related crimes. His training helped identify the tag on Walther’s condo as an authentic mark left by a member of the Insane Pope Nation gang.
Whatever gang activity that occurs in Forest Park, O’Connor said, is likely perpetrated by transient members from neighboring communities. The Insane Pope Nation gang for example, is much more prominent on the city’s South Side than in the western suburbs, O’Connor said.
Two residents of the 1000 block on Marengo Avenue said they aren’t convinced that Forest Park is not a destination for gang members.
Kevin and his wife Niki declined to give their last names for fear of retribution, but said a neighboring apartment building appears to be a breeding ground for trouble. The couple-both in their 30’s-bought their home on Marengo Avenue 18 months ago and are raising a 6-month-old child. Niki said they moved to Forest Park to get away from the dangers of the city.
They also own a condo on Madison Street.
“I think our problem is more that they’re young,” Kevin said of the perceived troublemakers. “It makes me feel like we’re two or three years from a drive by.”
The couple said they plan to sell their recently purchased home this winter.
“We’ve got a young baby,” Niki said.
Mayor Anthony Calderone and Chief Jim Ryan pointed directly at rental properties and absentee landlords as problem areas for street crime and gang activity. To stem the tide, Ryan said the department is reaching out to property owners to help them screen potential tenants and lawfully evict those who are already renting.
“If they do get them in,” Ryan said, “we’ll also teach them how to get them out.”