The West Suburban Directed Gang Enforcement (WEDGE) task force, which comprises officers from police departments in Forest Park, Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside, North Riverside, Brookfield, Lyons, Berwyn and Stickney, shook up its command structure last week, naming Forest Park Police Chief Jim Ryan operations chief of the unit, which targets drug and gang hotspots in each member community.
Member communities contribute manpower to WEDGE, and the task force operates independently while at the same time sharing information with member agencies. Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel was appointed the organization’s chairman.
Until recently, the Berwyn Police Department played a lead role in the task force. Former Berwyn Police Chief William Kushner pushed for the creation of WEDGE in 2006. By early 2007, its officers were on the streets, making its first arrest in North Riverside in April of that year.
In 2008, the task force made 148 arrests, 64 of them resulting in felony charges and engaged in 71 drug investigations, according to its annual report that year. Weitzel said he is working on an annual report for 2009.
But Berwyn’s commitment to WEDGE was unclear after the election of a new mayor in that city in 2009. The Berwyn detective serving as WEDGE’s street commander stepped down after Berwyn started its own in-house gang and drug task force. Forest Park Detective Sgt. Mike Keating stepped into that role.
In February, Kushner was shown the door in Berwyn and WEDGE lost its founder.
“It left a huge void,” said Weitzel. “It was his idea and he did a lot of leg work, setting up the intergovernmental agreements and convincing other towns to join. He also had direction connections to the Chicago Police Department and the U.S. Marshal that provided us with avenues that will be difficult to fill.”
Weitzel said that at a meeting of WEDGE officials on March 30, Berwyn Police Commander Thomas O’Halloran attended and confirmed the city was still part of WEDGE. But, Weitzel said, there was no long-term commitment promised. Rather, “for further direction they’ll wait until a new chief is appointed,” Weitzel said.
Ryan emphasized the importance of having Berwyn’s participation in the organization.
“They are very active in Berwyn,” Ryan said. “What happens in Berwyn impacts the rest of us. As active as their gang unit is there pushing them out, the gang members are pushed into our areas.”
With Kushner’s absence, however, Ryan said that the remaining chiefs recognized the need to fill the void.
“He was the driving force, and we knew we had to step up and all take a more active role,” Ryan said. “Tom and I have a very good relationship. He’s a very good administrator.”
Losing partners is not new to WEDGE. Oak Park made noises about ending its relationship with the task force in 2007. They never followed through, however, and at the March 30 meeting Weitzel said Oak Park officials were committed to the group.
“Oak Park said ‘no doubt,’ they’re in,” Weitzel said.
Cicero, which also started its own gang and drug unit, dropped out of WEDGE in 2009, but was replaced by River Forest and Brookfield.
Weitzel said that one major goal this year is to come to an agreement with the Chicago Police Department to let WEDGE officers receive and broadcast information on radio frequencies used by police in the 15th and 25th districts on the West Side of Chicago.
Weitzel said he’s hoping that Lyons’ new police chief, Harley Schinker, a 33-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, might be able to lend some assistance to that task.
“It’s going to be a busy summer. I think you’ll see an increase in activity,” said Weitzel who added he would like to beef up weekend patrols and make staffing more flexible to work for longer stretches on complex, time-consuming investigations.