When the CTA Green Line at Harlem shut down for at least a year for renovations a few years back, Sgt. Mike Keating said crime in the area seemed to nearly disappear for the duration of construction.
It was no coincidence, he said. Criminals like to use the trains as an escape route, and it’s a fairly cheap means of transportation, Keating added.
Since 2009, Forest Park police have fielded 568 total calls pertaining to incidents at the three el stations that land on village property: the Green Line at 1 S. Harlem Ave., Blue Line at 711 Desplaines Ave. and Blue Line at 701 Harlem Ave.
Of the total, 250 occurred at 701 Harlem, while 300 happened at 711 Desplaines Ave. Only 18 were reported at the Green Line, most likely because the el platform east of Harlem falls under Oak Park’s jurisdiction.
“It seems like every day we go to 711 Desplaines for something,” Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas said.
These figures, however, only provide a snapshot of crime near the el, according to Aftanas. The numbers refer to the amount of reports that originated at the CTA station — they do not account for the number of cases in which those being pursued end up at the train station to use it as their getaway.
In many shoplifting crimes, for example, “we’ll find the guy standing there on the el platform with the stuff he just stole,” Keating said. The actual number of cases related to the trains, therefore, is likely to be much higher.
In light of all the activity near CTA stations, Forest Park police have called for more surveillance technology at the suburban el stops.
“The crime doesn’t stop at the city,” said Keating, noting that other stations in the city have multiple cameras. The CTA said it has more than 1,800 cameras with at least one at all 144 stations. For security reasons, CTA media relations could not provide the total camera count at specific stations.
“The cameras will be used to help deter crime on the rail system, monitor for any suspicious activities and also assist in the investigation of any alleged or reported crimes,” the agency’s media relations team wrote in an e-mail to the Review. “Providing too many details regarding security systems and measures can adversely impact its effectiveness.”
Police named multiple cases over the years in which more security cameras could have helped with their work. In one case, a cell phone related to an open homicide dating back to December 2007 was found on the CTA Red Line. The nearest train stop the police could pull video footage from was Jackson and Van Buren in downtown Chicago.
After placing multiple requests to access the tapes, somehow half of the footage had been accidentally erased before police got their hands on it, Keating said.
If they had recordings from the Forest Park stations, “we would have been able to see who got on where,” he said. “You can certainly narrow it down.”
In another example, in 2008 there were a couple of cab robberies near the Forest Park train station. Keating said that after three nights staying up around the clock, they caught the criminals, but if they had security cameras to turn to, they probably would have been able to identify the criminals sooner.
As it turns out the CTA has, in fact, recently installed security cameras at Forest Park stations, but it appears there has not been any clear communication between the agency and village police about how to access the footage – or that the cameras exist at all. Police said that they were never notified that the cameras had been installed.
Even with what police called “minimal” surveillance, they don’t know much about where the recordings go or how long they are retained. (The CTA said camera recordings can be viewed in real time by CTA’s Control Center, the Chicago Police Department and Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Bus video is available from 24 to 48 hours. Train station footage varies, but it can be a little longer.)
“There isn’t anybody that I would know to call,” Keating said if a crime occurred and he needed immediate access to video. “Who do you call in the middle of the night? And if we’re trying to ID someone, who do you call?”
However, the media team wrote in an e-mail response, “CTA works closely with the Forest Park Police Department in sharing resources, information and drills in providing security on CTA’s system.”
Keating said he would love to have that relationship with the CTA.
“They catch numerous offenders, they bag people left and right,” Keating said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to continue that into the suburbs.”
The CTA said they plan on installing multiple cameras at all stations by the end of the year. The agency also contracts out a private security firm, Securitas, which monitors the system with guards and canine units.