Gangs come from the city to the suburbs because moms in minivans are easy targets. They drive up and down Harlem Avenue in stolen cars, waiting for Forest Park residents to leave their vehicle running at a gas station or 7-11. Once residents exit their car — even for a minute — offenders jump inside and flee to the Eisenhower Expressway, stealing cars because it’s easy, a gang initiation or maybe just for kicks.
“I’m at my wit’s end; it seems to be nonstop,” said Lt. Ken Gross, patrol commander, noting, “It’s almost like a memo went out amongst gangs this year, ‘We’re going to do carjackings.'”
In light of recent car thefts, carjackings, and the shooting on the 1000 block of Circle Avenue, residents packed the Forest Park Village Hall, Dec. 19, sitting on tables and standing against the door, demanding answers from police and village officials during Forest Park’s monthly Neighborhood Watch meeting, which normally attracts five people. The crowd of about 70 all had questions about how to stay safe.
“This is part of the reality of the world we’re living in today,” said Mayor Anthony Calderone, in lieu of explanation.
So far in 2017, there have been nine carjackings — or cars taken through threat or use of physical force — up from two last year. There have also been 63 car thefts so far this year, up from 54 in 2016. The increase in incidents has caused the police department to change their primary focus to carjackings occurring in Forest Park rather than drug activity.
Police only chase offenders in incidents that involve carjackings. Thefts are too risky. Police Chief Thomas Aftanas said most thieves don’t stop when they see officers’ flashing lights, and many are young, age 12, 13, or 14.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, but I don’t know if the court system is doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Gross said. “Juveniles don’t seem to be doing hard time for the crimes committed.”
Indeed, juveniles face a separate criminal code than adults and must accumulate a number of “points” on their record before they can be sentenced to time in a juvenile detention center or detained by police, Aftanas said. Once they’re caught for a car theft or carjacking, many are simply released to their parents.
“Some arrests are being made, but this doesn’t seem to be having an impact because there’s so many of them,” Aftanas said. “The parents can’t control them and a lot don’t have money. They’re not going to do restitution. Do you lock up a 12-year-old until they’re 18 for shooting someone? I think so.”
Calderone recommended audience members complain to Kim Foxx, Cook County state’s attorney, about the juvenile criminal code, saying it wasn’t working in Forest Park.
“They write the laws, but then when they’re broken, it’s up to the prosecutors to prosecute them, and that’s where the breakdown is,” Calderone said.
Forest Park is working with neighboring police jurisdictions — including River Forest, Oak Park and Chicago — to solve the crime spree, which has affected all communities. Aftanas cautioned that it’s no one type of person or vehicle that’s being targeted — it’s everyone.
“These are kids who are anywhere from 12 to early 20s, and they shoot at you and they will shoot at me,” said Mike O’Connor, Forest Park’s crime-free multi-housing officer, who runs Neighborhood Watch meetings.
In the ’80s and ’90s, offenders stole Dodges and Chryslers in Forest Park because “they had learned how to break into them and told their friends, back then,” O’Connor said.
Forest Park police made a list of everyone in town who owned a Dodge or Chrysler vehicle and added more patrols to where these cars were located. But with carjackings and thefts, these “crimes are random acts,” Calderone said. “Unless police officers are on every single block at the same time, we’re still in trouble.”