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Chicago police add hundreds of extra cops for Memorial Day weekend

May 26, 2017
Chicago Tribune

A wooden cross stands atop a patch of grass near a boarded-up apartment building in the 3400 block of West Walnut Street, where three men were shot and wounded during last year's violent Memorial Day weekend.

Covered with a maroon cloth, the approximately 3-foot-high cross is crowded with photos of those who have passed on: some from natural causes, two who died in a car crash, but others who were the casualties of the all-too-common street violence in the West Side's East Garfield Park neighborhood.

Michael Green, an area resident, welcomes the recent uptick in the numbers of Chicago police officers patrolling around Walnut Street. Even with his own past brushes with the law, he thinks the neighborhood badly needs police protection, especially after last year's holiday weekend saw 20 people shot within the Harrison patrol district, including the three men shot on Walnut.

"When we was young, the streets used to be full of kids," Green, 35, said Wednesday as he hung out on the block. "You don't even see kids playing outside no more. Right now, it's just a free-for-all."

Coming off a disastrous 2016 that saw more than 760 slain and some 4,300 shot across the city, Chicago police are preparing for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, and the unofficial start of summer — traditionally, the year's most violent stretch.

During last year's extended weekend, 71 were shot, six fatally, making it one of the most violent Memorial Day weekends in recent memory. A year earlier, 57 people were shot, 12 fatally.

In a telephone interview, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the department will deploy an extra 1,000 officers on the streets each day from Friday through Monday. Johnson said he expects some officers' days off will be canceled and some shifts extended beyond the normal 8½ hours – both typical moves for a summer holiday weekend.

Charts: Memorial Day weekend violences since 2012

Johnson said the added officers will patrol the parks and other open spaces where large gatherings are expected.

"I am comfortable with the amount of resources they'll have," the superintendent said. "You'll see a lot of police visibility in the (Harrison) District, as well as citywide, over the Memorial Day weekend."

The Harrison District has been among the city's most violent for years. But so far this year, police officials have been encouraged by a drop in violence in the West Side district, which includes neighborhoods such as West Garfield Park and Lawndale in addition to East Garfield Park.

"We've got a lot of good people that live in those communities, and they're just as sick and tired of this violence as I am," Johnson said. "So they are coming forward, giving us the information, and the officers are working hard in those areas."

Through Sunday, Harrison has recorded 23 homicides, a 28 percent decline from 32 a year earlier, official police statistics show. Shootings have declined even more, to 111, a 33 percent drop from 165 a year earlier, the department said.

In the East Garfield Park neighborhood a memorial stands just west of Homan Avenue and Walnut Avenue. In the 3400 block of W. Walnut Street there are three different memorials on the block for those killed as a result of gunshot violence or other circumstances. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)

Throughout Chicago, homicides have dropped more modestly, by 6 percent to 219 from 233, while shootings are down more sharply, by 13 percent to 987 from 1,129, the official statistics show.

As in other parts of the West Side, much of the violence in the Harrison police district is fueled by disputes over drug dealing, entrenched gang problems and the easy availability of guns. Communities within Harrison have long struggled under the weight of low employment and poverty.

Police brass, though, are touting improvements in Harrison and the South Side's Englewood District, the two deadliest districts in Chicago last year, when they accounted for about one-fourth of all of the city's homicides.

Since late January, the two districts were the first in the city to use technology geared toward helping officers better predict where shootings may occur and respond more quickly to violence while allowing supervisors to analyze shooting data in real time to quickly determine where best to deploy manpower.

"We're going to target the times and the places where we've seen historic (violence) issues and the times and places that are currently causing the problem," Johnson said.

At these district nerve centers, called Strategic Decision Support Centers, officers analyze large screens that display crime maps and surveillance camera footage.

They also keep a close watch on ShotSpotter, technology that detects the sound of gunfire and helps pinpoint its location. Officers receive the shooting data in real time on their work cellphones. Police officials have claimed that ShotSpotter has helped officers respond to shootings an average of five to seven minutes before 911 calls come through on the same incidents.

In addition, police have teamed up with agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on targeted raids this year on the West Side, where open-air drug markets pose problems distinct from the South Side.

On Wednesday, back on Walnut Street, the rumbling of freight and CTA trains sounded amid the occasional wind gusts. Green stood over the wooden cross, reminiscing about some of the victims commemorated there.

Among them was 25-year-old Ed Brown, an undefeated welterweight boxer who was killed in a drive-by shooting in December just a few blocks away. Down the block, an Everlast punching bag tied to a light pole serves as a makeshift memorial for Brown.

"It hurts to even see these reminders sitting right here," Green said. "But I guess it helps some people."

Anthony Mack, 36, started filming b-roll footage of the cross for a friend making a rap music video.

Mack, who grew up on Walnut, said the neighborhood has always had its share of problems. But today the violence has become more senseless, he said.

"I'm not condoning violence from back in the day. But … when you got shot, you got shot for something," Mack said. "You didn't just get shot because … I said something or I maybe bumped your kids."