WICKER PARK — Wicker Park residents want to know why their local police district has been without a full-time leader for more than a month this summer.
Commander Melvin Roman was released from his job overseeing the 14th District in late July, according to a source. Since then, the district has seen serious crimes — including a string of four armed carjackings and the mugging of a 29-year-old woman at knifepoint outside her home — but there’s been no word from police on when Roman will be replaced.
Despite these high-profile incidents, most crime in the district is down.
The area’s aldermen said they’ve gotten no information from the Chicago Police Department. Police sources said they’ve received no updates from department leaders. A police spokesman did not respond to Block Club’s requests for comment about the effort to find Roman’s permanent replacement.
“The main thing for me is just not knowing who to go to, who’s overall responsible for neighborhood safety,” said neighbor John Plant. “Should we just email the mayor? It feels like there’s a bit of a vacuum between the brass of city government.”
Leah Root, who has lived in Wicker Park for nearly 10 years, said the lack of strategy is distressing at a time when local police should be “forging relationships” with the community.
The district covers Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square and parts of Humboldt Park.
“The 14th District is massive,” Root said. “We don’t have a commander. That’s like having a horse without a head. It’s like having a company without a CEO.”
‘I’d Like Someone To Have A Clear Plan’
Why Roman was removed from his post isn’t clear. Chicago Police spokesman Tom Ahern said Roman was reassigned to the Crime Prevention Unit but didn’t give a reason for the change.
Commander Fabian Saldana pulled “double duty” to fill in for Roman while serving his normal post leading detective investigations on the Northwest Side, according to a source. Captain Ed Kaup from the 17th District was called in to relieve Saldana, the source said.
Despite leadership being in flux, crime in the district is down recently and overall for the year, according to police data.
Within the 28 days before Aug. 23 — the time immediately after Roman left the district and there was no permanent commander — there have been no murders, and complaints about criminal sexual assault, burglary and theft are down. Overall, criminal complaints are down 22 percent.
There have been five shootings reported, while there was four in the same time period last year, and 11 reports of aggravated battery compared to 10 last year. Robberies and car thefts are also up: There were 45 robberies reported, compared to 33 in the same time period in 2019, and 35 car thefts reported, compared to 22 during the period in 2019.
Overall this year, murders are up — there have been 11 so far this year, while there were four by this point in 2019 — and aggravated battery up 15 percent, while reports of criminal sexual assault, robbery, burglary, theft and car theft are down by double digits.
Some residents are also still shaken up by looting that happened earlier in the summer. The worst of the looting happened while Roman was still in command, starting Downtown and swept into Wicker Park and other residential neighborhoods in late May and early June. More than 40 Wicker Park businesses were looted or vandalized.
There was just one report of looting more recently, after Roman had left his post.
“The looting that happened in May really shook the neighborhood to its core,” Plant said. “We don’t know who to go ask, ‘Are we safe? Are we good? What’s the plan? … Who’s responsible for the plan? The alderman? The lieutenant? The Park District?’ I don’t know who’s responsible for what, but I’d like someone to have a clear plan.”
Inés Bustelo lives on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park and saw the looting that occurred in early June.
Bustelo said she supports Black Lives Matter and the fight to end police brutality. But supporting that cause and taking time to fill a vacant police commander role are not “mutually exclusive” goals, she said.
“This is a community that embraces diversity and inclusion,” Bustelo said. “I just wanna make sure we are all protected.”
Knowing Roman was no longer in charge, over the past month, a group of Wicker Park neighbors have pressed Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) for updates on the search for a district commander. While Hopkins has responded to emails from neighbors, no concrete answers have been forthcoming, Root said.
Hopkins did not respond to requests for comment.
La Spata told Block Club aldermen are not involved with the decision-making process and he doesn’t know when Roman will be replaced. His office has been “checking in” on a weekly basis in an effort to “hold [the Police Department] accountable” for making a decision.
“The selection of district commander is not a political decision,” La Spata said. “We really share that same concern with our residents, particularly during this time period. … It is, at the end of the day, a [Police Department] decision.”
Ahern did not respond to a request for comment on what the department’s timeline is for installing a 14th district commander.
Neighbors plan to meet this week to discuss policing issues.
The Bucktown Community Organization will meet — socially distanced and with masks — at 6 p.m. Monday outside St. Mary of the Angels School. The Wicker Park Committee will meet virtually at 7 p.m. Wednesday via Zoom.
Mina Bloom contributed to this report.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.