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Amid Citywide Surge, Carjackings Rattle A Southeast Side Neighborhood: ‘I’m Afraid To Go To The Store’

Residents said they've asked for more officers in the Calumet Heights area as carjackings surge. But local leaders and police haven't been responsive.

Police investigate the scene of a shooting in Englewood Saturday afternoon.
Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
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CALUMET HEIGHTS — For 12 years, LaDonna Blair has called Calumet Heights home. She grew up close to where she shares an apartment with her son and partner, and she has always felt relatively safe.

Until this summer, when carjackings spiked.

Police said an armed group of teens and preteens repeatedly carjacked residents as they pulled into their driveways during evening rush hour. At least 16 people were victimized between late June and mid-July, with at least 10 of those carjackings occurring in Calumet Heights and Pill Hill.

At least five carjackings have been reported in that same small pocket of the Southeast Side since then, police data show. The most recent occurred Sept. 25 in the 9200 block of South Bennett Ave. Several other attacks have been reported in nearby areas, data show.

Throughout the district that includes Calumet Heights, there have been far more carjackings thus far in 2020 than in all of last year.

But neighbors say they’ve struggled to get information about what local authorities are doing to address the issue. Aldermen have not been responsive or provided specifics about their strategies to combat crime, residents said, and they’ve not gotten much information from police leaders.

The trend has left some neighbors anxious about crime seeming to go unchecked and unsure how to keep their neighborhood safe.

“I used to let my son walk over to my father’s house to visit. I can’t do that anymore,” Blair said. “I’m afraid to send him to the store; I’m afraid to go to the store myself. I’m seeing an influx of people in the area I don’t recognize, and no one can tell me what’s going on.”

‘We Have More Work To Do’

The rise in carjackings in the massive South Chicago (4th) Police District has correlated with increases in other violent crime, according to police data.

The district — stretching roughly from 79th Street down to Hegewisch, and from the state line west to the expressway — has had 50 murders so far this year, while there were 29 by this point of 2019.

Shootings are up, with 172 so far compared to 119 at the same point of 2019.

And carjackings have continued to plague the Far South Side neighborhoods near Calumet Heights.

Since late July, at least two dozen carjackings have occurred in Stony Island Park, South Shore, South Chicago, Jeffrey Manor and Marynook.

So far in 2020, 63 carjackings had been reported throughout the 4th District. There were 39 carjackings reported in all of 2019.

The Police Department did not respond to requests to interview district Cmdr. Robert Rubio.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
Quiet streets like this one in Calumet Heights has seen an uptick in violence this year.

A carjacking task force, resurrected earlier this year to tackle the issue citywide, has been working to curb the problem in the 4th District, police officials said.

Sgt. Thomas Parham, who leads the task force, said the increased carjackings within the 4th District mirror citywide increases, particularly since the summer.

The task force is an investigative unit, so it doesn’t have officers patrolling neighborhoods; they track patterns or trends in certain areas, using the data to conduct missions, Parham said.

The team has made more than 80 arrests in connection with carjackings, Parham said, which he says have led to a decrease in attacks. Some of those arrests were especially critical as they included some of the people police suspected were responsible for the summer carjackings, Parham said.

Though the task force’s focus is citywide, Parham said they have spent a “significant amount of time in the 4th District.”

“Several key arrests lately has slowed the number of carjackings a bit, but we have more work to do,” Parham said.

The task force receives tips almost daily. Parham said neighbors wanting to call in tips can reach the task force’s hotline at 312-745-4489.

‘Let Us Know What’s Going On’

Several of the attacks have occurred near the border of the 7th and 8th wards, but some neighbors say they’ve struggled to get clear answers from the aldermen about what they’re doing in response and what conversations they’ve had with police on the issue.

Blair told Block Club she attended a virtual joint town hall meeting convened by Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) and Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) in August, but she’s heard little from either since.

In mid-September, Mitchell and Harris had a meeting with Rubio and Police Supt. David Brown. It is not clear what specifics they discussed.

Harris’ chief of staff, Alvin Rider, said police leaders tried to reassure the aldermen the task force was at work trying to reverse the trend.

Rider said the office has received multiple calls about carjackings and Harris is doing what she can to keep her constituents safe.

Harris said she invited the Cook County Sheriff’s Office back into the area for a third year to patrol “hot spots” in the ward in an effort to prevent crime. But she provided few specifics on how or if sheriff’s officers had helped reduce crime in previous years.

Harris also did not comment when repeatedly asked what other strategies she’s considering, specifically for carjackings. Harris and Rider said extra help from the Sheriff’s Office was not connected to the issue of carjackings.

“They helped us out on issues like open air drug sales and illegal cigarette sales in conjunction with [Chicago police] based on calls we received from community members,” Harris said. “Having the sheriff’s trailer back on 79th and Cottage [Grove] and Maryland should cut down on some of the issues we are having on that corner. It won’t solve all our problems, but it will help.”

The trailer served as a visual reminder, and a comfort to residents fed up with all the nefarious activity on the block. But due to county budget cuts, the trailer didn’t return this year. It was dispatched to the West Side instead.

Rider said he and other staffers plan to do their own street patrols, offering resources to the young men on the block. He compared it to the work he did when New Beginnings Pastor Corey Brooks organized Brothers on the Block.

Mitchell (7th) did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The lack of concrete answers left Blair and her neighbors, like Andre Russell, feeling like they try to create their own solutions.

Blair and her neighbors organized Zoom meetings and Facebook Live discussions, strategizing how to keep residents safe. Russell also used Facebook to connect with residents and consulted with neighbors in other parts of the city about starting citizen patrols.

But with busy work schedules and aging homeowners, Russell said it didn’t seem feasible to do anything more than share information and keep a watchful eye.

RELATED: ‘We Want To Look Out For Our People’: South Side Neighborhood Patrol Aims To Stop Violence Without Police

Like Blair, Russell said he’s reached out to Mitchell and Harris in hopes of getting answers — with little success.

“Let us know what’s going on. If they are making progress on arrests, they should say that. It would be comforting,” Russell said. “I can tell you that I’m going to lose weight, but if you don’t see it happening … .”

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