JEFFERSON PARK — In light of recent shootings on the Far Northwest Side, neighbors say they want a larger police presence and more officers to curb gang-related violence and crack down on illegal activities.
At a public safety meeting Friday hosted by Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) and police officers from the 16th District, over 200 residents packed the gym at St. Constance School, 5856 W. Ainslie St., to express anger, frustration and fear over recent crime that has spiked in the area and left 19-year-old Meagan Bilbo dead last weekend in Jefferson Park.
Gardiner said he attended the wake for Bilbo before the meeting and held a moment of silence to honor her life.
Bilbo and three others were shot in the alley by an unknown shooter while leaving an illegal social club in a vacant storefront in the 4800 block of North Central Avenue, officials said. The store, which detectives said was being rented out since October, has been shut down by the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
Bilbo was one of five people shot during weekend violence in the typically low-crime Jefferson Park and Portage Park area. Shooting incidents are up in the 16th District compared to 2020, according to police data released last week. The district also saw an 11 percent increase in shooting victims from 2019 to 2021, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Neighbors at the meeting asked officers about what solutions are in the works and how the district can get more police resources. Some criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s leadership and that of Police Supt. David Brown, who also attended the meeting.
Joseph Gonzales, who grew up in Jefferson Park and is friends with the young people shot over the weekend, said increased gang activity and shootings in the neighborhood have left him feeling scared and helpless.
“I work late shifts, I walk down the street and I am worried that I have to look back every five minutes or every two seconds because I am scared that some idiot is going to come up with a gun and shoot me just because he felt like he needed to do it,” Gonzales said. “This is not how I want to live.”
Police said they would continue working to get illegal guns off the streets.
Area 5 Deputy Chief Roberto Nieves said the 16th District has made the most gun arrests this year compared to last year, and Brown said the department has taken a record number of illegal firearms off the street so far in 2021.
Earlier this year, the Police Department launched a team that will target people who buy guns for others. Still, more immediate plans to address crime in the community are in the works, officers said.
16th District Captain Mike Barz said the district plans to identify any empty storefronts that could be used for illegal parties, especially with New Year’s Eve celebrations around the corner. But he added the community needs to step up and report any suspicious activity they see in boarded-up storefronts and vacant buildings.
“The 16th District is going to have every single officer identify social clubs, illegal parties, vacant storefronts so this can’t happen again,” Barz said, referring to the shooting death of Bilbo. “We are asking for your help in identifying these properties. … If you see a vacant storefront, please report it so we can send out an officer immediately.”
A longtime Jefferson Park resident named George, who did not want to give his last name, said officers in the community need more support from Brown and the city.
“I understand there is only so much the police can do, but what I want is for them to be backed by their superiors,” said George, who lives across from where the fatal shooting occurred. “At the end of the day, I live here and I pay my taxes — I feel like I pay more than I should — I want to get my money’s worth as far as police go because, for me, my number one priority is safety.”
George slammed Brown for what he said was a lack of leadership in curbing shootings and getting more officers on the streets, but Brown argued the department has been aggressively recruiting young people through job fairs, visiting military bases and other outreach methods as part of its recruitment campaign launched this summer.
He said the department has seen about 7,000 applications in recent months, but it needs more, especially as officers retire and fewer people sign up to become cops. He blamed movements calling for police reform amid racial and social justice reckoning for scaring off potential applicants.
“We have fewer officers than we had 18 months ago in the department … every district, including this one, has suffered,” Brown said. “Young people have not applied to be police officers like they have in the past. [With this] this hypercriticism of police, this calling police racist, calling for defunding the police … that has taken a toll on the young people.”
As more recruits enter the training academy and complete their police exams, he said more officers will be added to each district in the city.
“Thirty square miles is a lot of area to cover. … Just think about getting from Belmont and Cicero to Edison Park. We have highways and trains that can slow response times. It’s massive,” said one officer, who requested to be anonymous. “We are dangerously low on manpower.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.