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Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town

Carjacking, Robbery Victims In Wicker Park Area Say City Needs To Do More To Keep Them Safe — And In The Loop

Carjackings and robberies are up significantly in Wicker Park, Bucktown and West Town. "Whether it's the Mayor's Office, the prosecutor's office or the Police Department, I just wish they would work better together," one victim said.

Sam Royko speaks as the Greater West Town Community Coalition hosts a press conference about public safety and car hijacking on Nov. 16, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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BUCKTOWN — Julie Nye was running errands in Bucktown this May when a driver pulled in front of her on Moffat Street, blocking her from turning onto Damen Avenue.

Nye tried to reverse, but she couldn’t because another driver pulled up behind her. That’s when a man emerged from the front car with a gun, and Nye instinctually crouched down and hid in the driver’s seat.

“As I was doing that, in my peripheral vision, out of my left eye, I saw him standing in my driver’s side window, pointing the gun directly at me,” Nye said. “And that’s when it clicked, like, ‘Oh, this is a carjacking.'”

Panicked, Nye grabbed her purse and sprinted away.

“I think back at the memory and I heard nothing. I heard zero. Like, I think my hearing just turned off,” she said.

The man drove off with Nye’s car. Witnesses called the police.

“I couldn’t breathe. I was hyperventilating a little bit. It took me a few minutes to calm down. And it’s just surreal, like, ‘Did this really just happened to me?'” she said.

Officers found Nye’s car a few hours later, after it had been used in another robbery, she said. It was returned to her with some damage but still running.

The incident was part of a massive increase in carjackings across Chicago and in Wicker Park, Bucktown and West Town over the past two years.

In the 14th Police District — which includes Bucktown, Logan Square and parts of Wicker Park — 100 carjackings were reported last year. That’s up from 58 in 2020 and 28 in 2019.

In the neighboring 12th Police District — which includes West Town, Ukrainian Village, parts of Wicker Park, the West Loop, Near West Side and parts of Pilsen — 179 carjackings were reported in 2021, almost quadruple the number reported in 2019.

Eight months after Nye was forced out of her car, she said she’s fine but remains frustrated as she hears about more carjackings across the city.

“I just wish there was more being done at higher levels, more communication being done saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing about it. These are the improvements that we’re making. This is where we’ve been successful. This is where we’re not successful,'” Nye said. “I just don’t feel like that’s necessarily being done right now.

“Whether it’s the Mayor’s Office, the prosecutor’s office or the Police Department, I just wish they would work better together. I feel like it’s they’re all in their silos.”

That feeling has become a common one among crime victims and neighborhood leaders in Bucktown, West Town and Wicker Park.

Throughout the fall, neighbors expressed anger and helplessness as alderpeople and police held community meetings to address the carjackings and robberies. Concerned residents held their own events through neighborhood groups.

West Town lawyer Sam Royko — whose girlfriend, Erin Groble, was carjacked in Wicker Park in January 2021 — created the Greater West Town Community Coalition, which has acted as a forum for neighbors to discuss possible solutions to rising crime.

In November, Royko and eight other community groups sent an open letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and all alderpeople, demanding more transparency and collaboration from officials to prevent carjackings.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Wicker Park resident Jenna Bauer and her dog, Tanner, stand alongside roughly 40 residents who joined Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and the 14th Police District for a safety walk through Wicker Park in light of an uptick in crime on Oct. 19, 2021.

The letter asked city and county leaders to provide more details on everything from the effectiveness of publicly funded anti-violence initiatives to summaries of how the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office brings charges to carjacking arrests.

It also called on county officials to provide a “summary on how sentencing guidelines are set for juveniles and adults found guilty of vehicular hijacking or criminal trespass to vehicle related to a vehicular hijacking occurrence.”

Royko said the response from the letter “opened up some lines of communication” with public agencies about these concerns. Representatives from the Police Department and the State’s Attorney’s Office attended a meeting held by Rokyo’s group in Wicker Park in November.

“We need to start getting our organizations, our institutions and public officials working together. And I think they need to start working with their communities to figure out what’s driving these issues and how we can start to change that,” he said. “When there’s collaboration, when there’s communication, when there’s data that we can actually evaluate to determine what’s going wrong and when there’s accountability, I think we’ll be able to start making changes … but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Royko said he and Groble hope to hold another meeting with neighbors soon to discuss next steps.

“At this point, we’re trying to stay organized, stay together, keep our voice out there, stay heard,” Royko said. “I just don’t think it should be like this. I think we can do better than this.”

Anxiety And Trauma Live On For Victims

Like carjackings, robberies overall have risen considerably over the past two years. In the 14th Police District, 321 robberies were reported in 2021, up from 250 in 2020 and 264 in 2019.

The 12th Police District has been even harder hit, with 547 robberies reported in 2021 compared to 439 in 2020 and 459 in 2019.

During a three-week stretch in October and November, at least 19 armed robberies were reported in the greater Wicker Park and Bucktown area.

One of those robberies was of a Wicker Park woman outside her home Nov. 3.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was approached by two armed men who came out a car she had noticed idling up the street. 

“One guy got up in my face, and he had a semi-automatic at my face and said, ‘Give me your purse. Give me your phone.’ … I gave him the purse. I gave him the phone. I gave him my keys. And everything else I just dropped on the ground,” the woman said in November.

Two months later, the woman, who works as a flight attendant, said the robbery has had an impact on how she moves through her neighborhood.

“I’m still hyperconscious whenever I’m leaving or coming back to my house. Whenever I come home, I’ll circle the block a couple of times. Before I park my car, I like to check the alley to check to see if there’s any idling vehicles or anything that I feel uncomfortable with. I kind of have an exit strategy for both,” she said.

Since posting about the robbery on social media, the woman said she’s had hundreds of people reach out, grateful to learn about her experience. The November robbery changed her life, she said, but “not just in the obvious negative ways.”

“I’ve become more engaged and vocal in my community and the wellness of others, taken active steps towards empowering myself as a ‘victim’ (I hate that word),” she wrote in a text message. “But despite the fear and anxiety I’m still working through, that has given me a sense of purpose and helped me navigate this healing process.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
14th District Sergeant Michael Edens speaks to a resident as roughly 40 residents joined Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and the 14th Police District for a safety walk through Wicker Park in light of an uptick in crime on Oct. 19, 2021.

The lingering mental health impact from a carjacking or robbery is something officers at the 14th District have tried to address in recent months.

At a community meeting held in September by the district with local alderpeople, Sgt. Mike Edens said officers had begun connecting carjacking victims to mental health service agencies, like NAMI Chicago. 

“We’ve been making sure a lot of those victims are getting the help they need after the fact,” Edens said at the time. “Someone running up to you and putting a gun to your head and demanding your belongings is a traumatic experience, and that’s one of the things we want to make sure that we focus on, is that they are getting the help that they need.” 

Edens said the district also plans to organize an in-person event for people to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences.

“We wanted to make sure that they’re not alone in some of those feelings and those thoughts,” he said.

Some Call For More Cops, Tougher Prosecutors

Local alderpeople have pointed to a range of causes and possible solutions to the crime surge, from policing shortages and criminal justice reforms to anti-violence outreach and infrastructure changes.

“We do have a police resource shortage at this time,” said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward includes parts of Wicker Park, Bucktown and West Town. “We don’t have enough patrol officers, and now we’re moving tactical officers away from their tactical teams and trying to fill in the holes in the beat patrol. We’re basically cannibalizing the resources that we have due to the overall shortage.” 

When a crime spree is detected, police should “flood that area with resources,” from more officers to using cameras and other surveillance technology, Hopkins said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) speaks before he, roughly 40 residents and the 14th Police District went a safety walk through Wicker Park in light of an uptick in crime on Oct. 19, 2021.

Hopkins and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) attribute the recent spike in carjackings at least in part to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Chief Judge’s Office.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx — who has also been targeted by Lightfoot, the city’s leading police union and state Republicans — has defended her office’s work. In a December audit, her office said it approved 86 percent of felony cases brought in for review and she previously said she is following through on her campaign promise to reform the office and focus more on violent crime.

Crime suspects, Hopkins said, “perceive that their chances of being arrested for going on a crime spree in a given neighborhood are much lower than they used to be. And in the event that they are caught, the consequences that they face are basically a minor inconvenience.”

Waguespack said leaders in the 14th and 19th police districts, which make up much of his ward, have effectively deployed officers to high- crime areas when necessary. But he said the amount of cops on the street doesn’t matter if suspects are “rotating” in and out of the criminal justice system.

“People will always argue for more [police]. And if we can get more, I think that’s fine. But if you’re rotating these criminals out of the court as fast as they get caught, it doesn’t matter how many police you put out there,” he said. “The details about how these people are being prosecuted and adjudicated … it’s not very clear.”

Foxx herself has repeatedly pushed back on claims she doesn’t take carjackings seriously, saying in many of these cases, there aren’t even suspects arrested to prosecute.

“In the carjacking cases that were charged, we were approving or filing felony charges in almost 90 percent of those cases,” Foxx told the Chicago Defender last year. “In the other 10 percent of those cases, there isn’t enough evidence to file charges.”

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) also rejected claims that reforms and policies at the county level were to blame for the dramatic spike in carjackings and other crime.

“That does not mean that we can’t reform and refine those systems, but to say that the actions of Chief Judge Evans or State’s Attorney Foxx are responsible for the criminal behaviors that we are seeing is simply not reflective of the actual data,” he said.

In La Spata’s 1st Ward, which includes parts of Logan Square, Wicker Park and West Town, homicides and shootings declined from 2020 to 2021, but carjackings and robberies rose.

La Spata said his office has prioritized installing technology like cameras and license plate readers in certain areas that see more crime.

“We definitely push for holistic solutions. But there are a lot of cases where we do need to make sure that our police districts have the resources that they need,” he said.

Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
A sign in Wicker Park announcing the city’s temporary overnight parking ban on Milwaukee Avenue between North and Division

La Spata also pointed to partnerships with anti-violence outreach groups, as well as an ordinance that would make permanent an overnight parking ban on parts of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.

The ban was temporarily put in place last summer between Division Street and North Avenue after business owners and neighbors complained rowdy late-night behavior and partying was leading to criminal activity.

But the ban was not enforced Oct. 10, when one person was killed and four others wounded in a drive-by shooting in the 1500 block of North Milwaukee Avenue.

Police at the time said they were told tow trucks were busy clearing the route for the Chicago Marathon, although the Streets and Sanitation department said it never received a request for towing.

Since then, La Spata’s worked with police and Streets and Sanitation to make sure officers can effectively enforce the parking ban, he said.

“That’s been really productive,” he said. “I think we’ve built the relationships and expectations that make sure that those resources are in place.”

Neighbors Split on Private Security Plan

As crime remains top of mind for many neighbors, some are taking matters into their own hands — or, at least, putting them in the hands of a private security company.

In December, Block Club reported on an effort underway by a newly formed group called the Bucktown Neighbors Association to hire armed private security to patrol a section of the neighborhood every day.

The group, which initially refused to answer questions about how the patrol would work, is “coordinating efforts on behalf of over 120+ households who are supporting a program that they think can help deter the rash of crime that has taken place in the area,” members wrote in an email last month.

The Bucktown Neighbors Association has hired P4, a security company with offices Downtown and in suburban Downers Grove, to deploy off-duty police officers to the neighborhood for eight to 10 hours daily. The patrol began Dec. 27.

Last week, the group provided Block Club with a document outlining the role of the security officers, who are patrolling the area between Winchester Avenue, North Avenue, Armitage Avenue and Paulina Street.

“The patrol officers are trained to utilize a use of force continuum and would only ever engage as a very last resort should a person’s life be in immediate danger,” according to the group. “If there’s an emergency or a crime is witnessed, they are directed to call 911 immediately as are the residents. The role of the safety patrol officer is not to enforce the law or replace the police.”

After news broke in December of the security patrol, Lightfoot expressed concern about the program and said patrolling Chicago’s streets is the “sole province” of the Police Department.

“I need to know more about what their specific plan and scope is; but patrolling streets, responding to crime, that’s the job of the Chicago Police Department, and they do it effectively,” Lightfoot said at the time. “There’s a slippery slope here, and I’m very concerned.”

Other neighbors told Block Club they do think area crimes should be addressed, but were concerned about the private force’s lack of local oversight.

But several other neighborhoods have patrols similar to the one recently established in Bucktown, and it’s unclear what the city could do to stop them.

Waugespack, whose ward includes most of the patrol area, said another “set of eyes” couldn’t hurt efforts to deter crime. But he said the city’s law department is still examining whether security companies warrant additional oversight when operating in Chicago.

“There’s still a question of whether we can or need to license those companies in the city. And if there’s a new set of city codes that need to be implemented for them. So that’s something that the lawyers are still looking at,” he said.

Hopkins, who represents part of Bucktown, said the fact that some neighbors feel they need private security is an “indictment of our government,” but it isn’t discouraging them from proceeding.

“But I do caution neighbors who want to do this to not have unrealistic expectations about what it can actually accomplish,” he said. “It’s another set of eyes and ears on the street. And that’s helpful. But it is not a magic solution. That is not going to compensate for the lack of police resources, and the lack of enforcement.”

A slide from a PowerPoint dated Dec. 1, 2021 providing details on a private security patrol organized by a Bucktown neighborhood group

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