Skip to contents
Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Norwood Park

Despite Increase In Shootings, Northwest Side Is Still A Safe Place To Live, Local Leaders Say — But Area Officers Need More Support

While the area has some of the lowest crime numbers in the city, Northwest Siders say the carjackings and shootings feel closer to home than ever, and are frustrated by the low staffing numbers in the Police Department's 16th District.

The Chicago Police Department District 16 in Jefferson Park on July 8, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
  • Credibility:

PORTAGE PARK — The first reported shooting of the year in Portage Park last month hit home for Northwest Side Sen. Rob Martwick, who lives nearby. His wife even heard the shots fired.

The shooting happened just after 5 p.m. Jan. 12 in the 4500 block of North Major Avenue, police said. A 60-year-old man was driving when someone pulled alongside him and shot him in the head. The man survived, but was seriously wounded.

The shooting was relatively rare for the neighborhood where many police officers, firefighters and other city workers live. Just days later, two teens were shot nearby.

“Without a doubt, it stokes all sorts of emotions,” Martwick said. “You hate to hear it’s happening… it’s a cause for concern [but] I don’t feel any less safe.”

The 16th Police District — which includes all of Jefferson Park, Norwood Park, Dunning and parts Portage Park and Forest Glen — reported fewer murders for 2021, with five compared to nine in 2020 and 10 in 2019, though shootings were up 17 percent. There were 27 shootings reported in 2021, up from 23 in 2020.

Data shows violent crime is generally lower on the Far Northwest Side compared to past years and other parts of the city. Martwick said it can be perceived as worse than it is.

But the district also saw other crimes tick up. Twenty carjackings were reported last year compared to 14 in 2020 and eight in 2019, data shows. Aggravated battery rose 36 percent between 2019 and 2021, and sexual assaults also significantly increased. Burglaries and robberies decreased, according to the police data.

While the area has some of the lowest violent crime numbers in the city, Northwest Siders say the carjackings and shootings feel closer to home than ever, and are frustrated by the low staffing numbers in the Police Department’s 16th District.

“I am a big advocate of keeping officers on the Northwest Side,” Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) said after a meeting with Police Supt. David Brown in December. “We need a rise in staffing levels.”

‘People Don’t View Numbers, They View It As Crime Happening On Their Block’

Though the Far Northwest Side has significantly lower crime rates than other parts of the city, neighbors and local officials are concerned about gun violence, which has spread into neighborhoods where shootings had been atypical in the last two years.

“On the Northwest Side, if we look statistically, [shootings] have gone up but not at a level of other districts…. But people don’t view numbers, they view it as crime happening on their block,” Martwick said.

Some have called for additional police patrols, more resources for cops and increased community partnerships, especially for the city’s largest police district that has seen a shortage in police officers since the pandemic.

Currently, the 16th District has 229 officers and supervisors, according to a city database, down from 256 at the beginning of 2021. While officials have said there is a shortage of patrol officers in all police districts due to retirement, moving officers around and medical leave, the 16th District has one of the lowest numbers of officers compared to other districts, according to the data. The neighboring 17th District is also among the lowest staffed districts.

“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,” one officer previously told Block Club. “It’s massive. We are dangerously low on manpower.”

Contrary to the city data, the officer in the field said the district is currently operating at about 180 patrol officers.

Portage Park resident Keith Thornton Jr., a community activist and 911 dispatcher who has received extensive media attention for his criticism of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s handling of citywide crime, said violent crime will continue if something does not change.

Thornton wants to see the city better support the police and placed blame on State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for declining charges in some cases.

“When all of these people are running around killing people and carjacking people — there’s no consequences. None,” Thornton said. 

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.

“We need more people that are local leaders in our area to stand up and be a voice of the community that they were elected to do,” Thornton said. “There are things we can do but it all starts with your voice.”

When asked if Thornton plans to become one of those local leaders, he said he’s been collecting signatures to run for political office but wouldn’t say which one. He said he plans to focus on community activism for now.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Keith Thornton Jr., a Chicago emergency dispatcher, poses for a portrait in Portage Park on Jan. 11, 2022.

More Manpower On The Way

In December, more than 200 residents packed the gym at St. Constance School, 5856 W. Ainslie St., to express anger, frustration and fear over crime in the area after the shooting death of 19-year-old Meagan Bilbo in Jefferson Park.

Rusten Reece Relucio, 27, was charged with first-degree murder in the slaying last week.

Supt. Brown, who attended the meeting, has promised more patrol officers are coming to districts citywide and said that the 16th District will be receiving additional police bids in early 2022.

Alderpeople also were told by the superintendent that the department is prioritizing patrol units so that patrol will not bear the brunt of attrition. Last month, tactical teams were reassigned to patrolling streets in beat cars and responding to 911 calls, causing Brown to face steep backlash from officers who said the move could increase violent crime, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

At a news conference two weeks ago, Brown defended his move, saying that the department isn’t breaking up the tactical units but asking them to help answer calls periodically. He also pushed back on the notion that the move was to meet a specific arrest quota, but has repeatedly said he wants officers to earn their keep and make more arrests.

“We are going to ask that officers arrest more violent offenders, engage the public more, [and] we are not going to apologize for it,” Brown said Friday. “People whose tax dollars pay our salaries expect us to work. … We will render these communities safer. We are going to reform the department change the culture.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) said having an increased police presence is worth a shot to combat crime on the Far Northwest Side, even though it’s a tough call because the Downtown area, which has seen increased patrol amid rising crime, has felt the brunt of more homicides and armed thefts in the last year. Having more officers on the ground hasn’t necessarily deterred crime there.

The difference, though, is that police officers are more respected on the Far Northwest Side, he said.

“It would be different over here because this is a neighborhood that respects and listens to the police… . But people coming here [to cause crime] aren’t going to respect them,” Sposato said. “But the far majority respect the police and appreciate the police. There are some police officers who are not that good but certainly, 99 percent of them are just hardworking, loyal and concerned about our community.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) wears a button in honor of CPD officer Ella French as hundreds gather outside District 16 in Jefferson Park on Aug. 11, 2021 for a prayer vigil. French was fatally shot in West Englewood during a traffic stop on Aug. 7, 2021.

He admits having more officers is not the sole solution nor one that is an easy fix, but said something needs to change because “what we are doing right now is not working.”

He said he predicts a new record of retiring officers this year. Still, he hopes officers can get shuffled around and that the department gets more hires this year.

Brown said the department saw 7,400 applications last year and 750 in January, 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 at the December meeting.

Department spokesperson Don Terry said the superintendent’s goal is to double the roughly 7,100 job applications received last year in 2022.

Solutions Moving Forward

Martwick has met with district officials and has been pushing for increased resources for police officers to help them more effectively do their jobs. That means adequate time off and fairer treatment, more access to mental health resources and more patrol assistance, to name a few.

“I am fighting for strengthened collective bargaining rights so that workers [like] police and first responders have the ability to communicate to management in an effective way to get resources,” he said. “We have to address crime and that starts with resources.”

Officers who spoke with Block Club said they would also like to see legislation that would impose tougher sentences on repeat offenders. Martwick agreed that tougher sentencing laws must be a priority for both Democrats and Republicans. He also wants tougher gun laws in the state.

In addition to more patrols on the ground and officer resources, neighbors and local leaders want to see an increase in community outreach, district meetings and transparency from beat officers on what solutions and tactics they are implementing to deal with crime.

Angela Maycock, a Dunning resident and volunteer with Moms Demand Action who started a Northwest Side chapter in 2018, has been working to educate the community about safe firearm storage and public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence. She has lost friends and neighbors to gun violence and wants to see legislative action and reinvestment opportunities locally and nationally.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Sylvia Szafran holds a sign in support of the police as hundreds gather outside District 16 in Jefferson Park on Aug. 11, 2021 for a prayer vigil in memory of fallen Chicago Police officer Ella French. French was fatally shot in West Englewood during a traffic stop on Aug. 7, 2021.

Instead of adding more police to the area as a solution to crime, which she said is reactive, community-based programs such as violence interruptions and mental health resources should be a priority.

“Law enforcement is essential and in an ideal world, [officers] have the resources and structure in place to develop long-term relationships and have a positive impact on the communities they serve … but I don’t know that that’s currently the case,” Maycock said.

Nugent and Sposato said forging those relationships is important and want to see more community partnerships between residents and officers. District meetings and beat events have largely taken a pause because of the pandemic.

“It’s critically important that our officers are engaging with our residents… having those beat cars, CAPS programs, working with kids, seniors, having events,” Nugent said.

Sposato, who has long been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, said until “we stop this social justice stuff and lock these guys up” things will be slow to change.

As a more immediate step, he wants to see greater community interaction and hear solutions from residents on what they think can increase safety in the area.

“We are not that unsafe in my community. It’s the second-safest community around, but let’s make people feel a little better,” he said. “Let them have some say, let them give some suggestions and ideas.”

Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th), who did not reply to interview requests for this story, will host a community watch meeting with beat officers at 6 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Catholic Kolping Society, 5826 N. Elston Ave. to listen to neighbor concerns, share information on safety programs and on recent crime activity in the area.

Read more of Block Club’s neighborhood-focused crime coverage:

West Side Murder Surge Was Driven By Social Media, Old Conflicts. Now, Groups Are Working To Chart A Path To Peace

Facing Rise In Crime, Victims And Leaders In Logan Square, Humboldt Park Say Systemic Fixes Needed — Not More Police

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

Lakeview, Lincoln Park Neighbors Fear For Safety After Spike In Armed Robberies, Carjackings

Shootings Drop, But Carjackings, Robberies Jump On Far North Side

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.