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Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town

With Wealthy Neighborhoods Turning To Armed Private Security, Questions Raised About Accountability

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday said she's "concerned" about the move toward private cops. “We don’t want to have a circumstance where public safety is only available to the wealthy,” she said.

A P4 Protective Services car in Bucktown in May 2022
Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
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BUCKTOWN — As summer approaches and crime numbers remain high in Chicago, more community groups in affluent areas are responding with a controversial tactic: hiring private armed security guards to patrol their streets.

But the practice is drawing questions, with some residents asking who, in turn, is watching the private officers and who will hold them accountable.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot weighed in on the growing trend Monday afternoon, saying she is “concerned” about the practice, particularly with private companies hiring off-duty police officers “that don’t have the authority to patrol our streets.”

What liability protection will the companies offer the city, the mayor asked, saying street patrols are “solely the province of the [on-duty] Chicago Police Department.”

And, she added, “We don’t want to have a circumstance where public safety is only available to the wealthy. That’s a terrible dynamic.”

In December, Block Club reported on a plan to implement private security patrols in a section of Bucktown, organized by a newly-formed group called the Bucktown Neighbors Association.

The group 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 program began in late December, and armed guards currently patrol the area between Winchester Avenue, North Avenue, Armitage Avenue and Paulina Street, according to a document shared by the association earlier this year.

Neighbors report the guards are now a daily sight on streets and alleys in the area.

Members of the Bucktown Neighbors Association, who have only communicated through an anonymous email address, said at the time the measure was in response to a surge in carjackings and robberies during the pandemic and in particular, last summer and fall.

Those crimes rose not just in Bucktown but across the city — and residents of other neighborhoods are now turning to P4 for help.

The company also patrols a section of Lincoln Park, an area near Howard Street on the Chicago and Evanston border and parts of Hyde Park in conjunction with UChicago Police, the company’s vice president and principal Paul Ohm said. And that number could soon grow.

‘We’re Not Just Out There Looking For Bad Guys’

P4 has been contacted by other groups across the city in recent months, Ohm said, eager to deploy security forces in their neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of areas that are trying to get people together and consolidate funds and build associations and at least talking to us about the possibility of doing patrols,” he said.

A group of neighbors near Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park, separate from the area P4 already patrols in the neighborhood, hopes to launch a patrol with the company by mid-May, as Block Club reported last week.

P4’s operations range widely, Ohm said. The company provides security for high rises, hospitals, and lately, cannabis dispensaries, among other businesses. Private security in residential neighborhoods have “been around for a while,” he said, but P4 has only gotten involved recently, starting with their current patrol in Lincoln Park.

“With people coming out of COVID and the crime increasing, other people in different neighborhoods saw what we were doing and started reaching out. That’s how we basically started doing these patrols.”

The role of the guards in Bucktown, according to the document provided by the neighborhood association, “is to observe and report on a wide range of safety matters to neighbors and CPD, and hopefully help lower opportunistic crime within the patrol area. They are not here to stop, apprehend or arrest anyone. If there’s an emergency or a crime is witnessed, they are directed to call 911 immediately.”

Ohm said the company’s armed guards are usually off-duty or retired police officers, and aren’t in neighborhoods to replace police.

“We’re not just out there looking for bad guys. We’re identifying open garage doors, which happens very frequently, people leave and they hit the button and then, you know, the door goes back up. We notify the residents if we see packages from the street. If there’s lights out we notify the city, if we see graffiti we call 311, potholes we call 311. You know, broken limbs after a windstorm, we’ll call 311,” he said.

“So really, we’re out there, anything that’s regarding safety in the area and upkeep, we’re helping as well.”

After news broke in December of the Bucktown security patrol, Lightfoot expressed concern about the program and said patrolling Chicago’s streets is the police department’s job.

“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.”

Lightfoot said Monday she remains concerned about the private patrols, and said the city is talking to neighborhood groups “about the upsides and downsides of what they’re doing,” especially when off-duty police officers are hired.

“People aren’t going to make a distinction of oh, ‘this person’s working off duty and therefore XYZ community organization is now responsible.’ If they see the police, they think it’s police and if there’s problem, they sue the city, and we can’t generate more lawsuits as a result of that,” she said. “We’re maybe, maybe solving one problem, but then creating potentially a host of others that also affects taxpayers.”

“… Number one is, we gotta make sure every neighborhood is safer so people don’t feel like they’ve got to resort to that option,” she said. “So that’s on us.”

When asked for additional details last week about the neighborhood patrols, Lightfoot’s Deputy Press Secretary Alexander Murphy said “the city is committed to partnering with community members in all aspects of community safety.”

“These private security companies are required to have good coordination with CPD, a license which must include professional liability insurance, and clear guidelines on their responsibilities,” Murphy wrote in an email.

Ohm said the patrols work closely with CPD, and P4 has met with leadership in each police district they operate in across the city.

“We let them know who we are, what we’re doing, that the officers are armed. You know, if there’s a specific incident that we need to discuss, we’ll reach out directly. The police officers, when they’re out on the street, they see our guards, they’ll usually have a quick conversation, a wave. We’ve had a lot of great rapport with the districts that we’re working within,” he said.

A police spokesperson would not answer any questions about how officers work with neighborhood security patrols.

Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
A P4 Protective Services car in Bucktown, part of a private security patrol sponsored by residents

‘It’s Creating A Gated Community Within The City’

Ohm said P4 guards undergo training and adhere to a “use of force continuum,” a set of policies that guide how and when officers can use their weapon. He said no P4 officer has ever discharged a gun during a neighborhood patrol.

Each P4 patrol vehicle has cameras on the inside and outside of their cars, Ohm said, and the company uses geofencing technology to monitor if guards leave the designated patrol area.

“So if someone reports an incident to us, we can go check the cameras and see what’s going on and we take appropriate action if the officer’s out of line,” he said.

But some neighbors and civil rights advocates said they have ongoing concerns about accountability and oversight of such patrols.

“Because they’re private, it’s very difficult to hold them accountable. It’s very difficult to understand what training, what policies, what procedures, what things are they going to do to make sure that their interactions with the public are safe, constitutional and not biased,” said Michelle Garcia, deputy legal director at ACLU of Illinois.

Garcia said within the Chicago Police Department, there is a “mechanism” for holding officers accountable, including the 2019 consent decree designed to spark widespread reform within the department. Community members are also able to attend public CAPS meetings and weigh in on enforcement strategies – but private companies are not subject to such oversight.

“I think that here, it’s just sort of shutting [people] out,” Garcia said. “It’s creating a gated community within a city and that in itself is very problematic, because it has the potential to limit movement of people, and the surveillance of people just because they’re different. And I think that’s really, really troublesome.”

Ohm said P4 has held meetings in the communities they patrol, and answers questions from neighbors, even ones who are critical of their programs.

“We provide a service, we feel that the way we do it is the top professional way. … We feel very confident that we’re doing it the right way. And when we have these meetings and we answer questions, we really do get a lot of people, even if they’re not in full agreement to it, they may understand it a little bit more. And there’s always going to be people who just don’t like it, and I get it and I understand that.”

Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
A P4 security car in Bucktown in April 2022

Some neighbors in Bucktown say they still feel in the dark as the guards have become a regular fixture in the neighborhood this winter and spring.

Angela Eastlund lives in the Bucktown patrol area, and said she often sees P4 cars driving around, or parked and left unoccupied. Four months into the patrol, she said most of her questions about the patrol’s effectiveness and how officers are held accountable have gone unanswered.

“I really still have zero understanding of what their scope of practice is, especially when it comes to use of force and all of that,” she said.

Eastland said she’s concerned private security patrols lead to an inequitable approach to public safety, especially in affluent areas like Bucktown.

“This is a very gentrified and wealthy neighborhood, and it seems unfair that you know, private safety is being employed in a neighborhood that that can afford it, apparently. Some private citizens can afford it but others don’t have that option,” she said.

“These are public streets. And I don’t think that anyone should feel unwelcome in our neighborhood just because they don’t live here.”

Mark Bires, who lives within the area, said P4’s cars are “omnipresent.”

“I tend to walk the dogs late, after dark, and I almost always see them. They pass me by sooner or later, just cruising the streets with their multiple colors, but they’re very well lit-up vehicles,” he said.

Bires said he finds the whole program to be a “little creepy,” but is generally not opposed to the patrol.

Mark Domitrovich own’s Lottie’s Pub, 1925 W. Cortland St., within the patrol area. He said he’s not sure how much of a difference the guards are making, but that his customers say they do bring peace of mind to the neighborhood.

“I know mentally, everybody feels better at least knowing that people are trying to do something instead of just hoping for the best,” he said. “I think everybody appreciates like, ‘hey, something’s being done,’ as opposed to just like, ‘hey, let’s hope for the best and be terrified.’ I don’t feel like it’s gotten worse, let’s put it that way.”

Neighbor Patti Mackin said she was approached last year to contribute to the Bucktown security force, but declined.

She said she’s as concerned as anyone about public safety in the neighborhood. But pointing to a citywide spike in crime, Mackin isn’t sure how effective private guards will be.

“I don’t see how having this patrol is going to stop these things. I mean, they just have to be in the right place at the right time,” she said. “We’re a little worried. But I think the whole city has an issue. Not just us. … I don’t know what can be done,” she said.

The patrol area in Bucktown is a small section of the 14th police district, which includes Bucktown, Logan Square and parts of Wicker Park.

The 14th district has reported 95 robberies so far in 2022, according to city data. The district reported 69 in 2021 and 47 in 2020 in the same period. Carjacking numbers have remained mostly flat in the same period between 2021 and 2022, after a dramatic spike from 2020.

In an unsigned email last week, the Bucktown Neighbors Association said their contract with P4 runs through 2022, and that members will decide this fall if they want to renew the patrol.

“The patrol program is a marathon, not a sprint. We realize it’s going to take more than just a few months to see a significant reduction in crime, especially violent crimes like carjackings. There’s piece-of-mind knowing that security professionals have eyes on our streets, and can report and follow up with residents about safety concerns ranging from open garage doors and package theft to suspicious activity,” the email reads.

Overall, Ohm said the neighborhood patrols are a small part of the P4’s business, and ideally, would eventually become unnecessary.

“We didn’t build our company to do this. We hope that things even out and that people don’t feel the need to have these anymore,” he said.

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Thanks for subscribing to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods. Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.