Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and West Town residents and organizations hosted a press conference on public safety in Ukrainian Village on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — Community groups from the larger West Town area are demanding Mayor Brandon Johnson and police Supt. Larry Snelling attend a meeting in the neighborhood this month to outline the city’s plan to combat robberies and other crime.

Robberies have spiked citywide in 2023, with the West Town and Logan Square community areas being hit particularly hard.

The Near West (12th) Police District, which stretches from West Town to Pilsen, has reported 793 robberies this year as of Oct. 29, compared to 480 over the same period in 2022, according to police data.

The Shakespeare (14th) Police District, which includes Wicker Park, Bucktown and most of Logan Square, has seen 497 robberies this year, compared to 308 at this point last year.

In August, the 12th and 14th districts, along with the Grand Central (25th) Police District, which stretches from the western part of Logan Square to Belmont Cragin and Montclare, had the most robberies of any district in the city. 

Neighbors across the larger West Town and Logan Square areas are now pushing for more action from the city to stem the crimes. On Wednesday, a coalition of 10 community groups held a press conference calling on Johnson and Snelling to join them at a public safety meeting Nov. 14 at the Ukrainian Cultural Center, 2247 W. Chicago Ave.

That request follows a letter the groups sent last week to Johnson, Snelling, alderpeople and Cook County officials. The letter asks the city and county government to form a “strategic plan and roadmap” to reduce crime, review the Police Department’s car pursuit policy and expedite the installation of additional license plate readers and cameras, among other points.

The letter also insists local leaders address “long-term systemic concerns” surrounding violence prevention funding and sentencing guidelines for minors and adults.

“We must do better, and we must demand accountability from our leaders,” said Sam Royko, a former 1st Ward aldermanic candidate who organized the letter and press conference. “We have to remember also, though, that crime is not just a statistic, but has a dramatic impact on the lives of our friends, neighbors and loved ones.”

Robberies began surging this summer. Neighbors were inundated with reports of people being robbed at gunpoint while walking home, leaving work and, in some cases, patronizing bars and other businesses.

While the attacks have slowed somewhat as the weather cools, incidents in the 12th and 14th districts remained higher for the last week of October than the same period in 2022.

The neighborhood groups on Wednesday were joined by several robbery victims, as well as Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who took over part of the area in last year’s redistricting process.

Villegas called on the mayor and police to stem robberies and other incidents by taking immediate action — like opening a satellite 12th District police station near Ashland and Chicago avenues.

“What are we doing today to stop the armed robberies, the carjackings? What are we doing today? And that’s what the community wants to know: what are we doing?” Villegas said. “The mayor and Supt. Snelling, we are requesting that you come to West Town to talk about the issues that are plaguing the community on a daily basis.”

Mario Estrada speaks about crime as Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and West Town residents and organizations hosted a press conference on public safety in Ukrainian Village on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Several neighbors shared stories of being robbed in recent months at Wednesday’s press conference.

Mario Estrada said he was attacked Oct. 4 outside his Logan Square home by two people who pointed guns at him and demanded money. The incident left him rattled and fearful for his wife and young son, he said.

“I’m the kind of person that loves to walk around my neighborhood to see my neighbors, but that’s changed. All I can see now … honestly, I see potential victims,” Estrada said. “We’re feeling this deeply. Our families are feeling this deeply. I hope it stops. We need a plan.”

A woman named Meg, who only shared her first name, recounted being robbed in her car late last year in Bucktown shortly after dropping her kids off at school.

“As the days and weeks went on, all I could think about was what if I had my children in the car that day? It took a bit for the fear to sink in. The disbelief was real,” she said. “Now most days when I’m at a stoplight or parking my car or getting in and out, I look around and pray that that won’t happen again. But the more I hear about similar armed robberies in every neighborhood, the more I’m just not so sure.”

And a Ukrainian Village woman who did not share her name said her son and a friend were victims of an attempted robbery this summer while riding their bikes in the neighborhood.

“They had guns and knives and took my son’s bike, about to take their phones and the other kid’s bike, and somebody stopped them,” the woman said. “But now I don’t know what to do about my son in our neighborhood. I want him to have a childhood that’s safe.”

Johnson and Snelling have addressed the increase in robberies in recent months, telling reporters they’re taking the problem seriously and are using technology to identify and apprehend robbery suspects.

But Johnson on Wednesday did not explicitly say if he would attend the West Town community meeting this month or otherwise meet with neighbors.

“As far as robberies and carjackings, look, there’s work to be done there. And we’re going to continue to work with the Police Department and the full force of government to address this dynamic, just like we’re addressing every single other dynamic in the city of Chicago,” Johnson said during a post-City Council news conference. “So, you know, meeting with people, I’m an organizer. That’s not a heavy lift.”

A resident speaks about crime as Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and West Town residents and organizations hosted a press conference on public safety in Ukrainian Village on Nov. 1, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

At Wednesday’s press conference, Villegas said he was preparing to introduce an ordinance to City Council that would relax parts of the city’s police pursuit policy. The policy has come under criticism from some neighbors and politicians as armed robberies surged this year.

The city has strengthened its vehicle pursuit policy in recent years after costly lawsuits stemming from numerous crashes. Villegas said he’d like Chicago officers to undertake the same training as state police, who have less stringent chase requirements.

“I’m working closely with some attorneys around drafting that language so that we can make sure that it fits within the parameters of the Illinois State Police. And again, if the Illinois State Police are doing this, there’s no reason why CPD can’t do this,” Villegas said.

At a budget hearing last week, Snelling stressed that officers can chase people fleeing a crime scene in cars, but they must undertake a “balancing test” to determine if the risks of a chase are worth apprehending the suspects. 

“Oftentimes [that’s] depending on the location, time of day, number of people on the street, and we have to look at the vehicle that is being pursued. And now we weigh that balancing test,” Snelling said. “If that pursuit ends in an accident where someone’s hurt, injured, the liability on the officer, the liability on the city is huge.”

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