Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), joined by officials from Chicago Police and the Mayor's Office, speaks to neighbors at a public safety meeting to address robberies in the West Town area, Nov. 14, 2023. Credit: Francesca Mathewes/Block Club Chicago

UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — West Town neighbors met with officials from the Chicago Police Department and the Mayor’s Office Tuesday night to voice their frustration that the city isn’t doing enough to address the recent spike in robberies. 

Earlier this month, community groups held a press conference demanding that Mayor Brandon Johnson and Police Supt. Larry Snelling attend the meeting Tuesday at the Ukrainian Cultural Center, 2247 W. Chicago Ave., and discuss the city’s plan to reduce and prevent robberies directly with residents.

Neither Johnson nor Snelling showed up Tuesday. While officials from the police department and the Mayor’s Office on Community Safety were there, Johnson’s absence in particular irked some neighbors.

“I am hugely disappointed with the mayor for not being here. I don’t even think disappointment is the word — I’m disgusted, resentful,” said one neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous.

“For him to not be here when people are really suffering is cowardly,” said the neighbor, whose son and a friend were robbed at knife and gun point.

Robberies are up by 75 percent this year in the West Town community area compared to the same time period last year, Chicago Police crime data shows. There have been at least 553 robberies in the area through Sunday.

The spike in robberies — and the city’s response to the issue — were a major talking point at the Tuesday meeting, as was the city’s current car pursuit policy.

A Chicago Police squad car is parked in Bucktown on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Earlier this month, 10 community organizations in the West Town area sent a letter to Johnson, Snelling, alderpeople and Cook County officials demanding that the policy be reviewed.

“What are 400 new cops on the street going to do if they can’t go after anyone?” asked one man in the crowd, who did not share his name.

The city has altered its pursuit policy in recent years in the wake of costly lawsuits from car crashes during pursuits. Part of the city’s policy includes a “balancing test” that officers must use to evaluate the potential risks of a car pursuit, a policy which Area 5 Deputy Chief Roberto Nieves said Tuesday is also under review.

State Police have been “instrumental” in helping officers nab robbery suspects due in part to less stringent pursuit policies, CPD officials told neighbors during a previous community meeting.

Nieves outlined strategies that police are using to reduce robberies in the area. Multiple officers will respond to 911 calls in the area to cut down on response time, Nieves said.

Nieves said with so many offenders being juveniles, those who are caught are typically released to their parents to await a court date, and often refuse outreach from Chicago Police. He urged neighbors to contact their lawmakers to push for laws that mandate more follow-up with individuals in juvenile cases.

“One thing we ask of you is to reach out to as many lawmakers and politicians as you can and inform them that we need to provide these juvenile services, but we can’t do it unless it’s mandated,” he said.

Nieves said the department is pushing to have some robbery cases adopted by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with the hope that federal intervention will spark changes in state law regarding sentencing, pursuits and the juvenile justice system.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) also urged neighbors to reach out to their state legislators, as opposed to just local alderpeople, to push for state-level policy changes that he believes hinder police officers’ abilities to apprehend individuals and prosecute crimes.

Villegas said constituents who direct their frustrations toward city officials often don’t understand the influence that state or federal policies have in the city.

“I want to create a better understanding of how the government works within the community,” he said.

Above all, Nieves said investment in Chicago police technology, vehicles and surveillance tools — helicopters in particular — was critical to their strategies for combating robberies and tracking down offenders.

“We need air support,” he said. “We cannot apprehend these individuals without helicopters.”

“Millions of dollars” are being allocated from the mayor’s budget proposal to violence prevention and support for victims of violent crime, said Lydia Sorensen, first deputy in the Mayor’s Office on Community Safety.

Sorensen said the mayor’s office has been coordinating twice-monthly meetings with leaders from all city departments to talk about preventing robberies and other violent crimes.

“We’re going through the data to see how each department can contribute to making Chicago safer,” she said.

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

There was no time allotted for live public comment at the meeting, but former 1st Ward aldermanic candidate Sam Royko led a Q&A on behalf of the Greater West Town Community Coalition, at which point some frustrated neighbors began shouting out of turn.

“I’m leaving this meeting more afraid than when I walked in,” one man shouted.

Another resident, a recent homebuyer in the neighborhood, said crime in the area has made her second guess her decision to settle down in Ukrainian Village.

“As someone who loves Chicago and was born and raised here, we want to get out of here,” she said. “I’m scared all the time.”

At the end of the meeting, Villegas requested a “call to action,” asking members of the crowd to raise their hands if they wanted to join him in going to City Hall and demanding more attention from the mayor in person.

The majority of people in the audience raised their hands, but no further plans were discussed.

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