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West Side violence persists amid a pandemic and stay-at-home order

The Chicago Police Department’s Harrison District has seen more violence than any of the other 21 districts citywide in 2020.

A Chicago police squad car sits at Monroe and Hamlin in the Harrison District Friday, April 24, 2020.
A Chicago police squad car sits at Monroe Street and Hamlin Boulevard on Friday in the Harrison District.
Annie Costabile / Sun-Times

About two dozen city employees gathered in a strip mall parking lot at Madison Street and Springfield Avenue shortly after 9 a.m. Friday.

They came from the city’s police, fire, business affairs, transportation, streets and sanitation, parks and housing departments. Their goal? To help clean and spruce up a section of West Garfield Park in the Chicago Police Department’s Harrison District.

“This is still a problematic area,” Glen Brooks, the department’s director of community policing, said to those gathered. “But we’re making headway.”

The Harrison District — bounded roughly by Division Street to the north, Roosevelt Road to the south, Western Avenue to the east, and Cicero Avenue to the west — has, by a wide margin, seen more violence than any of the 21 other police districts across the city in 2020.

The district had recorded 21 murders and another 60 nonfatal shootings this year through April 16, police records show. That’s two more murders and 16 more nonfatal shootings than during that same period in 2019.

Chicago Department of Transportation workers fill potholes Friday near Madison Street and Springfield Avenue as the Chicago Police Department’s 11th District CAPS Office hosts Operation Clean.
Chicago Department of Transportation workers fill potholes Friday near Madison Street and Springfield Avenue as the Chicago Police Department’s 11th District CAPS Office hosts Operation Clean.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Over the past 20 years, the Harrison District — which has long grappled with poverty, gang warfare and open-air drug markets — has been the scene of more than 1,000 murders and nearly 3,800 nonfatal shootings.

Now, even as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps a vise grip on everyone’s day-to-day life, violence continues.

The Harrison District “is its own entity,” said one veteran police supervisor who asked not to be identified. “You know, it’s block-to-block. You may be able to tamp down one area but then the other side of the district will blow up, and it’s always kinda been that way. As much resources that they have, it’s just a really tough place to tamp down the violence on.”

In recent weeks, officers in the Harrison District have worked to keep people indoors — no easy task in the narcotics epicenter of the city.

Between March 25 and April 21, Harrison officers issued nearly 1,450 dispersal orders — police directives telling people to stop congregating outside. All told, officers across the city have issued 3,750 dispersal orders.

Shortly after 8:30 a.m. April 8, officers on patrol issued a dispersal order to seven people in the 4000 block of West Wilcox. Three and a half hours later, police returned to find the group back where they’d been earlier. All seven were arrested.

At the same time, on the north side of the district in the 3600 block of West Augusta, four men were standing outside, “refusing to obey the stay-at-home regulation,” according to the the police. Those four were arrested, too.

According to arrest records, the 11 arrested were the first — and, so far, only — people in Chicago charged with violating an Illinois Department of Public Health rule, a Class A misdemeanor, since Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued the first stay-at-home order last month.

Of the 11 arrested, nine were adults, all of whom had previous arrests on drug charges in the Harrison District, according to police records. The other two who were arrested were a 16-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl.

District and department leadership have tried other new tactics in recent weeks.

A Chicago police SUV guards the entrance to the 3900 block of West Van Buren Street,
A Chicago police SUV guards the entrance to the 3900 block of West Van Buren Street, one of four blocks in the Harrison District ordered locked down last month by Cmdr. Darrell Spencer.
Sam Charles/Sun-Times file

In late March, Harrison District Cmdr. Darrell Spencer ordered officers to restrict both pedestrian and vehicle traffic on four blocks within the district, all with histories of violence and gang activity. Spencer instructed officers to check the IDs of anyone who tried to enter as a way to ensure only residents were using the streets and sidewalks.

Several officers, though, told the Chicago Sun-Times they were concerned Spencer’s directive was unconstitutional.

Property records show Spencer owns a home in the 3800 block of West Gladys, one of the four that he ordered locked down, the Sun-Times has reported.

In an effort to tamp down violence and large groups from congregating, newly minted Supt. David Brown on Wednesday ordered dozens of officers — typically assigned to several other districts across the North Side and Northwest Side — sent to the Harrison District.

The move quickly drew the ire of aldermen who said Brown didn’t tell them of the plans beforehand.

The Jefferson Park District on the Northwest Side was one of those tapped to ship officers to the West Side. Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), whose ward is home to scores of police officers, firefighters and other city employees, said Brown called affected aldermen Thursday to apologize.

“He came out and apologized immediately and said, ‘I’m sorry that I blindsided you guys with this,’” Napolitano said. “He apologized that he had no warning for us.”

At Brown’s order, a similar surge mission took effect Thursday night in the Austin District, the Harrison District’s neighbor to the west.

A CPD spokeswoman said Brown “will take what [the aldermen] said under consideration, but the department is continuing the operation with the goal of saving lives.”