Lack of Force

For years, Francine Washington complained about open drug dealing in the first0floor lobby of the Stairway Gardens high-rise where she lives. Only recently have routine police patrols in the building slowed the drug activity. (Mary Hanlon)

For years, Francine Washington complained about open drug dealing in the first0floor lobby of the Stairway Gardens high-rise where she lives. Only recently have routine police patrols in the building slowed the drug activity. (Mary Hanlon)

When Francine Washington noticed hordes of police officers outside U.S. Cellular Field this spring, she walked toward the ballpark and counted them. The stadium, home of the Chicago White Sox, sits about three blocks west of the Stateway Gardens public housing development where she lives with her husband of 23 years.

“I went out there twice. The first time I counted 105 police officers out there. The next time I counted 107 officers,” said Washington, president of Stateway’s local advisory council, an elected tenant body.

“You’ve got l00 police officers coming down for all these white folks coming to the game,” she continued. “And, yet and still, we can’t get one person to come over here to Stateway. Hell yeah, I’m pissed.”

Washington, a vocal, long-time leader at Stateway, said she has been given the run-around from Chicago Housing Authority officials when she’s asked for more police assistance. During her 29 years there as a resident, she has been elected president of the local advisory council six times and raised two sons, both now away at college.

Her ire is fueled by the fact that her building, 3651-53 S. Federal St., is the only remaining high-rise at Stateway Gardens and sits about a block away from Chicago Police Department Headquarters. Stateway’s other high-rises were demolished under the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, a 10-year, $1.5 billion redevelopment effort in which the agency will move nearly 25,000 families.

Washington is further miffed that the problems persist even though the CHA pays the police department $12 million a year for extra police services, including regular interaction with residents and foot patrols up and down high-rise buildings. The Chicago Police Department displaced the CHA’s own police department and retook control of security for the developments in October 1999. The two agencies signed an intergovernmental agreement on March 30, 2001, for “above baseline or supplemental police services.” The agreement was forged in the hope of suppressing the drug trade and the violence it often brings.

“You’ve got gangbanging and drug dealing at the building. You’ve got it across the street –¦ in front of the library,” she said. “We’re less than 100 feet from the police headquarters. Something’s wrong with that picture.”

While demolition under the Plan for Transformation has reduced the number of public housing high-rises, long considered havens for drug dealing, complaints like Washington’s are still heard from residents throughout the CHA who also question whether police are living up to their end of the intergovernmental agreement. The troubles with security have also been noted by an independent attorney hired to monitor the relocation process.

The drug sales fuel widely held suspicions that some police officers don’t care or look the other way in exchange for money. This perception is so common in many of Chicago’s low-income, black neighborhoods that police say it makes their jobs more difficult.

Police acknowledge they have not stopped drug dealing on CHA property but deny that officers are on the take, pointing to major sting operations and hundreds of arrests. And top police and CHA officials say officers are living up to their end of the intergovernmental agreement. “We interact with the citizens and we attend meetings with the [local advisory councils]. We go to do the walk downs. We provide base services and answer calls –¦ and we make arrests,” said Lt. Ted Davis, acting police commander of the Chicago public housing unit. “But we just can’t sit in one particular location. Out of all the buildings they have, it’s almost impossible. We don’t have enough men for that.”

Davis said officers are keeping an eye on developments where major busts have been made, like Randolph Towers in the South Side’s Washington Park neighborhood. In May, federal agents broke up a $300,000-a-day drug operation there. “We were in there doing a follow-up on the building, just going to check the building, doing walk downs –¦ interacting with the residents,” Davis said. “Quite a few residents came out and thanked us for being there.”

Pamela Curtis, a resident of the Cabrini-Green development near Division and Larabee streets on the Near North Side, said she appreciates the police protection she’s witnessed from her first-floor apartment. It’s in a mid-rise at 364 W. Oak St. across the street from a Chicago police station. Unlike many other high-rise residents, she is generally pleased with the cops, saying they patrol the area regularly and always make sure gang members are not allowed to loiter. “They’ll tell them, ‘You got to split up,'” she said.

Terry Peterson, chief executive officer of the CHA, is also pleased with the job police officers are doing. “We’re going to pay them the same $12 million we’ve been paying them,” Peterson said after a tenant services meeting in early July.

Davis said the public housing section has more than 350 officers. In addition to foot patrols, officers have to answer calls, so they can’t stay in any one spot to halt drug sales.

But the force may not have enough people: In April 2001, police officials told the Chicago Sun-Times that the public housing unit is designed to have at least 450 officers.

The intergovernmental agreement calls for the police department to craft a “CHA Policing Plan” and to limit drug dealing and violence at the developments.

But, for months, neither the CHA nor the police responded to requests under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of the Policing Plan. After repeated requests for comment, the CHA sent a statement saying that the agency meets with the police quarterly to assess progress and that the police periodically send reports on what they’re doing.

The agreement also stipulates that “Public Housing Section Officers” perform duties similar to those of beat officers. They are to concentrate on helping eliminate drug-related and violent crimes and building relationships with public housing residents.

Most CHA residents say they’ve noticed a marked police presence in the developments, but many see officers as too passive, often sitting in their cars instead of going on foot patrols. Open drug dealing continues in the lobbies of many buildings, residents say, and sometimes a short distance from officers and police stations.

“The only time the police come to the building is if they have to chase somebody. Sometimes they’d sit under the building and deter crime. But, when they leave, then it’s on,” said Washington, 49, who has worked for the CHA’s Summer Food Program for years. “They do not do vertical or foot patrols.”

Eric Holder, a veteran patrol officer assigned to the public housing unit for more than a month, said an officer standing alone in a lobby at a CHA high-rise would be “vulnerable.”

“To be honest with you, I don’t think that would be safe,” said Holder, who also patrolled the Robert Taylor Homes, Rockwell Gardens and other high-rise developments in the 1990s. Two officers might be safe, but that would be a waste of manpower, he said.

In February, former U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan, hired by the CHA to monitor the relocation of residents under the Plan for Transformation, also pointed to trouble with safety in public housing. He described Washington’s building as “extremely dangerous” and wrote “it is obvious that more police protection is needed to protect CHA tenants in the remaining CHA buildings during the relocation process.” The previous public housing section commander told Sullivan that public housing officers are to walk through one of the buildings in their beat areas once an hour.

But it is questionable how much attention can be paid to buildings where residents’ complaints have been the most insistent.

According to Sullivan’s February report, Washington’s building, the three high-rises left at Robert Taylor and 28 buildings at the Dearborn and Ickes homes are combined into one beat area. The four developments stretch nearly four miles down State Street, from 22nd Street to 53rd Street. That beat area was assigned four cars. In all, 13 cars were assigned to cover 11 developments, according to Sullivan’s report.

While Davis said the public housing unit has 350 officers, police officials did not explain why Sullivan reported there were only 13 cars assigned to patrol the developments.

During 2003, neither Sullivan nor his staff observed the police doing walk downs, but they did see them driving around building areas and sitting in parked cars. He recommended that supervisors be more diligent in ensuring beat officers do foot patrols.

Residents ofthe Robert Taylor Homes say they rarely see police officers patrolling the stairwells at 4429 S. Federal St., one of Taylor’s three remaining high-rises. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Controlling the drug trade in Chicago’s public housing has never been easy. In 1990, Vince Lane, then the CHA’s chairman, responded to tenant complaints that city police were ignoring public housing by establishing the CHA’s own police force. Although the force won mixed praise from most residents, its attempts to fight drug trafficking were generally acknowledged as a failure.

Stateway’s Washington believes police officers can make a difference if they consistently patrol the grounds. After years of complaining, she said, in early July, officers finally became a constant presence at the development, and have curtailed the drug dealing. Although usually parked in a car near the open breezeway that serves as an entrance, the officers occasionally walk the grounds, she said.

In one July day, Davis reported making 31 arrests for criminal trespass at Washington’s building. “I recovered a gun. I locked up a person for possession and I seized nine cars,” he added.

But, at Cabrini-Green, Marvin Edwards and other residents say they see plenty of officers, but still wonder if police are doing all they can since the drug sales are steady in the lobbies of the development’s high-rises. “They’re sitting out in this van when dope is being sold right in front,” Edwards said. A good policing strategy would get them out of their cars, he said, “deploy into these lobbies, and cut into their drug sales.”

“We want the same public outcry that would happen” if a high-income neighborhood was left vulnerable, said Edwards, a Cook County sheriff’s deputy. “They put Chicago’s Finest in here, and we’re getting the short end of the stick.”

Holder said he and his partner climb to the top of one of Cabrini’s high-rises and then walk back down at least two or three times a day, talking to people all the while. But Edwards, who owns a police scanner, said he frequently monitors conversations between beat officers and dispatchers. And several times, usually at night, he has heard officers call in a “walk down” for a neighboring building, but watched the officers remain sitting in their car.

Residents are not the only ones feeling the heat from gang violence.

In August 2003, chaos struck 1440 W. 13th St., the high-rise where the Marcy Newberry Association provides social services to ABLA residents. According to Sullivan’s report, “the building was taken over by a group of gang members wielding automatic weapons and pistols with silencers.” Benjamin Kendrick, the association’s executive director, said, “The guys came in and told them, ‘Hey, we’re getting ready to fight, and you guys need to move.'” The building’s security guards abandoned ship, Sullivan wrote. Kendrick met with city officials the next day at ABLA and told them his staff was terrorized. He said his concerns were not taken seriously. “What I was being told was I was an alarmist and I was overreacting,” he said. “I grew up in this neighborhood and I’ve worked over here for years. I know danger when I see it.”

In December, three brothers, Vashawn, Rashawn and Vincent Austin, were shot and killed in the same building.

That’s when the hammer came down.

The building manager hired off-duty Chicago policemen as guards, Sullivan reported. And in an April raid at the development, police arrested 20 gang members and confiscated 286 grams of heroin, according to press reports.

But a 29-year-old former resident of the ABLA Homes remains unimpressed. “[The police should] do more patrolling and make sure [the drug dealing] doesn’t start,” she said.

She said officers at the Near West Side development leave their vehicles rarely. “The boys could be outside selling drugs, but they pull me over with my kids in the car” for a seatbelt check, said the woman, who still frequently visits her mother at ABLA. She asked to remain anonymous out of fear that her mother might be harassed by police.

Similar complaints are made by Darlene Gills, a resident of Randolph Towers, the site of another large drug sting earlier this year. “Although the top guys are in jail, you still have the [gang] organization. We are still not safe, because there are always gang rivalries,” said Gills, who sent her son, now 15, away for a year and a half, because gang members pressured him to join.

In the last year, security has improved at ABLA, Kendrick said. But there are still shootings. His company’s office had to shut down on July 15 after shots were fired nearby. “There’s still friction within the young men out there,” he said.

Many residents openly wonder if the police who patrol public housing have given up. “People have lost faith in the police,” said Edwards. He added he has great respect for some officers who patrol Cabrini-Green, “but too many don’t come in with a sense of dedication.”

Gills and other residents believe dealing continues in many places because police officers take money from dealers and look the other way. “It just seemed like it was obvious,” she said.

Too many police officers, regardless of the agency, were likely to take payoffs from dealers, said LeRoy O’Shield, a former Chicago police commander and the CHA police department’s last chief. “We found that we had an extremely corrupt police department.”

It’s been a problem, said LeRoy O’Shield, a former Chicago police commander and the CHA police department’s last chief. Too many police officers from several agencies were likely to take payoffs from dealers. Of the CHA police, he said, “We found that we had an extremely corrupt police department.”

Holder, the officer who’s worked at several public housing sites, discounts the notion of widespread corruption. “I don’t know anybody who is [taking money],” he said, noting that federal agents often hold stings to see if police officers are taking bribes. “For someone to be out there taking payoffs is crazy.”

After the agreement between the CHA and the Chicago Police Department was signed, many CHA residents hoped police would be able to curb the drug dealing.

For some, living among dealers can be a life-or-death situation. A former resident of a South Side development said she received death threats after she complained to management about a drug dealer working out of a vacant unit next to hers.

“I had to leave out like sometimes 6 o’clock in the morning, sometimes at 5:30 a.m., to get to work, and crack heads and dope dealers and drug addicts would be in the next door apartment, and the door would be open,” said the 33-year-old woman.

“And somehow it got back that I was complaining,” she continued. “So one of the guys came to me and told me, ‘You was the one who called the police on me, and I lost $7,000 in the deal. And, if that’s so, I’m a kill you because that’s a lot of money to be losing.'”

The woman, a single mother of two, was relocated under a victim assistance program offered by the CHA, but she never went to court to testify against the drug dealers. “I didn’t pursue it because I was too scared,” she said, “because when you pursue stuff like that they get their friends to kill your sister, to kill you. And, by them knowing me and knowing my family, I didn’t want to say nothing.”

There’s a marked police presence in public housing but many say officers often sit in their cars. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

In addition to curbing drug deals, residents hoped the presence of police officers would help build better relationships. It’s key that officers “get out on foot and interact with the people who live here,” said Cabrini-Green’s Edwards.

But interacting with the residents presents another set of problems. Many residents have mixed feelings about policing and security, and resent the police more than drug dealers or gang members.

At 4429 S. Federal St., one of three Robert Taylor high-rises still standing, Shahshak B. Levi, a 48-year-old laborer, said he has seen an increased police presence around the building, with as many as three or four cars on the property at one time. But shutting down drug sales does not seem to be their priority. “They don’t even come with that mentality,” Levi said. “They come with the mentality of getting black brothers off the street.”

Darlene Gills stands inside the Randolph Towers at 6271 S. Calumet Ave., recently the site of a massive raid on drug dealers by federal agents. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

He recalled an outdoor barbecue on the Fourth of July that was broken up by several officers. “If we have any type of social activity, here come the police,” he said, adding, “I don’t say all of them are like that. Some are quite compassionate.”

But 16-year-old Laqueesha Gardner, a Cabrini resident since 1998, said she and a girlfriend won’t sit in front of their building when the police are around. Both claim they were maced recently by officers making drug arrests. “They terrorize us,” she said. “I hate them.”

Police officials did not respond to requests for comment on such concerns.

It is unfortunate, Holder said, but “a lot of officers are in a defensive mode in public housing. It’s difficult to decipher who’s involved in criminal activity and who isn’t.”

“Most of the time the kids see the police arresting people, chasing people, fighting with people, putting drugs on them, incarcerating them,” said Holder, an African American who once sued the city and four white Chicago police officers who attacked him when he was off duty. “Everybody’s not doing what they’re supposed to do in their capacity as a police officer.”

Gloria Williams, the president of the tenant leadership council at the Ickes Homes, a development on the Near South Side, said the police in her area are pretty responsive to calls. If residents notify police that a certain building is hot, they’ll patrol more heavily.

But Williams is outraged by the attitude of many officers who patrol her development. “Everybody doesn’t have to be ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes.’ We have a lot of police, [and] this is the language they use.”

“That’s not right,” said Charles Roberts, who spent 34 years as a police officer before ending his career as a deputy superintendent in charge of the department’s training.

Charges like Williams’, however, don’t surprise him. “It’s easy for a police officer in a [high-crime] district to become cynical,” he said. The responsibility for such problems lies “with [supervisors], anyone who puts on a white shirt.”

And friendly interaction is not a small matter. Officers who cannot deal with neighborhood residents won’t be trusted. Residents, in turn, will not report crimes. “I have never been touchy-feely in law enforcement, but I’m not a fool,” Roberts said. “Being more visible is a good start. But, if there isn’t good interaction, it’s still what it was: a we-they situation.”

Contributing: Brandon Davis, Brandi M. Green, Scott Krischke and Jessica Young helped research this article.

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