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The Price of Safety

How Marquette Park became the first neighborhood to raise its own taxes.


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For the past eight years, residents of Marquette Park have been paying about $70 a year in extra property taxes to have private armed security guards patrol their streets, watch their children walk home from school, and keep an eye on seniors as they wait for the bus. Marquette Park was reportedly the first residential neighborhood in the country to have a private security force, and it's still the only neighborhood in Chicago to have one.

The program was first authorized by the City Council in 1993 and was up for renewal on December 31. At a public hearing on November 26 Reverend Gregory Clemmons said the security patrol gave him a sense of safety: "You can't just lock yourself in and not be part of the community. The community needs to get up and go out and not put burglar bars on their windows."

But other residents objected to the program. "I don't think the security makes a difference," said Yolanda Jackson. "We're paying for the Chicago police--so why are we paying for extra security?"

In the late 80s Marquette Park residents had noticed that more and more buildings were being abandoned in their neighborhood. For Sale signs kept springing up on front lawns, and weeds, broken glass, and garbage littered the yards of many once tidy bungalows and two-flats. Shops closed early, and residents stayed inside. Home owners installed burglar bars and extra dead-bolt locks.

It wasn't just whites who were afraid. By then the demographics of Marquette Park--the all-white enclave where Martin Luther King Jr. was pelted with rocks during a 1966 march, the place where Frank Collin set up his Nazi Party headquarters in the 70s--had shifted. The 1990 U.S. census shows the population as 43 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic, and 26 percent African-American. Ewa Ewa, who's African-American, moved into the neighborhood in 1992. "There was a movement of people of color coming in," he says. "People were concerned that it would turn into a ghetto. It was a neighborhood of transition."

Yet all the residents knew how crime could wreck a community. They'd watched neighboring Englewood become overrun with gangs and drugs; its residents had taken to hanging up signs on trees and in their front windows that said Stop the Shooting! "We had a lot of streetwalkers and characters hanging around the corners, and we didn't have the police protection," says Kitty Anksorus, a retired beautician who lives in Marquette Park. "When you called police they didn't show up."

Anksorus and her neighbors began meeting to discuss what they could do. They soon decided to organize a neighborhood watch to cover an area bounded by Kedzie on the west, Bell on the east, 67th on the north, and 75th on the south. For several months a core group of residents volunteered to walk patrols, but they got tired of doing it.

According to Clayton Daughenbaugh, at the time executive director of the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation, the residents then pleaded with the city for more police protection. He says that at one public meeting the local police commander told the residents there was nothing he could do. "He advised people to turn on their porch lights and buy dogs," says Daughenbaugh. "It was determined that if the police weren't going to do the job, we would."

That's when the loose coalition of neighbors decided to pool their money and hire a private security firm to take over the neighborhood watch. "Whoever wanted to kick in did," says Anksorus.

The idea worked for a while, but only a few people volunteered to pay. "A lot of people didn't want to put money in," says Anksorus.

Birute Jasaitis, executive director of Lithuanian Human Services, on West 71st Street, says she's not sure who came up with the idea of raising taxes to pay for the private security. "We had to start from scratch," she says. "There were no models for the kind of private security program that would be implemented."

The residents collected signatures on petitions and traveled to Springfield to lobby lawmakers for a law that would allow them to establish a private security district. No law was passed; instead the city agreed to allow the residents to put a referendum on the November 1992 ballot asking local voters to raise their own taxes. It passed by a three-to-one margin.

In March 1993 the City Council approved the residents' application for a special taxing district--officially known as Special Service Area 14--covering the same area the volunteers had patrolled. It wasn't the first such district--there are dozens in the city. But all of the others have been organized by businesses to raise money to pay for landscaping, special events, street lighting, security, or maintenance.

Not everyone on the City Council was happy about the idea. Joseph Moore, alderman of the 49th Ward, said he feared the Marquette Park plan "might pave the way for a two-tiered policing system," with different services for the rich and the poor. But Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw thought it was a great idea and, if it succeeded, might be "worth trying in other areas."

Other people noted that workplaces, government buildings, and condominiums all use private security guards, so why shouldn't the residents of Marquette Park? "They're no different than people who live on the Gold Coast who pay for private security," says Tracey Meares, a University of Chicago law professor. "Why is it perfectly normal to be surrounded by uniformed security guards in a downtown building and then go home and get fewer people devoted to protecting you?" Wesley Skogan, a political science professor at Northwestern University, points out that there are three times as many private security officers as public police officers in the country.

The city's legal department researched the possible legal ramifications of having private guards patrolling public streets, and that December the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance establishing a tax rate that would allow the city to collect $185,000 from 3,700 property owners in the special district. The average cost to taxpayers would be $58 a year (because the tax is a percentage, the average bill has since risen).

The first taxes were collected in 1994 and were used to cover the city's start-up costs, including doing title searches and notifying property owners. In July of that year Mayor Daley, who'd neither supported nor objected to the security program ("He just ignored us," says Anksorus), appointed commissioners to plan the program and oversee the private security contract and the budget.

In early 1995 the commissioners raised concerns about whether the $1 million liability policy routinely used by private security firms was enough. The city decided it was, and in May the security guards finally hit the streets. Two armed guards at a time started riding in a marked car equipped with a radio and Mars lights, patrolling from 9 AM to 11 PM weekdays and 9 AM to 1 AM on weekends.

In 2001 Countywide Security Services was awarded the $256,000 contract, and in June the patrols were increased and the hours extended. One team now patrols from 9 AM to 11 PM, and a second team patrols from 5 PM to 3 AM daily.

The 15 guards who rotate the part-time shifts cruise the same streets patrolled by police, and they regularly respond to reports of suspicious activity--though they have no more authority than ordinary citizens and in serious situations are supposed to call the police. They'll break up gangs of teenagers hanging out in front of a grocery, and they'll check out an unusual noise in an alley. Occasionally, they'll answer a call asking them to keep an eye out for someone who's late getting home from work, and they've helped police capture escaped convicts.

During one late-night security patrol, Countywide's owner, Mike Cullinane, a husky man who wears a radio clipped near the collar of his leather jacket and a gun belt, spotted some teenagers huddled together on the corner of 71st and Maplewood. He pulled up and rolled down the window. "Does your mother know you're out here past curfew?" he asked as most of the boys scattered.

Later he said he often walks such kids home. "Most times their moms don't even know they're out."

When he saw an older woman walking alone he slowed the car and watched until she got home. He drove down alleys and checked the back entrances of some small shops. Then he stopped at the 24-hour convenience store to get a cup of coffee and chat with the store clerk.

Tom Jurkanin, executive director of the Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, which administers statewide training for police officers, says he hasn't heard any complaints from police about the private patrols. "They each have their own roles," he says. "And quite honestly, with only 35,000 officers in the state and a population of some 13 million people, they really couldn't do it without private security." Chicago Fraternal Order of Police union president Bill Nolan agrees, adding that police officers welcome the extra patrols. "I haven't heard any complaints," he says, "and I don't think it's a bad idea."

"They're picking up part of the workload for Chicago police and saving the city money," says Skogan, pointing out that having more patrols makes people feel better. "There's a lot more fear than crime. They're mostly buying a feeling of security."

Plenty of residents say the private security has cut down on crime in an area that has a reputation for gangs, shootings, and other problems, and statistics seem to support them. The neighborhood is in the police department's 18th District, which saw an overall drop in crime in 1995-2000 of only 12 percent. Yet within the special service area, crime reports dropped by 21 percent--the same as the rest of the city averaged.

Sandy Strumil says she appreciates the patrols. "If 20 guys are standing in front of my house arguing and drinking, it scares me being in the house," she says. "I can't call Chicago police, because it's not a priority call." Instead, she'll call the security guards.

"You couldn't stay in this neighborhood if it weren't for this security patrol," says Bessie Krigel, a 75-year-old retired teacher. "They take care of the little stuff you can't get police out here for. If kids are causing trouble you could call security. If you see something suspicious you could call security. And they will patrol an area if you think something funny is going on. Some gangbangers hang out in front of the stores, and you don't dare go to that store. The store owner won't say anything to the kids."

"It's just one or two cars, but anytime something happens they are there," says Jasaitis, who's now the administrator of the special service area. "It's not a lot to pay for someone to watch out for you."

But some people worry about the potential for problems.

Most of the security guards are off-duty police officers moonlighting part-time for $10 an hour, says Cullinane. The rest are trained security guards who are authorized to carry a gun, though they have a lot less training than police. To be licensed by the state, security guards need only 20 hours of basic training, and 20 more hours if they want to carry a firearm; police officers get 400 hours of basic training. Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, says the city shouldn't be allowing the public streets to be patrolled by private security guards. "The mayor should be willing to pay for more police," he says. "The best line of defense is sworn, trained police officers. Do you want the one who comes to your protection to be a city of Chicago police officer or a guard with Acme Security?" He also worries about liability: "What if one of these guys shoots someone?"

The Illinois State Police and the FBI do background checks on all security guards, though in practice the licenses are often awarded before the fingerprint checks are in. "Right now, somebody could be on the job for a period of months or a year before the background check is completed," says Tony Sanders, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, though he also notes that legislators are moving to tighten the law.

Others worry that private security guards could go beyond the limits of their authority. They may have an example in a 1999 federal lawsuit that charged a private security guard working for the company that had the special-service-area contract at the time with brutality. According to the suit, two security guards had responded to a report of a disturbance on South Maplewood; they called police, and two men were arrested for disorderly conduct, though the charges were later dismissed. Later the two men accused one of the security guards of mistreating them, and the case was eventually settled for the cost of the two men's medical treatments, $32,000.

Of course the line between private and public security has long been fuzzy. For instance, the University of Chicago has its own private police department patrolling its campus, but under an agreement with the city's police, those officers also cover the streets of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and North Kenwood. They're the third-largest police force in Illinois, after Chicago and Rockford, and the officers have the power to write traffic tickets, make arrests, and use deadly force just as Chicago police do. Lots of private-security work is also done by police. The CTA, for instance, pays Chicago police officers to patrol bus and train stations, and police officers around the country have been contracted out to serve as security for shopping malls. Three years ago businesses on Wall Street started paying about $5 million a year to New York City for extra police service.

Lois Walker, who was an early proponent of Marquette Park's private security patrols, now says crime has become more serious and her community needs more police, not more security guards. "When I was on the original group in 1990 to get the service, the type of criminal element was car thefts and prostitution," she says. "Those are minor compared to the drug dealing, murder, sex offenders, break-ins, and theft that's out there now. Crime is at a more serious level, and it's getting closer to home. The reason I don't think the security service is effective is that those kinds of criminals are not afraid of people who cannot arrest them. The elderly people think it's doing some good. I hate to take that sense of security away from them, but the security company is being paid to provide a service that the community has outgrown. Our alderman needs to be at the City Council saying we need more police protection."

The alderman, Ted Thomas, who says he's seen drug dealers near his own home, agrees that more police are needed. "We're known for having a higher crime rate than most other wards," he says. "I keep trying to get additional police on the beat. I've talked to the mayor and to the superintendent, but I have gotten no results."

Chicago Police Department spokes-man Pat Camden says every neighborhood would like more police. But he insists that an active community is a more effective crime deterrent: "Anytime the community is involved, it has a positive effect, be it a neighborhood watch or trained guards."

At the November 26 public hearing Thomas said he would go along with what the people of his community wanted, and he cited a city survey showing that 87 percent of the residents who live in the patrolled area want the security guards to stay. "If the people in the community want to continue paying taxes," he says, "then I'm all for it."

Residents were given 60 days after the hearing to comment on the program. If a simple majority of the approximately 3,700 taxpayers in the district were to object, the program would end. But no one has started a letter-writing campaign, and no one's circulating petitions--so it's almost certain that the City Council will reauthorize the program for another four years.

Top Chicago police officials and the city's planning department support the reauthorization. Even Alderman Moore, who once called private security "police for rich people," says he's now in favor of any additional security he can get. He says several apartment building owners in Rogers Park recently suggested pooling their resources to hire private security guards, and he gave them his blessing. "As long as we're dealing with off-duty police officers and not weekend warriors, I'll go along with it," he says. "No alderman in his right mind would turn down extra police protection--especially when it won't cost the city."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.


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