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Experts caution that what's true about policing one neighborhood in one city isn't necessarily true for another. And one incident hardly makes for a trend.
But at the very least, the October 8 robbery of the Bryn Mawr Jewelry Company shows why so many people think that police visibility impacts public safety—and certainly the perception of it.
Twenty-five years ago east Edgewater was a different place than it is now. After years of disinvestment, commercial districts were "saturated with businesses such as auto body shops, warehouses and pawn-shops," Crain's wrote in 1990. Prostitution, drug dealing, and holdups were common. The residential corridors on Winthrop and Kenmore were pockmarked with vacant lots, and poorly managed apartment buildings were set on fire so often that the area was nicknamed "Arson Alley."
The 20th police district, which includes most of Edgewater and Ravenswood, had 16 murders, 849 robberies, and 48 arsons in 1991. By comparison, in 2011 there were five murders, 171 robberies, and six arsons.
That's largely because, in the late 1980s and '90s, residents, business leaders, and elected officials teamed up to revitalize the area, shutting down liquor stores, driving out problem landlords and tenants, recruiting new investment, and launching community policing programs.
One of the keys, according to longtime residents, was the assignment of police officers to foot patrols along Bryn Mawr and Thorndale avenues. The officers could get to know business owners personally and learn the area well enough to tell when something was amiss.
"A good beat officer makes a huge difference," says 48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman, whose mother, Kathy, held the seat from 1987 to 1989. "It provides some consistency. He gets the drug guys and the panhandlers out of there. You want to make sure people feel safe."
But around the city there are few foot patrols or beat officers assigned solely to business areas. In high-crime communities, most officers are responsible for beats large enough that they race from call to call in their squad cars.
The Bryn Mawr business strip now includes new restaurants, a bank, stores, and—what else?—a Starbucks. Many of the buildings and homes in the area have been rehabbed.
This spring, though, for the first time in more than 20 years, police officials had to halt the daytime Bryn Mawr foot patrols. Some business owners heard the officer was deployed downtown during the NATO summit and never returned to his old job. Osterman and police officials tell me he had to go on medical leave.
Either way, for most of the summer and fall, no cops were available to walk the beat along Bryn Mawr.
"We're really thin on manpower," says Lucy Moy-Bartosik, the commander of the 20th police district. The Bryn Mawr foot patrol "is a luxury."
Over that time, residents were shaken by a number of troubling incidents, including several shootings on the blocks just north and south of Bryn Mawr.
While most crime numbers for the area, including shootings, are lower than last year, burglaries and thefts have increased. And many residents and business owners don't feel that things are as safe. Some fear the neighborhood could start slipping.
They say that without the patrol officer, it's hard to get police to help with everyday problems like loiterers and drug dealers. "We call police, they come after one hour," says Gregory, who has been cutting hair at Alex's Barber Shop since soon after he emigrated from Russia in 1975. (He doesn't like to give out his last name.)
As we spoke, a woman hanging out on the sidewalk outside the shop yelled at someone down the street: "You can't talk to me like that, motherfucker!"
Gregory says that in recent months he's seen an increase in loitering. "When I was young, I wasn't scared," Gregory says. "Now I'm old. But if someone attacks me, I have good scissors."
The robbery at the Bryn Mawr Jewelry Company in the middle of the day alarmed businesses and residents throughout the far north side. Osterman and Moy-Bartosik decided they had to find a way to resume the daytime foot patrols, so the commander reorganized some assignments.
"The alderman wanted it and I wanted it," says Moy-Bartosik.
On October 18 the mayor's office and police further emphasized that they were on top of things by announcing the "takedown" of a drug market on Bryn Mawr. Fourteen people from two different street gangs have been arrested so far. At a recent community meeting, Moy-Bartosik said some lived in the neighborhood and others were from the south and west sides. But police have yet to release the suspects' names, addresses, or charges.
Meanwhile, the Bryn Mawr foot patrols resumed a couple of weeks ago. They're only active during the week because on the weekends every spare officer is needed to respond to calls across the 20th District.
Several days later, on October 26, a woman was attacked near the Bryn Mawr el station around 5:30 AM, before the daytime patrol cop was on duty. That prompted the Guardian Angels to provide their own patrols in the early morning hours.
Still, Scott Freeman, the jewelry store owner, says the police foot patrols are a big help. "Sometimes it takes something bad happening to get something done."