They're fed up and they're not going to take it anymore. In an effort to counter crime and mayhem in their streets, four community groups in Uptown have banded together to hire a private security force to patrol their neighborhoods.
This unusual response was a long time in the making. Back in 1985 Turk Glazebrook, up early one Sunday morning to go scavenging on Maxwell Street, saw one of his neighbors surrounded by five youths who Glazebrook believed were Latin Kings. They'd been attempting to break into the neighbor's basement, and the neighbor had caught them. Now he was the one who was caught. Hispanic himself, he was appealing to the gangbangers' sense of ethnic solidarity.
Glazebrook, who lives on the 4300 block of North Kenmore, had become increasingly innovative--you might say desperate--in his fight against crime and intimidation on his block. Police had warned him not to try the stunt he was about to pull. He ran across the street with his camera and began snapping pictures. In theory, the gang members should have dispersed for fear of having their mugs turned in to the police. Instead they beat Glazebrook to a pulp, and he was hospitalized for ten days with a fractured skull and a broken arm.
In 1988 Glazebrook, his wife Judy, and a group of neighbors who belonged to the East Graceland Organization hired Security Enforcement Services (SES), a private security firm with a roster of clients that includes government agencies and private businesses.
After a two-month stint last fall, the security firm is back this year patrolling the streets of Uptown in their brown uniforms and brown squad cars. This year they've been hired to patrol three additional Uptown neighborhoods: Lakeside, Sheridan Park, and an area just south of Clarendon Park.
Some people are not too happy about the SES presence in Uptown, including 46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller. But its defenders cite incidents when the security force provided a level of protection and investigation that overburdened police cannot match. The Jo Anne Winn case for example.
Winn, 56, lives in the 900 block of West Agatite. She was taking her trash down to the dumpster in the alley one evening when "a nice-looking man about 35" in a black car pulled up beside her. "Get in the car right now," he said.
"For a moment," Winn said, "I thought he was plainclothes."
"Are you talking to me?" she asked.
"Get in this car right now," the man ordered.
She couldn't tell if there was something in his hand as he pointed at her. "I will not," she said. "For one thing, I'll call the police."
The man sat glaring at her, and Winn boldly stepped in front of his car and looked at his license plate. A neighbor brought her a piece of paper--actually, a flier for SES--and another threw her a pencil from his porch. She wrote down the license-plate number as the man drove off.
Winn called the police. When they still had not arrived after 45 minutes, she called SES. She was not a paying subscriber to the service, but a neighbor who was encouraged her to call. The SES officers were there in three to four minutes and drove Winn around looking for the man or his car. They spotted a police car on its way to her house and told the officers what had happened. The police looked for the man for a little while but were soon off on other, no doubt more pressing, business--a lot goes on in Uptown on a summer night. The SES officers looked around longer and found the guy still cruising the neighborhood. They tailed him, picked up Winn to make an identification, called the police through their dispatcher, and stayed on the scene while the police picked him up.
So what's wrong with that? "Nothing," says Helen Shiller. "But that's the best face of it." Shiller contends that the hiring of a private security force is a bad idea that has been "pushed hard by a small group of people." She also contends that the groups involved have adopted their crime-fighting posture as a political organizing position. Indeed, members of the group have little use for Shiller, who has been their alderman since 1987. Last August the Glazebrooks hosted a "dump Shiller party and fund-raiser" attended by Mike Quigley, widely rumored to be aiming for Shiller's City Council seat in 1991.
Shiller also says, "I'm nervous, I really am truly nervous about having a private security force that is hired, and paid for, and therefore accountable only to the people who hire and pay for them--when the money for them represents only one sector of the community.
"That's why you need police patrolling the public way--because you have to have accountability. With the police you do--there's a mechanism for it. It may not be perfect, but there's a systematic process. In this case, there isn't. And there is truly the potential of getting something that I thought was outlawed years ago, which is a cattleman-regulator situation."
Shiller is especially concerned about the potential for harassment based on age and skin color. As an example of her concerns, Shiller points to Ivan Medina's recent encounter with SES officers. Medina, who is Hispanic, is a 30-year-old social worker, the director of the youth division for Association House. He has lived in Uptown for ten years, the last three on the 4300 block of North Kenmore.
"I was coming home about 1 or 2 AM on a weekend night," Medina says. "And they kind of drove up, stopped, stared. It was not even a friendly stare. The way they did it was intimidating, as if I didn't belong there." Medina had just parked his car, a 1989 Celebrity, in front of his apartment. "I have a pretty nice car," he says. "I didn't look suspicious."
Though angered, Medina thought it better to walk inside than to say something. But he still resents the feeling of being watched. He says the SES officers harass people and are "unfriendly" to many who have been in the neighborhood a long time, although not to the "new residents," as Medina politely calls the rehabbers moving into his neighborhood in ever-increasing numbers.
Yet Medina doesn't seem to be bothered by the kinds of things that drove his neighbors to hire SES. "Last night the kids ran up and down the street shooting at each other," he says casually. "The neighborhood is not gentrified completely yet, and there's going to be that kind of thing going on. I've lived in this neighborhood when it was worse. I don't need security."
Shiller's landlord, Sam Scardina, owns three buildings in the area and is also displeased with the neighbors who hired SES. His beef is that he was pressured by other property owners to pay for it. The cost of the service is $1 per day for single-family homes up to three flats and as little as ten cents per unit for owners of large apartment buildings. For the six warm-weather months the firm is engaged, the biggest landlords pay about $2,500. Commercial businesses pay around $250 a month.
"They sent a letter around," Scardina says. "They wanted everybody to pitch in. I didn't think it was worth it--if somebody wants to break in, they're going to get in." Having ignored the letter, Scardina was approached on the street by a neighbor who was upset that he wasn't joining in. "His attitude was like 'You're cheap.' He says he's protecting the tenants, but he has condos--he's protecting his condos. Let [the condo owners] protect their condos."
Shiller sees other ways for neighbors to band together to fight crime. Recently, she led a group of residents who posted notices in areas within 1,000 feet of 46th Ward schools that warned that these areas were safe-school zones. In accordance with recent legislation, penalties for crimes involving drugs within these areas would be automatically doubled. "The very same guy who has been going around trying to get everybody to buy into hiring private security himself was seen tearing these signs down," Shiller says. "Now where are his real interests?"
Shiller has taken her concern about the role of a private security team in policing public streets to 23rd District Police Commander Clarence Zanders. "He explicitly stated that they have authority only to deal with private property," Shiller says. That is, they do not have the authority to respond to incidents occurring in public areas such as streets, alleys, sidewalks, and playgrounds.
Zanders, however, shrugs off most of Shiller's concerns about SES. "We checked them out several weeks ago. They're licensed, bonded. In no way do we object. They were hired. We're used to working with private security--there's more private police than public police in this country." He doubts the security officers are guilty of harassment. "They don't want to be sued. They don't want to lose their business. If somebody complains, we direct them to the proper agencies."
Zanders also points out that any citizen can make an arrest at any time. "When a security officer leaves the area, then he or she has the same powers as anyone else. A factory guard can make an arrest on a robbery."
Some Uptown residents claim that last fall police officers in the 23rd District were told not to respond to complaints from neighbors regarding activities in and around 4130 N. Kenmore, a building everyone agrees was a notorious trouble spot. According to Ray Grzebielski, a law professor at DePaul University who lives on the block, a police officer told him that he had been instructed not to respond to complaints about the building that were not from tenants because Shiller had complained to Commander Martin that the residents were being harassed.
Shiller says there was more to this than she can go on record to explain. "I had a complaint about two officers that I brought to the command structure," she says, choosing her words carefully. "Rather than it being investigated, the officers were informed of it within two hours. They retaliated by making that charge and others as well."
At the time Commander John Martin was in charge of the 23rd District. Now a captain with the 11th District, Martin refuses to discuss Grzebielski's charge, Shiller, or SES.
Such is the level of frustration in the community that Jo Anne Winn believes the man in the black car who threatened her in the alley was a police officer. She says she's suspicious because of the way the man spoke to her, because the sergeant on the scene dissuaded her from filing charges, and because the security officers told her at the time that they figured he was an off-duty policeman. Although the police picked the man up, they did not arrest him--so it's difficult for them to locate records that would prove who he was.
The four Uptown neighborhood groups using SES report that they are satisfied with the service, although they know private security is only part of the answer to their fears and frustrations. Judy Pier, of the community organization Clarendon Park Neighbors, has lived on the 800 block of Sunnyside for 11 years. "We have a neighborhood where there are a lot of landlords who don't live in the area," she says. "We have a lot of single-family homes with teenagers they can't control." Her six-flat is on the north side of the block; all of the buildings on the south side are boarded up. She regularly watches drug trafficking outside her building. Prostitutes turn tricks in her alley. She has been threatened because she calls the police about people she suspects of dealing drugs. Pier is beyond frustration, and she is mad at Helen Shiller. "She wants it to be better, but doesn't want rents to go up. She says [the private security force] harasses the poor folk. I say I'm harassed and I pay taxes. It's a question of rights versus responsibility."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.