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Eye-Opening Seminar Exposes North Side Gangbanging

By Lorraine Swanson, Editor, Lake Effect News

In a packed auditorium at Swedish Covenant Hospital, a North Side audience snacked on chocolate Macadamia nut cookies donated by a local Costco and got a few lessons in gangbanging.

Much of the information presented at last week’s community gang awareness seminar hosted by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office and the North Side Community Justice Center is already available on law enforcement web sites. For example, it would have been helpful to know how to discern a teenager who is following fashion trends by wearing a baggy, white T-shirt with his pants tucked under his butt cheeks from the neighborhood gangbanger.

Still, the seminar was not without some eye-opening moments as the CAPS-savvy audience listened raptly to a Chicago gang enforcement officer explain the hieroglyphics of gang tattoos and graffiti, so the next time some thug spray paints your garage door, you’ll know which gang he or she belongs to.

Five-point crowns, three-point crows, pitch forks, teardrops, 9’s, 4’s, martini glasses, top hats, the Playboy logo, backward Swastikas, it’s all so dizzying. The words “insane” and “maniac” also appear to be popular gang monikers.

“I have a theory that if you tattoo a “P” in the middle of your forehead, I think you’ve pretty much decided that you’re not going to be a productive member of society,” said Lt. Thomas Waldera of the Belmont Area 3 gang enforcement section.

While it’s tempting to laugh at the sheer stupidity and absurdity of gang symbols, the presence of even one apartment or home occupied by gang members can wreck havoc on the quality of life of one block or an entire neighborhood.

Displaying a city-wide map of gang infested neighborhoods Waldera acknowledged that North Side does not have near the gang-related violence of neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

“Up in Area 3 it’s good block, good block, what’s wrong with this block,” Waldera said.

There wasn’t a lot that Waldera was able to share publicly about ongoing gang investigations and enforcement operations, but he did assure North Side residents that much of his unit’s police work goes unseen.

The Area 3 gang enforcement section, which oversees operations in the 19th, 20th, 23rd and 24th police districts, tracks and monitors all gangs and gang conflicts, documents gang hierarchies and leaders, and responds to all shootings and homicides to determine whether  or not the crimes are gang related. The unit also cultivates confidential informants who are paid for the information they provide.

“We have a very structured program. We can’t trust everybody, but they’ve been very helpful in Area 3,” Waldera said.

Three operations in Area 3 target gang leaders. The unit also works closely with federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and works with Chicago suburban police in Skokie, Evanston and the North Shore.

Area 3 holds monthly strategy meetings consisting of gang, tactical and saturation teams, gang enforcement and intelligence, CAPS, the narcotic and detective divisions, and high school officers, who review recent shootings and homicides.

There is also a “ten most wanted” list targeting the 10 most violent known gang members in Area 3, which encompasses Rogers Park, West Ridge, Ravenswood, North Center, Uptown and Lake View. Gang enforcement officers use every available resource, from the Mayor’s Gang Task Force to the Department of Buildings’ problem buildings section, which is able to root out gang members residing in rental buildings. The Illinois Department of Corrections also works extensively with Chicago police in identifying newly paroled gang members, who are often prohibited from reentering old gang turf as a condition of their parole.

“One guy getting paroled out after 10 years wants to take over again,” Waldera explained. “What we can do is get a geographic description on them. The parole violation sends them back to the penitentiary. It has been very successful and makes it harder for them to assume control.”

The oldest, Hispanic gang in the city is the Latin Kings, which has 70 different factions and over 3,000 active members. The Project Latin Kings caters in narcotics and has most of the Lathrop Homes along the Chicago River near Damen and Clybourn, under its control. Waldera said the Chicago Housing Authority has initiated a one-strike program that bans residents convicted of gang-related crimes from entering CHA properties. The CHA signs criminal trespassing complaints and works with Chicago Police gang investigators and the FBI in running sting operations at CHA properties.

The slaying of a top leader of a Latin King on the West Side 18 months ago has had a chilling effect on North Side Latin King gang members.

“”Like any organization, if they got strong leadership, wow, are they a problem,” Waldera said. “If you can take out the leaders it lessens our problems to some extent.”

Other gang hotspots include the 24th Police District in Rogers Park, West Ridge and a portion of Edgewater. Belmont and Sheffield are still considered the purview of the Gangster Disciples, which is heavy into prostitution.

“It’s a nice area but 2, 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning it’s a very interesting place,” Waldera said.

The two main gang factions operating in the 20th District are the Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples, distinguished by their “Lost World” tagging for Lawrence and Winthrop. The Conservative Vice Lords control Clarendon Park in the 23rdDistrict, and the Black P Stones, which up until five years ago fought for control over the Lathrop Homes with the Project Latin Kings, are now ensconced on the 4400 and 4500 blocks of Magnolia. The P-Stones are also moving north from Winthrop and Winona into the 24th District.

One case that continually nags at Waldera is the unsolved homicide of Truman College student Francis Oduro, an innocent bystander who was slain by gang crossfire near Broadway and Wilson in May 2008.

“We think [the Black P-Stones] are responsible. We’re fairly certain [the shooters] ran back to Magnolia,” Waldera said. “It’s probably our number one homicide and we’ve put in every extra effort that we can with that. We got informants out there and some leads. That’s one that we’d really like to solve.”

Gangs on the street aren’t as much of a problem as they are in schools. Schools have become active lately as hotbeds for gang recruitment, where most gang conflicts are resolved with violence. Area 3’s gang enforcement unit meets regularly with school officers to seek out conflicts.

“Silly as it sounds, someone might diss someone else’s girlfriend and all of sudden five people are being shot,” Waldera said. “You wouldn’t think that, but they’re young guys who don’t think of the ramifications. We hear there’s going to be a Latin King party and we’re all over that.”

What recourses to do community members have in rooting out gangs from their once pleasant, North Side neighborhoods? It may help to have the local alderman on your team. Citing a situation in the 47th Ward two years ago, residents noticed an upsurge in tagging from Ashland Avenue west to the Chicago River and a sudden influx of Latin Kings where they weren’t there before.

Resident took photos of gang graffiti and sent them to Ald. Gene Schulter’s (47th) office. An astute staff aide immediately e-mailed them to the 19th District CAPS office. Eventually, the photos landed on Waldera’s desk. The gang enforcement unit started a mission right away, contacted IDOC for new parolees, and enlisted paid informants to make drug buys at a Lawrence Avenue tavern.

“It was almost in real time,” Waldera said. “Turned out Thursday was Latin King night. They put up the butcher paper on the windows, opened the place up, it was really jumping.”

Police served the bar with a search warrant resulting in the arrests of 16 gang members, and wrote out 95 contact cards on the rest. The city shut down the bar.

“[911 calls] for shots fired and gangbangers all dropped,” Waldera said. “Six community members got awards from the Chicago Police Department. That’s the best way I’ve seen in how to handle that.”

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