“It was a quiet summer…a lot of them are locked up,” said Tony Brzezniak, the Cook County Sheriff’s deputy area commander for unincorporated Maine Township.
And, hopefully for Brzezniak and Maine High School District 207 students and teachers, a quiet school year, too, as a relief from gang harassment near Maine East High School.
Donna Pellar, a District 207 board member, had sadness in her voice in describing how some students had to walk three blocks out of their way to avoid Robin Drive, where some Latin Kings members lived near Maine East. The response of Brzezniak and the sheriff’s department was to flood nearby street corners with police to ensure “safe passage” to school.
These anecdotes and analysis, and the visit of Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, enlivened Maine Township Trustee Laura Morask's Gang Awareness Seminar, held at Maine Township Hall Wednesday night. Bringing together a room full of citizens, top police officials and prosecutors, including Alvarez, Morask gave a primer about gangs in a community that now has many of the same problems as the inner city.
Inner-city problems have come to low-income housing here
Decades of migration from the city to low-income housing in the suburbs have transferred almost all traditional gang activities to the suburbs.
Describing his image of the suburbs as a youth in the city years ago, Chicago Police Gangs Senior Detective Greg Jacobson said, “I thought that was utopia.”
Gangs set up in low-income rental units, which increased in number when local property owners unable to sell their homes in a depressed real-estate market opted to convert the residences as Section 8 rentals, said Niles Police Chief Dean Strzelecki. And heroin, once thought of as an inner-city problem, is now sold by gangs in the suburbs.
Cops, state’s attorney cut into gangs
But there is progress, according to the panel assembled by Morask, herself a former state’s attorney’s gangs prosecutor.
Brzezniak supervises a gang undercover unit of one sergeant and eight officers, patrolling an unincorporated area of 37,000 diverse residents, a larger population than Niles and several other nearby suburbs. Arrests of gang members and the escorting of students is one bit of progress.
Strzelecki has seen a “downtrend” of gang activity in Niles, where the Latin Kings and Surenos have operated. Instead, the two gangs are involved in “infighting” instead of preying on the community, the chief added. Reports of new graffiti are tackled by Niles public works cleanup crews within 24 hours, he said.
Two laws help convict gang members
Two recent laws have given more bite to prosecutors, said keynote speaker Alvarez.
A 2009 law requires prison time for gang members caught on the street with a loaded gun. They are no longer eligible for parole.
“The cases we charge, the offenders are pleading guilty,” Alvarez said. “They’re not even going to trial. We’re quite impressed by the numbers.”
Another law, effective last June, is the Street Gang RICO Law (Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations), which allows county prosecutors to go after street gangs in way similar to how federal prosecutors go after organized crime.
Attacking gang ‘enterprise’
“We’re trying to attack gang enterprise,” Alvarez said. “They’re in business, and some have done quite well. We attack the entire enterprise.”
Alvarez’s next goal is to “get the guy who (remotely) calls the shots – calling the action on 63rd Street (from as far away as a suburb).”
Most astounding was gang collusion in sex trafficking.
“Gangs who were traditionally fighting each other are now working together as business partners in sex trafficking,” said Alvarez, who described the crime as often “under the radar.”
Gang involvement is even showing up in mortgage-fraud cases, added Alvarez.
Morask provided a PowerPoint presentation about the lure of gangs, where perceived “easy money and romance” are a big attraction.
She also warned of “netbanging,” in which gangs set up web sites with E-commerce features. Morask displayed pro-gang T-shirts and infant bibs sold on-line. One bib was labeled “Snitches get stitches.”
In the end, all have a stake in clamping down on gangs.
“It’s not a police problem, it’s a problem with everybody,” said Park Ridge Police Chief Frank Kaminski.