Putting an end to gang violence in west suburbs

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Thomas Weitzel

The numbers speak for themselves; five Chicago police officers were shot to death in the last six months! Does that mean anything? Why should you even care? I'll tell you why; it affects us all.

The surviving family members must endure endless grief, coworkers who, after the casket is lowered into the ground, must continue to answer calls for police service and the department, as a whole, is left thinking to itself—why do I continue to serve? The public is directly affected by police officer murders. The vast number of citizens truly care about the police officers who serve their communities. All you need do is to look at the recent outcries that have occurred throughout the Chicago metro area when municipalities and cities have been forced to lay off police employees. The citizens want their police.

As the police chief of Riverside, a beautiful community of 9,000, you may be asking yourself, how does this affect me? Police officer homicides affect the whole law enforcement community. When one of Chicago's police officers is murdered in the line of duty, you can be assured it is felt far beyond Chicago's borders.

I currently serve as the chairman for the West Suburban Directed Gang Enforcement (WEDGE) task force, which includes the communities of Berwyn, Brookfield, Cicero, Forest Park, Lyons, North Riverside, Oak Park, Riverside, River Forest and Stickney. It was formed in 2006 as a direct result of the extraordinary police work by the Chicago Police Department.

Chicago is doing a great job of pushing its crime west. In 2006, the Chicago Police Department stepped up its enforcement efforts in gang and drug activity, which caused the displacement of criminals and related violent criminal activity to the west suburban area surrounding Chicago. At that time, suburban police departments lacked the manpower of our larger neighbor; we also lacked certain informational resources, and that is why WEDGE was formed. The self-admitted gang members who have murdered Chicago police officers don't just operate in Chicago; they know no borders. When Officer Michael Flisk was gunned down the line of duty by some punk, it hit suburban police hard.

The same gang members are coming to the suburbs to commit their violent crimes because they view the suburbs as having less sophisticated policing. Not true! Our WEDGE task force has been very successful in removing active street gang members from our communities in a regional approach to law enforcement. So where do we go from here? Is the answer legislative? I, along with many other law enforcement executives, have been pushing, but have been unable to get, a "reasonable overhear" statute passed for officer safety in Illinois. We have been trying for the past 10 years to get this to pass, and it is absolutely disgraceful that it has not been. Additionally, I would venture to say that most Illinois citizens are completely unaware that Illinois is only one of two states that requires two-party consent for overhear.

What is overhear? It's eavesdropping. Illinois law restricts both citizens and the police from recording conversations without a court order. Because of the many obstacles associated with obtaining a court order to overhear conversations, very few police investigations utilize this recorded evidence. In addition to the obvious evidentiary value to police, this evidence can also be used to protect the rights of a defendant against police misconduct. For the last decade I have been directly involved in trying to introduce legislation that would allow one-party consent overhear for narcotics officers only during the performance of their duties. Even under this limited scope, we have had no success. Why is that?

Politicians in Springfield have not allowed this issue to have an up or down vote. Absolutely appalling. Do you think this is indicative of the respect that our state legislators have for law enforcement? This legislation is a no-brainer—strictly an officer safety initiative that would directly and vastly improve the safety conditions that undercover narcotics officers operate in daily. But the answer still continues to be, "No, we won't pass it." Remember; the same self-admitted active gang members who are gunning down Chicago police officers will be making their way to suburban agencies soon enough. Suburban street officers can tell you that. The time to act is now!

In closing, I offer my heartfelt condolences to the family members of each Chicago police officer killed in the line of duty this year. I also want to say that I am also extremely proud of the outstanding police work being done by our partners at the Chicago Police Department. You have my continued support.

Thomas Weitzel is chief of the Riverside Police Department and chairman of WEDGE, which includes Oak Park and River Forest.

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Posted: May 23rd, 2011 11:46 AM

@Violet, I'm not saying that my case is the norm. I'll say this...I grew up in the H-O-O-D and didn't really know it unitl we moved away.My parents were as textbook as any parents I have known. I was not in a single parent household, my parents both worked my entire life, and they certainly cared and loved all of us. It did not stop me from wanting to join a gang. What stopped me was the restrictions we had and the fear that my father would kill me...then we moved away before I could join.

Violet Aura  

Posted: January 11th, 2011 5:47 PM

I never said the article mentioned poverty; I questioned the root cause of kids joining gangs and my point is that more legislation, more intrusion is not the answer and will not stop children from joining gangs. If we really want to stop the problem, we have to go to the source and just like education, the homelife is issue #1.

J.G. Morales  

Posted: January 11th, 2011 12:26 PM

@Violet Aura - I don't believe the article mentions anything about poverty. I certainly didn't mention poverty either. This article is an attempt to push new legislation, when eavesdropping isn't the solution to the problem.

Violet Aura  

Posted: January 10th, 2011 1:49 PM

Can we say that poverty is the #1 reason for young people etting involved with gangs? I think not. My feeling is that most young people get involved with gangs for a feeling of belonging. Somehow their family life does not provide that. When you are the child of a single mother who is gone (usally working) and no one is there to monitor your whereabouts, when you are a young male trying to learn what manhood is and don't know your daddy, hypermasculinity sets in. You overact the concept.

J.G. Morales from Oak Park  

Posted: January 10th, 2011 12:56 PM

Eavesdropping will not put an end to gang violence. More sophisticated armory and weaponry didn't do it, dancing on the edge of our civil rights won't either. Problems need to be dealt with at their sources. We need to do a better job enforcing the laws that are already in place before we begin to say that we need new ones.

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