For the past two summers, Resident Beat Officer Anthony Razzino has spent an inordinate amount of his time dealing with just one block in his beat?#34;the 400 block of South Taylor. In fact, for the past four years, that one block has taken more than its share of the Oak Park police department's time and focus.
"I've been the RBO for two years. When I first started I thought it was out of control," Razzino said. "But the department got organized, and the combined efforts of everyone improved."
That calm was ruptured on Friday evening, March 11 when police responded to "numerous" 911 calls reporting a raucous house party and spillover fights at the 430 S. Taylor Ave. home of Sharon Smith.
While other residents have been appreciative of the intense police presence on the block in recent years, Smith has objected and called it harassment.
In past summers, the transgressions that most bothered people living on the block were usually quality of life issues, including teenagers engaging in profanity and spitting, as well as excessive noise and rowdiness. Alcohol was also sometimes involved, and the cumulative effect of the large numbers of often ill-mannered youth hanging around was to make residents ill-at ease. In several cases, teens who were stopped by police responded with verbal and even physical abuse of the officers, further unsettling residents.
The summer of 2004 was looking like it might be more of the same last May when Commander Anthony Ambrose and members of the community policing staff joined Community Relations Director Cedric Melton at a sidewalk meeting with some 40 block residents. Many residents at that time expressed in detail their weariness at having to contend with juvenile rowdiness, and police intensified their monitoring of the block.
However, Smith complained bitterly at that meeting that one of her daughters, Serena, had been hassled by police in 2003 for merely standing on her front sidewalk. Additionally, she said, her 20 year old son Dane was ticketed for a local ordinance violation that Sept. 22 for interfering in the public way, as well as for profane language, charges that were eventually dropped.
At that time Smith told WEDNESDAY JOURNAL, "I feel like they don't want us to be seen or heard."
However, Smith's neighbors allegedly had no problem hearing and seeing what police said were some 100 or more people in her home the night of Friday, March 11. That night police responded to "numerous" 911 calls regarding a loud house party at 430 S. Taylor. According to Razzino, Smith had ended a house party after a fight started inside the house.
Once out in the street, another fight broke out, according to police.
"That was something we'd been monitoring all night," said Razzino, who said that a fight had broken out inside the Smith residence.
"The homeowner sent everyone out into the street," he said.
Smith was cited for four village ordinance violations on two tickets, including illegally charging admission to the party and creating a nusiance.
Smith disputed a number of details stated by police in a phone conversation Monday, calling it "a gross distortion of the truth." She contends the party was a birthday celebration for one of her children, and that there were around 50 people present, not "over 100," as the police contend.
She also denied charging admission.
"It was a birthday donation that the children were contributing to," she said.
Smith also insisted that it was she who called police for assistance the evening of March 11, but would not specify the specific circumstances that led her to make that call.
Smith had a court date at the Maybrook courthouse on April 19. When she failed to show up for a 9 a.m. hearing last Wednesday, Judge James Gavin heard testimony from several neighbors who had shown up for the court date, as well as Razzino, and found Smith guilty on all four charges. He levied the maximum fine allowable in each case, $750, for a total of $3,000.
Razzino said that he was told Smith reportedly showed up that afternoon for the 1:30 court call.
Smith, however, said that she showed up later that same morning.
"I got there that morning, but I was late," she said. "They were finished and everyone was gone."
Razzino said that the reason everyone was gone was because court was over at 10:30 a.m.
"They called her name three times," he said.
The judge eventually relented, set aside his verdict, and scheduled another hearing for May 18 at 9 a.m.
"You can expect a bigger show of support (from neighbors) then," Razzino said.
In the meantime, police continue to maintain a strong, visible presence on the block, which had paid dividends. There are promising signs of peace, some say.
"From my vantage point, it's been relatively quiet. Nowhere near what used to be the case." said Cedric Melton, who said he met with an elderly resident of the block two weeks ago who said that things have been quiet.
Razzino buttressed that view, noting that he'd spoken with a new homeowner who moved onto the block several months ago, and seems comfortable with the block.
Yet while happy about what they see as hard earned progress, police officials aren't willing to declare victory. When a reporter suggests that they appear to have the situation well under control, Commander Ambrose shakes his head and smiles.
"It's a work in progress," he corrects.