By Megan Dooley
Two police officers wearing dark clothing and bullet-proof vests cruise the streets of River Forest in an unmarked cop car.
They spot a man dressed in plaid flannel who matches the description of a local car burglar. The officer in the passenger seat quickly shuffles out of his vest, pulls on a blue baseball cap, and steps out of the car.
He follows the suspect on foot, through a crowded parking lot and up the stairs to a CTA train platform. Suddenly, a handful of officers surround the man in plaid.
Several minutes later, the officers retreat from the platform, the suspect boards a train heading downtown, and River Forest Sgt. Martin Grill reclaims his seat in the front of the police car.
It wasn't their guy.
According to Grill and the man driving the car, Forest Park Det. Sgt. Michael Keating, that's just the way it happens — most of the time. Both men are officers with the multi-jurisdictional West Suburban Drug and Gang Enforcement (WEDGE) task force, which links police departments from eight villages in the western suburbs to fight crimes related to drug dealing and gang activity. The work takes vigilance, and the realization that more often than not, an operation or inquiry will lead nowhere.
And yet, that seemingly small success rate translated to 88 felony arrests last year, the establishment of more than 250 gang contacts, and the removal of more than 2,500 grams of illegal drugs and six illegal firearms from the street.
The WEDGE mission is simple. "We're just trying to sort the good guys out from the bad guys," said Keating, who, with Grill, holds a leadership role for the task force street operations. "To arrest bad people, it's a good thing."
And that's just what they've done since WEDGE was established in 2008; patrol the streets of Berwyn, Brookfield, Forest Park. Lyons, North Riverside, Oak Park, Riverside, River Forest, and Stickney to combat crime and put the bad guys away.
It's an adrenaline-filled lifestyle; of stopping on a dime and turning cars and pockets inside out in search of drugs and weapons, or hitting another dead end. "It's like fishing," Keating said. And tracking down the bad guy? "It's like catching the big bass."
Keating called it "controlled chaos;' with near-constant action, even between arrests. It's the perfect job for someone with a short attention span, he said. Keating seems to fit the profile. "If somebody paid my bills, I'd do this for free."
The lines of drug- and gang-related crime are often blurred. A fistfight might be a gang initiation ritual. A retail theft might be the work of an addict looking for something to sell to get money for his next fix. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's fueled by narcotics," Grill said of local crime.
Grill credits the Chicago police with doing a fine job of pushing drug deals off the city street corners. But dealers are crafty, and developed new ways to disperse their goods; a suburban drug-delivery service. Grill, who was raised in River Forest, doesn't like that kind of action in his former backyard. "When we get these crime patterns, I take it personally," he said.
Keating and Grill generally ride together. Their approach is firm but friendly; they don't want "gangbangers" thinking they're soft, but they're also not out to alienate every petty criminal and average Joe on the street. "We're not after the petty crimes," said Grill. And sometimes, establishing relationships with the minor players can help crack open larger crimes, and lead to more serious criminals.
"If you're just nice to people, they're nice back," Grill said. "We don't swear. We don't need to."
The task force is charged with covering some 15 square miles of territory between the nine villages. But working only six days per month on WEDGE missions, the organization has managed to make a significant impact on lowering drug- and gang-related crime on those streets. For instance, in February, they busted a Chicago-based heroin dealer who had been making regular trips to the west suburbs to sell drugs. Early last month, they caught two River Forest car thieves who were admitted gang members. And all of the many WEDGE missions leaves the promise of another crime solved, and another criminal off the street.
"There's always something to do," said Grill.