It may not be a police officer’s worst nightmare, but it’s close. Shots fired, the call said – right across the street from the Oak Park police station, a lot at the intersection of Madison and Taylor.

When Officer Anthony Razzino and his colleagues arrived, they found at least 100 kids standing in a circle throwing firecrackers and smashing bottles.

“I was like, ‘What the eff is going on here? This is like the Wild West,” Razzino said. “‘This is an issue. This is crazy,’ I said. And then stuff like that started happening more and more.”

Today, walking down that same block, 400 South Taylor, it’s impossible to tell this mix of well-kept homes and apartment buildings was once one of the biggest problem blocks in the village of Oak Park.

But from roughly 2003 until 2005, the block was the focus of a concerted effort by the police and the village to reclaim one of its most unruly blocks for its residents.

“You drive down the 400 block of Taylor today, what a beautiful block – I like that block. But it didn’t used to be like that,” Police Chief Rick Tanksley said. “They had loud music, they were blocking the sidewalk, they were spitting, there was profanity until all hours of the night. They were combative with the police, they were disrespecting their neighbors. It was a mess.”

Razzino had just started his job as the neighborhood’s resident beat officer in 2004 when the issue came to a head. He was assigned to the whole neighborhood, but for all intents and purposes, 400 S. Taylor was his entire beat.

As beat officer, he was the ringleader for the operation. Day in and day out, he walked up and down the street talking to kids – and it sometimes wasn’t pleasant.

“They would get in your face and they would push every button they could possibly think of, and I’d have to write them every ticket I could possibly think of,” Razzino said. ‘That was not what I wanted to do as a police officer.”

Razzino became the face of a police effort to crack down not just on major crimes, but on infrequently-cited quality-of-life crimes – a mandate that came down from Tanksley.

That meant issuing tickets for profanity, spitting and obstructing the sidewalk, among other rare charges. It was an effort to hit the rowdy youngsters and their parents where it hurt: in the pocket.

“Sometimes, quality-of-life issues are 10 times more important than criminal issues,” Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose said. “If you don’t feel safe, no matter how safe your neighborhood is, it doesn’t matter what we do. If people feel that they can’t go out on their front porch or let their children play outside, or you can’t sleep at night because there’s loud noise or they hear swearing and stuff like that, why do you want to live in that community?”

That’s what led police to an approach that was essentially zero-tolerance.

“Yes, it’s a 16-year-old hanging out on the corner, is he really breaking the law? No, but you have to understand it’s like the broken window syndrome,” Razzino said, referring to the school of thought that enforcing minor infractions prevents bigger crimes from happening. “Yeah, I’m a big bad guy for coming in there and shooing Johnny away from the corner, but you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and understand what we’re trying to do here.”

For a while, it seemed like it worked. With the cooperation of many of the block’s residents, police and citizen patrols seemed to tame down the block.

But in March 2005, one home on the block that had been a frequent hangout threw one final raucous party that spilled out into the streets when a fight broke out.

Police reported multiple 911 calls that night, and when homeowner Sharon Smith sent the partygoers into the street, police reported between 60 and 150 people on the scene.

“The house started emptying out, and it really took us about an hour and a half to clear out the streets,” Razzino said. “We wrote every ticket in the book we could possibly think of.”

Smith, who had described the police’s tactics during the multi-year crackdown as harassment, was hit with $3,000 in fines for the party, including running a business without a license for charging admission to the party and public nuisance.

Those fines were eventually reduced to $800 and community service by a second judge, but the damage was done.

“That literally shut them down. It was a ghost town – tumbleweeds could be seen,” Razzino said.

Today, Smith’s home is in foreclosure and all’s quiet on South Taylor.

“It’s actually been pretty wonderful,” said Laura Garcia, who moved onto the block five and a half years ago with her husband and her then-2½ year-old. “There’s just a lot of families around here now, they put the sprinkler on and kids run around in the summers. It doesn’t seem to be very different from many other blocks.”

Bill Planek, president of OakParkApartments.com which owns a large apartment building on the block, agreed.

“Over the last 7 years, I think there’s just been a tremendous investment in the neighborhood by neighbors,” Planek said. “I think some of the kids that were troubled grew up and moved away. You just have to outlast them.”

Contact: bmeyerson@wjinc.com

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...