The shooting of six people at a funeral service in the South Side neighborhood of Burnside on Oct. 22 was the focus of conversation at the second meeting of the Cook County Funeral and Cemetery Violence Taskforce meeting in Forest Park on Oct. 26.
Cook County Detective Sergeant Jason Moran, who serves on the task force, said the incident is still under investigation, and it will be a case study for the committee on preventing more violence at funerals on the South Side and western suburbs of Chicago.
Much of the task force’s work in the western suburbs has been centered on Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery at Roosevelt and Mannheim roads and increasing police presence at funeral homes in Chicago that sometimes send raucous funeral processions through the city and suburbs.
Moran said Chicago police had an officer assigned to the funeral at Bethlehem Star Missionary Baptist Church, 9231 S. Cottage Grove, but the officer there to keep the peace was called away on an emergency.
“That officer chose to respond to support and assist his fellow policeman and after that is when the shooting occurred,” Moran said.
Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, said he has begun hiring off-duty police officers to protect funeral services and processions that could become violent.
“Their presence makes a world of difference,” he said.
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, who created the task force with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in March, said pastors and funeral-home directors often are unaware that the services they hold could become violent. Police should share information with them when they suspect funerals could become violent.
Chicago police could reference its gang member database and other resources to help track funerals involving gang members, he said.
“That alert [informing law enforcement officials of a gang-related homicide] shouldn’t just go to the sheriff’s police; it ought to also go to a local jurisdiction like Cicero or Oak Park — they need to have the information,” Boykin said. “The pastor of the church where the funeral is taking place needs to have the information, and the funeral home director needs to have the information.”
Task force members discussed creating a hotline for funeral and cemetery operators to maintain direct contact with law enforcement officials when they suspect violence might take place.
Spencer Leak Jr., vice president of Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, said it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether the deceased was connected to gang activity because families frequently do not disclose that their son or daughter was involved with a gang.
“We handle a lot of the crime victim cases in Chicago,” he told the board.
He noted that his funeral home accepts payment through the state of Illinois’ Crime Victim Compensation Act, which reimburses families up to $7,500 for the burial of their loved one if they are the victim of a crime.
Leak encouraged the police to meet with families of a deceased person suspected of being involved in gang activity to better understand whether or not there could be retaliatory gang activity at the funeral.
When a funeral home begins talking with the family of the deceased, he said, “We are blind. It’s very hard for a funeral director to ask the questions to that family where it may be a little bit easier for the police officers to ask that family the question. When we are meeting with a family … and we begin to try and pry into what’s going on with their loved one’s life, all of them are going to say, ‘My baby was the best.'”
Investigating gang affiliations of deceased people is “not what we do,” said Leak, adding that when he does discover a person might have been involved in a retaliatory gang shooting, they might not be eligible for reimbursement in the Crime Victim Compensation Act.