Last week’s shootout between two moving vehicles that continued as they drove from Maple Avenue onto Lexington Street was the last straw for residents who live in that southwest Oak Park corridor, many of whom heard several gunshots. Fed up with the increased crime right outside their doorsteps, neighbors are banding together in a coordinated campaign to demand something be done to increase safety.
“The incident with the shootings on Lexington is just the catalyst for our initiative,” said Michael Pajonk, who lives in the 1000 block of Wenonah Avenue.
The shootout was not an isolated incident of crime for the area. Neighbors involved in the campaign have produced a document, complete with a map, listing each recent criminal incident and where it took place. Such incidents include armed carjackings, observed drug deals and drug use, people drinking and engaging in sexual activity in parked cars, speeding, blowing through stop signs and even public defecation.
The most recent shootout is included, as is the alleged gang funeral procession that occurred Sept. 23, where an undercover officer reported seeing someone waving a handgun out of a vehicle window. When police tried to stop the driver of the vehicle, the person allegedly accelerated toward the officer, who fired once into the vehicle before the driver fled. Police chased the car along Lexington Street, according to the neighbors’ documentation.
The goal of the campaign is to collaborate with law enforcement and the village of Oak Park to determine possible solutions that would have the two-fold purpose of calming traffic and preventing further criminal activity.
“One of the things that I’m very much hoping for is that there is recognition of our unique characteristics in terms of our neighborhood — its openness, its location to the highway, and the easy exit of anyone who is committing a crime,” said neighbor Mike Baldwin.
So far, the neighbors have found the Oak Park Police Department open to participating in these discussions. The neighbors held a meeting last Sunday that was attended by about 15 to 18 residents. Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds, Commander Paul Kane and Officer John Rumoro, the area’s resident beat officer, were present for the neighborhood’s beat meeting, where these concerns were also raised. Trustee Jim Taglia also attended that beat meeting but did not respond to requests for comment.
The meeting lasted about an hour and provided an opportunity for residents to tally for the police some of the criminal incidents that have taken place in the last few years, and a chance to discuss possible solutions, according to Baldwin, who lives in the 900 block of South Wenonah Avenue.
“They agreed it would be appropriate to set up a meeting with the police department and village management to talk through the bigger picture and start to come up with some planning to move forward,” said Baldwin.
Reynolds declined Wednesday Journal’s requests for comment. Kane told the paper the meeting with neighbors “went very well.” While crime is certainly up on highways — ABC-7 reported Nov. 5 that state police are investigating 207 shootings on Chicago-area highways so far this year — Kane does not necessarily believe the area’s proximity to the expressway is entirely to blame for the neighborhood’s uptick in criminal activity.
“There’s an increase of violent crime everywhere these days,” said Kane.
To combat this, the Oak Park Police Department is working more with neighboring departments through the West Suburban Directed Gang Enforcement (WEDGE) task force, Kane told neighbors at the Sunday meeting.
“Some of the departments around here are working together, and we actually have them coming to town this coming weekend to run some combined missions with us,” he said.
The police department has also enhanced its patrolling in the neighborhood to have a more visible police presence. He called the type of illicit activities occurring in this particular stretch of Oak Park “crimes of opportunity,” so the department is trying to eliminate that window of opportunity by “using resources more effectively and direct them in some of these areas.”
“I would say that I don’t necessarily believe Oak Park is the destination for these crimes to occur, I just think it happens to be where the crime is occurring,” Kane said.
The most recent shootout between people in two different vehicles started in Forest Park. The drivers then turned onto Lexington Street, entering Oak Park.
“They could have easily turned right or easily gone south. It could have been a Berwyn issue; it could have been a Forest Park issue,” said Kane. “But they turned into Oak Park.”
Kane made it clear that happenstance does not diminish the significance of what happened, nor does the department take it lightly. Higher visibility of police, he believes, will help dissuade people from committing unlawful acts near the area.
Police have no control over changing traffic patterns or putting in calming measures; they only have the authority to enforce what is put in place by the village of Oak Park. Neighbors, however, have said village staff has not been willing to engage with them as readily as the police have.
“The village certainly doesn’t seem to be enthused about raising those issues or doing any sort of outreach to us as a community, even though they know and have the records to support these incidents happening along Lexington,” said Pajonk.
Neighbors reached out to Jill Juliano, the village’s transportation engineer, with their concerns and the reasoning behind them, but only got what they considered a perfunctory response, a table of potential options, and a document explaining the petition process.
“It was very much an administrative response and really didn’t address the safety concerns we have,” said Baldwin. “It was very clear to me from that one interaction that the village was not going to take this up as something that needs to be addressed.”
Wednesday Journal reached out to Juliano and Public Works Director John Wielebnicki for comment but was redirected to Oak Park spokesman David Powers.
“They typically are not involved in the public discussion of whether or not traffic calming is what is needed in a particular case,” said Powers.
The neighbors have their own ideas to increase safety and prevent crime. Included in the document is a list of possible traffic-calming solutions, including implementing a one-way, right-turn-only, constrained traffic pattern at Harlem Avenue and Lexington Street, as well as partial or full street closures. Cameras and speed bumps are also among the suggestions, as is constructing cul-de-sacs at either Lexington Street and Maple Avenue or Lexington Street and Harlem Avenue.
“The cul-de-sac is definitely something that there’s interest in, but it’s going to require analysis to understand what the real impact of that would be across the neighborhood,” said Baldwin.
The neighbors believe that partnering up with the village and law enforcement is necessary for their initiative to be successful. To get the village on board, the neighbors are switching their focus to members of the village board. A letter writing campaign is in the works.
“We’re not taking an adversarial position vis-à-vis the village,” said Baldwin. “We want to work with them, and we’d like to see them take the initiative and outreach to us as well, recognizing there are concerns, there are issues. And present to us some options to make citizens of Oak Park safer.”