By Nona Tepper
On Jan. 4, intruders broke into a home on the 900 block of Franklin Avenue, stealing two cars. Almost two weeks later, they came back for more. Police had recovered the cars, but offenders forced open the home's garage and took back a vehicle, having saved the keys from the last time.
That incident was at the top of about 70 people's minds at the River Forest Community Crime Prevention Meeting, Jan. 24, as attendees waited to hear advice on how to avoid the rash of car thefts, carjackings, and home burglaries occurring in the River Forest, Forest Park, Oak Park and Elmwood Park communities.
"We have a proven crime prevention strategy in place, a regional approach because we know the same people are going into Oak Park and Forest Park and Maywood; they don't know the border," said River Forest Detective James Greenwood.
From November 2017 to Jan. 22, 2018, there have been 15 carjackings across those towns, the most occurring in Oak Park, according to data compiled by River Forest police. A carjacking occurs when a car is taken through the threat or use of physical force. Fifty-five cars were also stolen during the same time period, the majority in Oak Park. There have been 29 residential burglaries during this same time period, most in Oak Park.
Greenwood urged people who see anything suspicious to call 911. Glen Czernik, River Forest crime prevention officer, reminded audience members that if they fall victim to a carjacking or theft, to give the offender their vehicle.
"Property can be replaced, you can't," Czernik said.
Greenwood said juveniles are stealing the cars and committing the carjackings, and are responsible for some of the home burglaries too. The car theft and carjacking trend hit the Chicago area in May 2015, with crews coming from the South Side of Chicago to the north suburbs and has since bled west, with West Side crews now in River Forest.
Like the incident Jan. 4, Greenwood said most stolen cars are eventually recovered, often on the city's West Side, and that's "going to continue because that's where those stealing and carjacking our cars are living," he said.
Often thieves go door to door, or hang out at gas stations, waiting for people to leave their car unlocked with the keys inside. Because most cars are stolen this way, River Forest police will start issuing $30 tickets to those who leave their vehicle unattended while running, a practice that is technically illegal in Illinois. "Citations can always be issued but that's not necessarily the goal," said Czernik, adding that officers also plan to simply warn residents who leave their car running while waiting at Dunkin' Donuts. Forest Park and Oak Park police said they will likewise be reminding residents to turn their cars off.
When juvenile offenders are caught, they're often put on electronic monitoring, which allows them to be out of their house only during specific hours, Greenwood said. In the Franklin Avenue burglaries, officers arrested two juveniles. Cook County Juvenile Detention Center officials screened both for housing at their facility, but offenders didn't qualify for transfer. As a result, they were released.
"They're out driving around, stealing more cars, and the cycle continues," Greenwood said, calling it a broken criminal justice system.
In December 2017, River Forest police hosted reps from the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and juvenile detention centers, and they're "aware of this epidemic," Greenwood said. "They're trying to do something in the constraints that they have, but the juvenile justice system is meant to try to rehab the child."
"It's meant so we don't stigmatize and set up a 17-year-old for failure for the rest of his life," Greenwood said. "But one thing they forgot with their good intentions: what to do with the hardened gang members, the gang members from Joliet, Rockford and Chicago. They forgot to address the issue of what do we do with them, and so now they're lumped in with just the normal people and they go ahead and milk the system for what it's worth."
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