By Nona Tepper
After a year's worth of meetings, the Cook County Funeral and Cemetery Violence Taskforce may have ended its formal in-person meetings, but those involved in the group continue to talk remotely about how to keep Forest Park, Oak Park and other western suburbs safe during chaotic funeral processions, particularly as murders rise in Chicago. The group also left behind a series of recommendations, some of which have put into action by area law enforcement.
"The more murders there are, the higher likelihood more violent, or disruptive, or breaches of the peace with funerals and funeral processions and burials there are," said Detective Sergeant Jason Moran, who works for the Cook County Sheriff's Department.
"It's absolutely correlated to the rise in murders in the city of Chicago," he said. "So, in 2016, [Chicago] had that huge increase in murders, and each year it's been very high since."
Ten years ago, Moran was the lead detective in the Burr Oak Cemetery Desecration Case, where he discovered two brothers were digging up corpses and dumping the bodies in the back of the cemetery to make room for new burials.
"As a result of that case, I became the 'cemetery cop,'" he joked.
Moran was thrust into the death care industry and, because of his expertise, served on the Cook County Funeral and Cemetery Violence Taskforce. The seven-member task force was created in 2017, after a homicide was committed at a funeral in Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery in Hillside. The Hillside police chief personally rammed his car into the fleeing murderer's vehicle. The incident caught the attention of the media — as well as constituents in Hillside and the Austin community of Chicago — who complained about the prevalence of chaotic funeral processions, nicknamed "rowdy funerals."
Rowdy funerals often occur following the death of Chicago gang members, Moran said, as the funeral party travels to suburban cemeteries for the burial. Moran said he was unsure what gangs were associated with most rowdy funerals, "since the gangs have broken off into such small crews that it's hard to really kind of see." The sheriff's department was unsure if such a task force has been enacted in other areas.
"I think that the general public sometimes thinks its rival gang members, and it's not. It tends to be within the family, or groups of friends, that are in these processions that are causing these problems," Moran said. "It's not someone like crashing a funeral or funeral procession, so to speak. These individuals know one another, either by blood, marriage or a friendly relationship."
Then-First District representative Richard Boykin partnered with the Cook County Sheriff's department to create the task force, with law enforcement, faith leaders and funeral directors meeting three times over the next year. The last time the task force met was in November 2018, essentially ending its in-person meetings after Boykin lost his re-election bid to new Commissioner Brandon Johnson.
"My term sort of ended by the time the task force's work concluded, and so that created an interesting dynamic," Boykin said.
"December 1 the new board was sworn in and so I was at that November meeting," he added. "Obviously it was like, 'Rush, rush, rush to get something done here before my term ended.' But then what I said to them was, 'Don't rush it, do it right, come up with a set of recommendations that make sense and get everyone everybody on board.'"
The task force created a set of five recommendations in December 2018. Nine months later, Boykin said he believed the sheriff's department would send the recommendations to the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which could vote to formally acknowledge the recommendations and enter them into the public record in September. Any action on the recommendations beyond that would be up to funeral directors, state lawmakers and local law enforcement officials.
The task force's five recommendations stress a need for the sheriff to communicate to funeral directors and cemetarians about high risk funerals; for funeral directors to contact the Chicago Police Department about violence or threats of violence during memorial services; for Chicago police to update the sheriff's department about high risk memorial services; for the sheriff's department to provide additional security at Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery in Hillside; and for the state legislature to enhance penalties for individuals convicted of crimes at funeral, memorial, internment or entombment ceremonies.
Some of those recommendations have translated into concrete measures implemented by local law enforcement, funeral homes and cemeteries.
After the task force was created, Moran said the sheriff's department executed a contract with Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery to station two police officers there during Fridays and Saturdays. "It doesn't cost the taxpayer any money, the cemetery has entered into a contract with our department and they pay for the detail," he said. So far, Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery is the only cemetery that has secured a contract, although the sheriff's department is "in talks" with Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago about stationing police there.
Moran also now acts as a central figure in a newly-created communication system, between funeral directors, cemeteries, Chicago police and suburban departments.
When Chicago police learn of a high-risk funeral, Moran said they now issue an intelligence bulletin to the Cook County Sheriff's department, and then that agency will alert county police and suburban agencies — "primarily Oak Park and Forest Park" — about what they know about these activities.
Funeral directors have also been given contact information for their district intelligence officers for the Chicago police department, and were encouraged to call cemeteries if they suspect a funeral might devolve into violence.
"That's helped out a lot," he said.
Commissioner Johnson said that, since he's taken office, no one has brought the issue of rowdy funerals to his attention — although they have mentioned longer processions causing traffic problems — and that he has no reason to believe they are a "regular phenomenon." In June, Johnson said he did have a conversation with local officials in Westchester, who said that, in the case of longer processions, it would be helpful to have sheriff's police help secure the village.
"Local law enforcement has expressed a need for some additional support. I see that request as reasonable and sort of a simple ask for how the county can be supportive of local villages stretched for resources," Johnson said, adding that he planned to talk with the sheriff in the coming weeks about providing additional support to villages where longer processions were travelling.
Boykin said that, because the Cook County board has a balanced budget, he saw no reason the county wouldn't be able to fund additional police presence during longer processions.
"We have to do whatever we have to do to make people feel safe, and if it means we need to put more money into sheriff's police, then we need to do that," Boykin said. "The county budget has been in good shape for the last 4-5 years, quite frankly. The president announced recently they're not going to raise taxes for the upcoming budget. I think that says that the county's coffers are doing pretty well and it means we gotta make sure people are safe in their community and in the processionals."
At least three rowdy funerals have passed through Forest Park since May, according to Forest Park police reports, although there is also no centralized data repository for the number or outcome of the rowdy funerals, which Boykin said is a mistake.
"Data drives resources," he said. "The more data you have as it relates to this issue, I think the better you're able to say, 'We need to put more resources here to help prevent some of the things going on."
In addition to providing police presence during chaotic processionals, Forest Park officers review red light camera footage and fine those violating the village's funeral, disorderly conduct and negligent driving ordinances, sending tickets to vehicle registration owners in the mail. Those who do not pay their tickets ultimately get their car booted.
Johnson said local authorities must address ordinance violations at a local level but that criminalizing anything beyond that could represent an "exaggerated characterization" of anyone's behavior. He said he did not support the task force recommendation to increase criminal penalties — for example, increasing a charge of battery to aggravated battery — for those who commit illegal acts during a funeral services.
"The entire country is moving away from the criminalization of people. There's been a long history of targeting particular groups of people that has undermined and, quite frankly, destroyed our families," Johnson said, adding that enhancing penalties for those who commit illegal acts during funeral services "speaks to something out of a very treacherous past, the criminalization of people and the explosion of the prison industry complex that has unfairly and unjustly targeted people."
Boykin said the solution to calming chaotic funeral processions lies in victim's families.
"If we get folks in the homes to talk about the importance of civility as it relates to funeral processions, if we can get loved ones — somebody whose child has been killed or murdered or whatever — they know if the child was in a gang, dealing drugs. Get them to be honest with that reality and share with funeral homes, directors the circumstances, or share with the pastor of the church who does funeral services," Boykin said. "They can then alert CPD."
Moran said that, because the task force just started last year, it's hard to know if the group's work has had a direct impact on decreasing the number of rowdy funerals.
During the meetings, Moran said members discussed limiting the number of cars allowed in each processional as an additional safety measure.
"In the old days, when the cemeteries were out in rural areas and you took a funeral procession to a church out in a rural area, there wasn't as many traffic concerns," Moran said. "Being that Cook County is an urban county, lengthy travels with dozens of dozens vehicles in a processional is something not preferable."
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