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The violent world of police beat 624

A Chicago Police vehicle passes through intersecti79th Cottage Grove hub crime Be624. This areis just blocks from where Officer Thomas

A Chicago Police vehicle passes through the intersection of 79th and Cottage Grove, a hub of crime in Beat 624. This area is just blocks from where Officer Thomas Wortham IV was murdered. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: May 10, 2011 10:19AM

Originally published May 23, 2010

The most violent part of Chicago? It’s a section of Chatham, the largely middle-class, African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side that has long been a bastion of black lawyers, cops, plumbers and other professionals, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.

“I am very, very surprised,” said the Rev. Marc Robertson, 48, a Chatham homeowner for the last eight years.

“Almost overnight, we’re at the top of violent crime?”

An unwanted spotlight was cast on Chatham last week, when Thomas Wortham IV, an off-duty Chicago cop, was shot to death by robbers trying to steal his new motorcycle as he left his parents’ home.

But the current epicenter of violence in Chicago sits five blocks north of there -- what the Chicago Police Department calls Beat 624.

The department divides the city into beats, 279 in all. And Beat 624 ranks No. 1 among them in violent crime for the first three months of 2010, according to the Sun-Times analysis, which takes into account the total number of major violent crimes reported -- all of the murders, sexual assaults, robberies, aggravated batteries and aggravated assaults in every police beat.

Beat 632, where Wortham was killed, ranked 17th.

“We have seen a spike in violent crime,” said Maryellen Drake, executive vice president of the Chatham-Avalon Park Community Council. “It’s like a cancer. And it’s spreading. We are trying to find out how to stop it. It’s really becoming ugly for us out here.”

Perhaps even more surprising, the analysis shows that three of Chicago’s traditionally highest-crime police districts -- Englewood on the South Side and Austin and Harrison on the West Side -- didn’t have any beats in the top 25.

The safest beats in the city? That’s a tie:

• Beat 1814 on the North Side, bordered by Fullerton on the north, Sedgwick on the west, North Avenue at the south and Lake Michigan to the east.

• And three Far Northwest Side beats: Nos. 1611, 1612 and 1621.

Each of those beats posted only two violent crimes in the first three months of the year.

Beat 624 is bordered by 75th on the north, 80th on the south, King Drive on the west and Metra’s railroad tracks on the east. It also covers parts of the Grand Crossing and Avalon Park neighborhoods. But police say the violence is concentrated in a 24-block chunk of the beat, mainly along a spine of crime -- 79th Street, one of the South Side’s main east-west routes.

Twenty-eight of the beat’s 66 violent crimes were robberies. Two were murders, two were sexual assaults, and the rest included shootings, beatings and stabbings.

Police Cmdr. Eddie Johnson did his own analysis of the department’s Gresham District when he took over there in 2008 and determined that 624 was “our worst beat.”

“Our public violence -- robberies and shootings -- was extremely high, so I created a violence-suppression team, with a sergeant and eight officers,” Johnson said.

He also formed a bicycle team whose officers are focusing on Beat 624, and he has assigned two foot-patrol officers to 79th and Cottage Grove, at the hub of crime.

Officers “have driven robberies down about 60 percent on that beat,” Johnson said. “[Crime] is still higher than you want it to be. But, as bad as it is, we are seeing success.”

Police sources said the department plans to deploy citywide crime-fighting units this summer to problem areas in Beat 624. Other citywide gang and narcotics units regularly operate in the Gresham District, the sources said.

Still, community leaders, retired cops, shopkeepers and others who live and work there said they believe the Police Department is understaffed in the Gresham District, emboldening the crooks in Beat 624.

“Every once in a while, the police walk down 79th Street and intimidate the gang-bangers,” said Robert Smith, who works at a Chatham pawn shop near 79th and Langley. “It’s not enough.”

Drake said she thinks Johnson is doing a good job as commander but needs more manpower. Several ex-cops, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said beat officers, tactical officers and gang officers have been shifted from the district to work in citywide units.

“They took the best and most aggressive kids, and what you have left is officers who are inexperienced or old-timers,” one retired, formerly high-ranking police official said. “A lot of them are in one-man cars. They’re not as willing to get out and deal with these knuckleheads.”

Many of those “knuckleheads” -- according to Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th), Robertson and others -- are coming to the area from Chicago Housing Authority buildings that the city has demolished in recent years in a massive effort to improve housing conditions for the poor.

“With the dismantling of public housing, we have an influx of people who don’t share the same values,” Robertson said. “When you have that kind of element that comes in to a community of stability, that can be very disruptive.”

Johnson, the police district commander, said hot spots in Beat 624 such as 79th and Cottage Grove are “very transient because you have a lot of apartments there. A lot of the people who migrated there don’t share the values of the longtime Chatham residents. It’s creating a problem. It’s two sets of morals clashing.”

Lyle said “crime has moved as housing patterns have moved. [But] there’s been no real acknowledgement that crime has moved with the migration of people” tied to the “Plan for Transformation” that demolished CHA high-rises.

Robertson said that when older Chatham residents retire and move these days, many of them rent out their homes rather than sell them because of the soft real estate market. And many of those renters don’t mow their yards, take care of the homes or respect neighbors’ right to peace and quiet, he said.

Drake, from the Chatham-Avalon Park Community Council, said many retired Chatham residents -- the “government city workers, the white-collar workers, the police officers, the firemen, ‘Joe the plumber’ and ‘Sam the bus driver’” -- had jobs in the city and were active in the neighborhood. But their children -- people in Drake’s age group -- often commute to the suburbs, return home at 7 p.m. and don’t have time to volunteer, she said.

“We are reaching out to that group to get them to participate,” she said.

Community activists also are focusing on businesses they think help to incubate the crime -- and trying to shut them down.

One target is a liquor store in the heart of Beat 624 -- on Cottage Grove near 79th. Robertson and Drake said they hope a CVS or Walgreens drugstore can move into the space currently occupied by the liquor store, which they view as a hangout for gang members and other criminals.

“It’s a derelict corner,” Robertson said. “That would get rid of the criminal element that’s there.”

Others say they would support installing “blue-light” police surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, despite the stigma those carry. One of those people is a west suburban woman who grew up near Beat 624 and passes through it to visit her elderly mother in the old neighborhood. She said her mother feels the need to have a security system, a pit bull and a gun for protection.

“I have family members who are scared to death to go out at night,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of putting her mother in danger. “Back in the day, we could walk to the bus and the grocery store and feel relatively safe.

“Now, we have to fight back.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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