PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday April 5th, 2016, 1:51pm

Chicagoans Sound Off Over Crime Reduction Plan For Back Of The Yards Neighborhood

A plan to deploy Cook County sheriff's officers to Back of the Yards to combat crime has sparked debate in the South Side Chicago neighborhood. 

Hours after Back of the Yards residents held a press conference to demand a comprehensive, community-driven approach to reducing violence in the area, a 45-year-old man was shot and wounded early Tuesday in the neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

The victim was reportedly wounded in the left leg after a man shot at his vehicle just before 3 a.m. Tuesday in the 4600 block of South Paulina St.

The shooting occurred less than a mile away from the Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, where a few dozen community residents, Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Rafael Yanez, who made an unsuccessful bid for alderman last year in the 15th Ward, gathered Monday evening for a press conference. 

The group was there to respond to a plan that calls on Cook County sheriff's officers to assist in fighting crime in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The proposal is spearheaded, in part, by Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th). At the press conference, area residents, including several youth, proposed a 10-point list of demands for Lopez detailing "specific strategies to help bring peace to our community."

"We want jobs and job training for our community and also for restorative justice to be programmed into our community," said Back of the Yards resident Giovanni Felix, 17.

The Back of the Yards/New City area ranks second in homicides in the city, is in the top 10 for sexual assault and prostitution and has a "thriving drug trade," according to Lopez's office.

Last Wednesday, Lopez and three local business and community leaders wrote to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart requesting assistance from his office, saying the local police district and community stakeholders can't tackle the area's crime on their own. Specifically, the leaders asked the sheriff's office to deploy personnel from its Police Gang Unit, Gun Team, Narcotics Unit and Vice/Human Trafficking Unit.

"We are determined to change the culture in Back of the Yards away from one that normalizes violence and gives refuge to gang life," reads the letter. "We believe residents should feel safe on their blocks, at their parks, and in their schools."

In response to the request, Dart's office will soon deploy roughly 100 officers to the South Side neighborhood, according to reporting by NBC Chicago.

While those at Monday's press conference expressed support for having additional officers patrolling the community, they said they oppose a "lock 'em up approach" to combating crime.

"We're not saying we don't want police here. We need police. But we want them in relationship with our community. We want any particular project that's coming on, or new endeavors, to take into account our community. Our community is not four people who signed a letter," said Back of the Yards resident Marco Lopez. "All of us here, and many more, are committed, very much so, to combating the violence, but again, to do it from ... the many strengths of our community, not through some myopic idea that simply bringing in more police is going to solve the problem."

Garcia said the group invited him to attend the press conference. He declined to comment specifically about the plan to have Cook County sheriff's officers deployed to the Back of the Yards.

"I leave that to the community residents here to chime in on," the Cook County commissioner told Progress Illinois. "But this group feels like it simply portrayed them in a very marginalized way, and they want to be looked at more holistically. The alderman, obviously, is responding to the levels of violence that we're seeing in many parts of the city. That's understood. But the folks who have lived here for a long time want to make sure that they're not simplified as simply a community with problems."

Progress Illinois caught up with Lopez at his ward office Monday evening.

"I don't think that it is fair to say that we are stereotyping or stigmatizing a neighborhood," the alderman said. "Right now, we are merely calling the truth for what we see is going on in the community."

He said the effort to deploy Cook County sheriff's officers to the community is "only a small part of a larger picture."

"When people are protesting saying that there should be a bigger effort, they're exactly correct," Lopez said. "And what we are doing is working together off the ideas and suggestions and discussions that have already taken place for years, almost decades, before my arrival as alderman."

Lopez, who was elected alderman last year, stressed that the collaboration between Chicago police and the sheriff's office is not a "lock 'em up approach."

"The sheriff is coming in to help support the police in their efforts to provide safety and security to our community," he said. "We're not trying to lock everybody up. What we are trying to do is help those individuals, those families, those residents that are impacted by this culture of gang violence find an out, find a new culture, find a new direction. We are working with everyone to show that if you're an ex-offender, we'll be there to help you. If you're being courted by gangs, we'll be there to help you. If you're a parent struggling with a difficult child, we will be there to help you, which is basically the resources that have been denied to so many for so long."

In addition to calling for more job opportunities and restorative justice programming in the neighborhood, the Back of the Yards residents who spoke out Monday urged Lopez to help "create a neighborhood-wide peace task force that includes community residents and institutional leaders" as well as implement "effective community policing strategies" and "engage in dialogue with community residents and institutional leaders before imposing a solution in our community."

Lopez said his office is "answering and addressing some of" the group's 10 points.

"It gives me pause when I see people protesting them getting almost everything they've asked for. Because what worries me is that people, and more precisely people with political agendas, are trying to sabotage an effort meant to make our neighborhood safe," the alderman said. "A number of the people who showed up (Monday) either are candidates, were candidates or are potential candidates. They're not trying to come here to work with me to address these issues. And, as a matter of fact, a number of them have been in the same room with me to answer these issues. So they know I have seen it. I have heard it. I have heard it from families. I have heard it from people directly impacted by the violence in Back of the Yards.

"Because I'm acting on what I've heard, acting on what I've felt and what I know the residents have told me, now there's an issue," Lopez added. "And it's unfortunate, because we truly have the chance to not only bring in the sheriff, but to bring in the resources that they've never had brought to the Back of the Yards."

Lopez said he will be convening a meeting Wednesday at his office with community stakeholders to further discuss strategies for addressing crime in the neighborhood. 

"I am working with leaders, with residents, with parents, with the parks to address the concerns that have perennially gone ignored in" the Back of the Yards community, Lopez said, adding that those who spoke out Monday "have an opportunity to work with me, if they are so inclined."

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