North Chicago wrestles with small town pride and pursuit of justice

March 28, 2013

Andrew Gill and Shannon Heffernan

(WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
Mayor Leon Rockingham, Jr. and Police Chief James B. Jackson

The small suburb of North Chicago is known for a few things. The Navy's only boot camp is there at Great Lakes Naval Station. Abbott Laboratories and Jelly Belly are international companies based there.

But lately it seems all anyone hears about North Chicago is bad news about their police force.

Most recently, a drunk off-duty North Chicago police officer killed two Chicagoans on Lake Shore Drive. But before that there were a slew of other issues.

  • In 2011 six North Chicago police officers beat Darin Hanna, a 45 year old man who later died of his injuries.
  • In 2012 a video was released of an incident that allegedly shows a police officer beating a non-violent offender. That same year, another officer was accused of handcuffing a teenager and slamming him against a locker without cause.

A new police chief, James Jackson, was recently put in place. There haven't been any brutality scandals reported under his watch. But he found himself in hot water after a brochure that some found racist and offensive was used in a community police training.

We visited North Chicago this week to get a sense of what it's like to live there and how the small suburb was impacted by the recent incidents.

Our first impression was scarcity. There just isn't much to do there. Even the Jelly Belly factory, which has been there for 100 years, has no retail store. Bill Kelley, Vice Chairman of Jelly Belly said that wasn't always the case.

"We did have a retail store here at one point," Kelley said. "I had people say to me 'I won't come to your store because it's in North Chicago.' They just didn't think it was safe."

Jelly Belly now operates a store 30 minutes away in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.

North Chicago Police Lt. George McCleary drove us around town. He said he thought that one of the reasons crime was a problem was because there was such a lack of things to do.

Most of the residents we spoke with acknowledged that crime and a lack of economic development were challenges. But they were hesitant to be down on their city. They were aware of the stereotype that North Chicago was dangerous and didn’t want to add to it.

We met Barbara Thomas feeding seagulls in the parking lot of a closed down discount mall. She said "the trust level has fallen down" due to police scandals, but said they always showed up when she called them about drug incidents on her street.

Another young man told us that the police search him and his friends without reason. He said he didn’t trust them, and even if he was in trouble, would not call upon them for help.

Police Chief James Jackson said his department was getting an undue amount of criticism, and that they “were under a microscope.” But he did acknowledge the breakdown of trust, and wanted to build it through community outreach.

Several people told us that their distrust extended up the chain of the command, to North Chicago's city government.

That tension was apparent at the city council meeting on March 25.

The family of Darrin Hanna (the man who was beaten, and later died), shows up each week to speak about police issues. There have been two city council meetings since the Lake Shore Drive incident, but it has not been on the city council’s agenda. Other items, such as honoring a recently deceased police dog, were addressed instead.

Hanna’s cousin, Ralph Peterson and his mother, Gloria Carr, both made comments during the meeting, saying the recent Lake Shore Drive issue and the suburb's lack of response were yet another sign that North Chicago police lack oversight and discipline.  

Mayor Leon Rockingham said that North Chicago’s police force did not have a problem. He believed the negative attention was part of a political game.

There is currently a mayoral race between Rockingham and Alderman Charles January. Elections will be held in April.