This is a parable, a story about a serious crime that is also a window into the state of the relationship between Chicago’s police and the people who live in its highest crime neighborhoods.
It starts on February 3. A young woman named Tatierra got on the Homan Avenue bus on the West Side to go to work. She sat near the front, just like always.
“When it was time for me to get off the bus, I stood up, and this guy was behind me,” said Tatierra, who asked that her last name be withheld because of safety concerns. “And then he touched me.”
The man rubbed up against her in a sexual way. And then it got scarier, Tatierra said. He got off where she did, at the Central Park Pink Line station in North Lawndale.
Tatierra is 22 years old. She’s a receptionist, studying to be a medical lab technician. She thinks the guy was in his 30s. His hoodie was pulled tight around his face.
Tatierra said she breathed a sigh of relief when he headed into the train station, and she started the short walk to work. The streets felt empty that day since Chicago schools were out.
“Something just told me – turn around,” Tatierra said. “He was standing there staring at me, like he knew me. It was creepy, so I called my mom. And then, at that moment, that’s when he grabbed me.”
The guy pulled Tatierra across a vacant lot, toward homes and an alley. He pulled on the waist of her pants, Tatierra said, and she swung at him with her keys.
“There were cars coming, so I was just screaming. No one stopped,” Tatierra said, crying as she recounted the story. It was 9 a.m. on Ogden Avenue, one of Chicago’s busiest streets.
Tatierra broke free and ran to work.
“I called the [police] commander immediately,” said Richard Townsell, Tatierra’s boss and the executive director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, one of the most influential community organizations on the West Side. The group has built affordable housing, clinics, a daycare center and community gardens.
If anyone on the West Side can get a swift police response, it’s Townsell’s group.
And police did send a detective to see Tatierra right away. The 10th District commander assured Townsell police were on it.
But a week went by, and then two. Around then, a detective called Tatierra and said he wanted to stop by her home to show her photos. The detective never showed up, she said.
And in the neighborhood, it was like the assault had never happened. Townsell called the sergeant in charge of community policing.
“I was like, ‘Are you guys gonna put out pictures of the guy around the bus stations so that other people won’t also be victimized? In other neighborhoods, they have a description of the guy up, they have a community alert. Why aren’t we doing that?’” Townsell said he asked police.
Townsell said the community policing sergeant told him they had to let detectives follow their protocol. Detectives, not community policing officers, are responsible for issuing community alerts.
Townsell said he kept thinking that the response to an attempted rape in broad daylight should feel more urgent. The guy was certainly on CTA cameras — why wasn’t his picture plastered everywhere in Lawndale? Were police even looking for witnesses? Townsell said he could barely watch the news at night.
“I saw somebody that broke into someone’s car in Skokie, and they’re showing it on the nightly news,” Townsell said. “This is the night that this happened to [Tatierra]. And every night, different things. Somebody got hit in the eye on the North Side and so they’re putting up flyers; there’s a community meeting about it, the alderman is called in. And it’s just like, for her — nothing. It’s like we’re invisible. We don’t matter.”
One day, a few weeks after the assault, Townsell got a call from police. Here’s the news about Tatierra’s attacker, he thought. Instead, police wanted help with a homicide, a high-profile case getting a lot of media attention.
“They wanted me to come and stand at a press conference, behind them — like they’re on the job,” he said. “I’m kind of like, ‘I thought you were calling to tell me that you got the guy who tried to sexually assault Tatierra.’”
Townsell skipped the press conference.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the relationship between police and residents in neighborhoods like North Lawndale is troubled, by recent events like police shootings, but also by what residents frequently say is a lack of basic services from police. Both residents and police complain about a lack of trust from the other side, and city officials have said they want to repair the relationship.
“There’s a lot of attention to homicides, but we’ve also got … everyday folks who get nothing ... in terms of regular police service. Homicides are a terrible thing for our city, but they’ve got to do regular policing, too. That doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention here as it gets in other neighborhoods,” Townsell said
Whether it’s homicides or attempted sexual assault, criminal justice experts say trust between the community and police is not just a luxury, something that makes life more pleasant. It’s essential to fighting crime.
Fast forward to February 27. Tatierra said a detective showed her a lineup, and she was positive she saw her attacker, even though police told her it was an older photo.
Then, in mid-March, more than six weeks after the crime, a detective called Tatierra to share good news — police had the guy. In fact, the detective told Tatierra, he’d been in jail since February, just days after Tatierra’s incident, she said. He was being held on a different charge.
Police told WBEZ that they didn’t tell Tatierra sooner because it would have compromised their detective work.
But now — nearly three months after the crime, and a month after police told Tatierra they had the guy — no charges have been filed in her case. Police said the investigation is ongoing.
“I’m so confused,” Tatierra said, who has never been shown a picture of the man in custody. “I don’t know what to believe.”
It seems like police may have done a lot of things right in this case — they pulled images from the CTA bus camera, for instance. They showed Tatierra the lineup. They tracked down the guy.
So why does Townsell — who should be a natural ally for police — still feel disgruntled about the whole thing?
“There’s a lot of attention to homicides, but we’ve also got … everyday folks who get nothing ... in terms of regular police service,” Townsell said. “Homicides are a terrible thing for our city, but they’ve got to do regular policing, too. That doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention here as it gets in other neighborhoods.”
Townsell said he asked the Lawndale police on multiple occasions for a community alert — to make sure no one else was assaulted. He was never told the danger was over — that they thought they had the guy.
And he still wonders, if police have the right guy, why don’t they charge him?
WBEZ talked with the community policing sergeant in Lawndale, the guy Townsell has been in contact with. He’s in charge of building bridges between police and the community.
Sgt. Alfonso Lara said local police are limited in what they can do. Officers patrol the streets and generate reports. They don’t investigate crimes, he said. They also are not in charge of community alerts — those come from the detectives. And detectives aren’t based in the police districts. The detectives for Lawndale, on the West Side, are located at 51st and Wentworth, on the South Side.
Even during a lengthy interview last week, Lara never mentioned that police have someone in custody in Tatierra’s case. But he said if Townsell is upset about how police are handling the crime, he should get the church affiliated with his organization to put a call out and help find witnesses to Tatierra’s attempted sexual assault.
In response to a question about how police can respond to community pressure to take action, Lara said that back in February he sent teenagers in a police program out to flyer the community near where Tatierra was grabbed. But their handouts only included general information, urging residents to be aware of their surroundings. They didn’t mention a sexual assault.
People like people like Richard Townsell should be natural allies with police and can help build safety in communities, said Art Lurigio, a Loyola University professor of psychology and criminology. In this case, he said that even if police did everything right, Townsell’s perception is that they did not. That has consequences.
“That is so detrimental,” Lurigio said. “It can undermine further the precarious relationships the police have with African-Americans in Chicago.”
Tatierra said she still rides the bus to work, which has been scary for her.
“If they have him, it’s a blessing. But if they don’t have him, and they have the wrong person … I want them to continue to look for him. Especially in this neighborhood. There’s a lot of little girls walking around by themselves.”
For Townsell, there’s that. And there’s also the bigger issue of community-police relations. To him, this story helps explain why those relations don’t seem to be getting any better.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZEducation.