On the Far North Side, about 70 members of a controversial new community watch group walk the West Rogers Park neighborhood in orange jackets that were paid for, in part, by the Chicago Police Department.
The police sergeant who spearheaded the effort sees the watch as a way for residents to work together to reduce property crime in their neighborhood. But others see the orange jackets as a polarizing symbol that authorizes residents to act as an extension of the police.
“We want a nosy neighbor on every corner, on every block,” said Richard Concaildi, a neighborhood resident and member of the watch group. “You see something that looks suspicious, observe it, call it in safely. It’s that simple.”
The West Rogers Park Community Watch formed in February after residents complained about a surge in vehicle break-ins in their typically low-crime neighborhood. Chicago Police Sgt. Shawn Sisk, a community policing representative with the Rogers Park District, said he came up with the idea to have residents walk the streets and report crimes. By late February, Concaildi and others received the jackets and instructions on what to do when patrolling the streets.
Concaildi, the CAPS facilitator for beat 2411, said he was one of the first to sign up and now wears the standard-issue orange jacket two or three times a week while walking his dog. He said he’s called police about a dozen times to report things like drinking in public and possible drug use.
“It’s always a value call. Look for the things that don’t look like they fit,” Concaildi said. “You live in the neighborhood, you know who belongs.”
Low-crime, high concern
The West Ridge Community Watch patrols an area near the Chicago-Evanston border. The neighborhood has a lower violent-crime rate than other parts of the city. But late last year, the area saw a dramatic spike in property crimes, particularly motor vehicle thefts and car burglaries, according to city data.
Sisk said residents were clamoring on blogs and on Facebook for more police to be assigned to their beats. The Rogers Park District ranks near the bottom in terms of total officers and officers per capita. He said about 220 officers currently work in the district, but he didn’t feel these crimes necessarily merited the deployment of additional officers.
“The vast majority of them were taking place because cars weren’t being locked and cars were left running to warm up,” Sisk said.
Instead, Sisk said he felt it would be more useful to devise a program that encouraged residents to be more mindful of their own personal safety and smarter about keeping their property secure against theft. So he proposed the neighborhood watch.
He said the Rogers Park District pooled money with 50th Ward Ald. Debra Silverstein’s office to purchase the orange jackets for volunteers. While there’s no formal training curriculum, Sisk said he provided instruction to volunteers at CAPS beat meetings. He said he emphasized to volunteers that even if they don’t recognize someone walking in their neighborhood, that does not automatically make that person suspicious.
“What actions are they doing that make it suspicious?,” Sisk said. “Those are what we’re looking for.”
Sisk stressed the watch is not meant to supplement the police force, and said the orange jackets are meant to be an outward symbol to inspire pride in the neighborhood and to get residents enthused about participating.
“Hopefully the more people who are out wearing them in their neighborhoods, the more people will want to join and become part of it,” Sisk said.
‘There needs to be some resistance to this’
The community watch idea, however, has not gone over well with some residents who fear that it could result in racial profiling of young people in the neighborhood.
“I think they’ve been deputized,” said Jennifer Viets, a white resident who has three black children, now all adults.
Viets, a teaching artist and activist with the Chicago League of Abolitionist Whites, said her concerns about the watch group began when she attended a community meeting to launch the program and saw mostly white residents volunteering.
“We all racially profile,” Viets said. “And when I look at a room that’s filled with all white people, and they’re saying ‘bad guys’ and ‘criminal element’ and people who ‘don’t belong in their neighborhood,’ I know they are not talking about people who look like them.”
Viets said when she thinks of community watch programs, she thinks of Trayvon Martin, a black teenage boy who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. She said she also thinks of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black child killed by Cleveland police after neighbors reported he was outside with a gun, which turned out to be a replica.
“Those might seem like extreme circumstances, but as we know from the news in our country right now, those aren’t extreme,” Viets said. “Those were neighbors. Every single one of those stories were neighbors or community watch members themselves.”
Viets said she reached out to neighbors who have children of color to tell them some residents would be walking through the neighborhood with orange jackets as part of the watch. They have started meeting to organize a resistance. One of their first steps has been to print rainbow-colored signs to counter “We Call Police” signs that some other residents keep in their windows.
“It says ‘We don’t watch our neighbors, we talk to our neighbors,’ ” Viets said.
She said their goal is to end the watch program entirely. Viets said she’s also thinking through alternative approaches to community-building that she might propose to residents of the ward. She points to the moms in Englewood who gather for lively community barbecues on blocks where violence has taken place as an example.
A model for others?
Concaildi said he believes if the program is successful the Chicago Police Department may consider introducing it in other neighborhoods. A police spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about expansion, and Sisk cautioned the program is experimental and would be “tweaked.”
Wesley G. Skogan, a political science professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, cautioned that community watches may not be appropriate in all neighborhoods. He said the programs can help reduce property crimes that happen in public view, such as graffiti and burglaries of cars parked on streets, but may be less effective in areas with violent crime.
“It’s not a program that’s designed to aim at serious street drug markets, or gang violence between young men at four o’clock in the morning,” he said.
Skogan, who has studied community policing programs in Chicago, said the city’s police have been leery in the past of formally involving itself with community watch efforts for legal reasons.
“When things go wrong with that separate group they may find themselves the object of a [lawsuit],” he said.
Sisk doesn’t anticipate problems because he has told watch volunteers not to intervene to stop a crime, and not to carry firearms while on patrol.
Despite possible risk, Skogan said he can understand why the Rogers Park police district backs this community watch effort: “Perhaps it’s what they can do with the resources that they have.”
Skogan noted that CPD has largely reduced support for its CAPS program over the years. “This may be seen as kind of an inexpensive, modest experimental effort to try something different that’s not expensive, and in particular doesn’t take police resources.”
So far, the numbers don’t tell a clear story about the effects of this community watch. Vehicle thefts have dropped back to levels similar to previous years, but it’s unclear whether that can be attributed to the program. In the first three months of the neighborhood watch, 911 calls in the ward about suspicious autos, suspicious persons and suspicious objects were nearly identical to the same period in 2016, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Sisk said even if the numbers remain unclear, a major determinant of whether the community watch will continue is how safe residents feel.
“There’s a lot of intangibles that we’ll also be able to tell if it’s working or not,” he said. “It’s just going to be a sense that is rippling through the community.”
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @oyousef.