Lawmakers enlist public in loitering crackdown

Ald. Ervin, Rep. Conyears-Ervin say they'll charter busses for people to attend April 24 committee meeting

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Ald. Jason Ervin's (28th) and his wife, state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin (10th), want to make it easier for the police to crack down on loitering and they are calling on their constituents to help make it happen.

The two elected officials are pushing for measures that would target gang members, prostitutes and johns. The officials argued that those are the reasons why people usually loiter.

The alderman's ordinance is currently scheduled to be discussed during the April 24 meeting of the Chicago City Council's Committee on Public Safety. During Ervin's March 13 Garfield Park community meeting, both officials urged West Siders to attend the committee meeting and voice their concerns. 

They added that they are working to arrange for buses to help take everyone there. As they said time and time again, having regular people talk about how loitering affects them would mean a lot more than anything politicians could say. 

The City of Chicago previously had an "anti-gang loitering" ordinance. It was enacted in 1992. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Cook County public defender's office immediately sued, arguing that it was too broad and too vaguely worded, allowing police to arrest anyone for simply standing on the corner or even in front of their own houses. 

Even if the arrested individuals weren't convicted of loitering, they argued, having the arrests on their records would make it harder for them to get jobs and apply for loans and benefits. As the case made its way through the system, the ACLU argued that the new law was disproportionately affecting African-Americans and Hispanics.

The case ultimately made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1999, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, arguing that the ordinance allowed police to arrest people without showing that they were engaged in any criminal activity. 

"The mandatory language in the enactment directs the police to issue and order without first making any inquiry about their possible purposes," then-Justice Paul Stevens wrote. 

"It matters not whether the reason that a gang member and his father, for example, might loiter near Wrigley Field is to rob an unsuspecting fan or just to get a glimpse of Sammy Sosa leaving the ballpark; in either event, if their purpose is not apparent to a nearby police officer, she may — indeed, she 'shall' — order them to disperse."

During the March 13 meeting, Ervin argued that since then, loitering has been hurting the community and the Supreme Court decision made it harder for the police to do anything about it. Ervin said that most people who loiter engage in criminal activity, citing prostitution as a major example. He said that there were areas in his ward, such as the Killborn/Madison intersection, where there was no other plausible reason why someone would loiter, especially at night.

"Those are [places] frequented by prostitutes," Ervin said. "So our goal is to give the police department tools to arrest those folks, because we know what they're up to and it's not anything good."

When a resident asked to elaborate on the Supreme Court case, the alderman argued that almost 20 years later, the situation has changed enough that another ordinance to address the issue was needed. 

He said that the legislation would address the exodus of people from Chicago, in part because of the condition of the neighborhoods. 

"I don't need good people leaving," he said. "We need more good people coming in. And this has been one of the factors driving them out."

"We, as residents, feel violated," said Conyears-Ervin. "We're crying for help with this loitering."

Both Ervin and Conyears-Ervin introduced measures that would apply to members as street gangs (as defined by state law) who "knowingly loiter in a public place" in order to deal drugs, claim territory for their gang or conduct any "other unlawful activity." 

Ervin's ordinance states that, under city law, anyone convicted would be fined between $100 and $500, handed a jail sentence of up to six months, required to serve up to 120 hours of community service or some combination of any of the three. 

Conyers-Ervin's bill would make the crime a Class A misdemeanor — the most severe form of misdemeanor under Illinois state law. The punishment can be a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in prison. 

While the previous anti-gang loitering law required police officers to order the gang members to disburse and arrest them if they don't leave, the new ordinances would give the officers more leeway to do what they feel is best in that particular case. 

Ervin introduced his ordinance on June 28, 2017. Conyears-Ervin introduced her bill on Feb. 2. The proposals have been sitting in committees at the city and state level since then. 

Ervin's ordinance currently has 15 sponsors, including Ald. Michael Scott (24th), Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th). 

On Nov. 15, 2017, Ervin also introduced an ordinance that would make it a crime to loiter for prostitutes trying to solicit clients and johns trying to pick up prostitutes, but only in areas that the current police superintendent designates as areas "frequently associated with prostitution-related loitering." 

The superintendent would need to consult with "persons who are knowledgeable about the effects of prostitution-related activity" in the area in question. That can include police officers who deal with prostitution, local elected officials, community organizations and residents who take part in CAPS program and know the area well. 

If a police officer observes prostitution-related loitering, they can issue a warning. If the warning isn't heeded, they can be arrested. If found guilty, the penalty for the first offense would be the same as for gang loitering. The second offense would be punishable by at least five days in jail and/or at least 120 hours of community service. 

That ordinance currently has a total of seven sponsors, but aside from Ervin, Scott is the only West Side alderman to sign on.

During the March 13 meeting, Ervin said that the Committee on Public Safety would consider his loitering ordinances on April 24, at 10 a.m. He wanted everyone in the room to come to testify and invite as many of their friends and neighbors as possible to testify as well.

"When you attach a face, when you attach a person living in this situation [to the issue], it means more," Ervin said. 

Conyears-Ervin emphasized the importance of large turnout.

"It will be a shame if Alderman Ervin and I go downtown with [only] 10 folks," she said. "Our power is only as much as your power. We need you to strengthen it. We want your voices to be heard. Everybody is not going to have an opportunity to speak, but there's unity in numbers."

The state representative acknowledged that many people have work, but she argued if there was ever a time to use one's sick days or vacation days, this was it. 

"Don't call me about young people on the corners if you don't come to help us do nothing," she said." We're going to get the buses, as many buses as need be. We need [the city] to hear our voices."

Dr. Rashad Saafir, the president and CEO of Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, said that he supported Ervin's ordinance because he believed it would make people safer, but at the same time, he wanted to make sure any legal issues are cleared up before it goes before the full council.

"It has to pass legal muster, so it doesn't infringe on anyone's rights," he said. "That's very important to me."

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com

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