The Chicago Crime Commission, a non-profit citizen’s organization, released its “Gang Book,” this summer, a 278-page report outlining the challenges Chicago and surrounding suburbs face in dealing with street gangs.
For Chicago police, there was little new information in the book, but they’re glad to see that the book’s release is generating greater public awareness of the problems related to gang activity.
Police say that cooperation both between police agencies and between police and citizens are keys to battling the gang problem.
The Gang Book reports that there are as many as 125,000 gang members in Chicago and its metropolitan area. Two dozen western suburbs reported the Latin Kings as one of the top three gangs in their jurisdiction, while nine reported the Gangster Disciples, and six the Vice Lords. It is a fluid situation, in which gangs are constantly moving.
In Austin, the most prominent gangs are the 4-Corner Hustlers, the community’s largest, Black P-Stones and Vice Lords. Along the Austin border and of particular interest to neighboring Oak Parkers are the 4 Corner Hustlers and the Vice Lords. While the two closely allied gangs aren’t as widespread as some others, they dominate the areas just beyond Oak Park’s borders.
‘The new Mafia’
Oak Park and Austin police have worked closely in the last year on the gang activity on both sides of the boulevard.
“Whether it’s the 15th and 25th [Chicago Police Districts], Berwyn, Cicero or Forest Park, we’re cooperating,” said Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley.
The Vice Lords have several factions, including the Body Snatchers, the Undertakers and the Conservative Vice Lords, said 15th District Commander Alfonza Wysinger. Wysinger, a former lieutenant with CPD’s Narcotics and Gang Investigative Section, said the Body Snatchers and Conservatives control the territory along the Austin border, along with the 4-Corner Hustlers, particularly north of Lake Street.
However, a key Gang Book finding is that street gangs no longer adhere strictly to old alliances, such as individual gang identity and the overall “Folks” and “People” alliances that had been in place for more than 30 years. Now it’s all about the money, and gangs are exhibiting increased levels of cooperation where and when it means more profits.
“I can tell you right now it’s all about money and drugs,” said Oak Park Deputy Chief Bob Scianna, who said Oak Park must contend with not just the three-mile border along Austin, but northern and southern 1½-mile borders, as well. “You could have 4 Corner Hustlers on one corner and Vice Lords on another and Body Snatchers on another. As long as they’re not stealing each other’s customers, there’s no problems. They’re like the old Mafia. They don’t want conflicts.”
Wysinger agreed, calling today’s gangs “the new mob, they are the new organized crime.”
“Just as the mob did in the ’20s and the ’30s with alcohol and the numbers running, these guys are doing it with the illegal drug trade and buying and selling these weapons,” he said. “Whoever has the connection at the time is the guy they’re going to go to. If you’re a Vice Lord and I’m a GD [Gangster Disciple], and you’ve got the connection to the pipeline, we’re going to be friends, if nothing else for the sake of making money.”
But like the old mob, gangs will resort to violence to settle things.
There are other similarities to organized crime. The mob used to refer to going away to prison as “going to college.” Wysinger said that for today’s street gangs, prison serves as much as a school as punishment.
“They adapt,” he said. “When you do grab them and incarcerate them, they sit in prison and they sharpen their skills. They converse with each other. They kind of compare notes, and then when they come out, they kind of know what to look for.”
But police are adapting, too. Over the past two to three years, Oak Park and Chicago police have developed increasingly close ties with each other.
“Chief Tanksley and I have talked and kind of put our heads together to try and combat crime from both sides,” said Wysinger. “we’re starting to become more intertwined as far as policing strategies to try and come up with the best solutions.”
Meanwhile, federal and state law enforcement agencies have become more cooperative than ever before with local police in regards to drug investigations and interdiction.
“We have never worked so closely with the city and federal governments,” noted Scianna, acknowledging that Oak Park has an officer serving with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Chicago. That officer’s role involves coordinating and sharing information with the DEA. And enforcement, too.
Closer to home, Oak Park officers recently worked with 15th District officers on a “double play,” or reverse drug sting, in which Chicago cops took down a drug site, and Oak Park cops acted as drug dealers and arrested unwitting customers.
Another round of reverse drug stings was scheduled to take place this summer.
Deputy Oak Park Police Chief Scianna declined to quantify how much of Oak Park’s crime is due to drug activity, but said it comprises “the lion’s share.”
“I’m not saying we don’t have some homegrown problems,” said Scianna, “but it’s not like we have open-air drug markets.”
Wysinger, though, noted that there is a sort of dark yin-and-yang evident in the drug trade along Austin Boulevard, with each side of the street contributing to the overall problem.
“A lot of the drug customers come from the Oak Park side, and a lot of the Chicago users go into Oak Park committing crimes for money to buy drugs in the city,” he said.
The common efforts by Oak Park and 15th District police aren’t limited to cops with guns. There’s also a concerted effort by both to work with citizens in the neighborhoods.
Since taking command at the 15th District a year ago, Wysinger has placed a premium on opening up and maintaining numerous lines of communication with Austin’s neighborhood residents.
But while gang violence does exist, Wysinger said there’s less warring between the fractions today. The gangs, he said, realize that any violent conflicts will bring increased police scrutiny.
“Gang warfare just leads to increased police presence. That’s why a lot of times they squash things,” he said. “they’re settling their differences amongst themselves before it gets to us because that just draws the heat. With a greater police presence, nobody’s making money, and that’s their bottom line, trying to make a dollar.”
For more information about, or to purchase a copy of, the Gang Book, visit www.chicagocrimecommission.org