On most days the BP gas station at 100 Chicago Ave. is a real convenience for Christina Waters, who lives across the street and frequents the business regularly for milk, cheese and other household goods.
But over the last several months she’s grown worried about the business and the criminal activity it attracts.
Between June of 2016 and mid-February, the 24-hour gas station has experienced at least seven motor vehicle thefts — worth a combined $87,900 in stolen property — and two separate incidents involving guns, a nonfatal shooting of a gang member in February and an aggravated discharge of a firearm a month earlier.
Gunshots twice in under a month
Waters, who has lived across the street from the BP for 10 years, said her fears worsened after returning home on Feb. 11 to find the gas station cordoned off with yellow police tape.
Earlier that evening, at just after 8 p.m., a 21-year-old man, who claims to be a gang member, was shot in the leg at the gas station. The recently released incident report reveals that the man admitted to police that the shooting was “probably gang-related” but he would not testify in court against the shooter or cooperate with police in the investigation.
Waters said she already was aware of criminal activity at the gas station, but it was the Feb. 11 shooting that made her decide to take action.
Within a few days, she and others organized a march from the gas station to New Life Ministries church, 634 N. Austin Blvd., to show that residents in Oak Park and Chicago’s Austin neighborhood are unified in their desire to prevent crime.
All it takes is “one stray bullet” for her three children or anyone in the surrounding area to lose their life, Waters said in a recent interview.
About a month prior to the Feb. 11 shooting, shots were fired outside the gas station, but reportedly no one was hit. On Jan. 4, at approximately 5:07 p.m., video surveillance at the store captured two men exit the store. One of the men is seen in the video pointing a handgun on Taylor and ducking “while several patrons are observed running in different directions indicating that a shot was fired,” according to the report.
The man seen shooting in the video then handed a gun to his companion before the two got into their light-colored [possibly silver] SUV and fled westbound on Chicago Avenue.
One witness to the incident was standing on the east side of North Taylor Avenue when he heard a person say, “You need to stop tweaking, bro.” The witness reportedly looked up and saw a man around the age of 20 holding a silver handgun with a black handle. The witness ran north on Taylor and heard one or two gunshots, according to the report.
Looking for answers
After the Feb. 11 shooting, Waters said, she and others began organizing the march, which moved down Austin Boulevard to “show our strength in numbers and unity and solidarity.”
“We should not be afraid,” she said.
She went door-to-door inviting residents in the area, many of whom were not aware a shooting had occurred.
“I find that alarming,” she said. “We have all these families here, and if you’re not aware of what’s going on, how do you know what to tell your kids?”
The meeting was attended by a resident Oak Park beat cop and Harry Singh, son of Daljit Singh, owner of the gas station.
Waters and others requested that police not only step up patrols in the area but that they use the low-cost policing trick of parking an unmanned patrol car near the gas station when an officer is unavailable. Police have done both, she said.
The police presence near the BP is so noticeable now, she sees a manned patrol car on Chicago almost every day when she leaves for work and again when she returns home.
She is also encouraging BP owner Daljit Singh to stop selling 3-for-a-dollar cigars, which she believes are used to roll so-called marijuana blunts.
“I asked him if he could re-evaluate what he’s selling. He was not as receptive to it, and that was after the shooting.”
Singh did agree to put up a flier announcing the march and public meeting, Waters said.
Harry Singh told Wednesday Journal he, too, has noticed a substantially increased police presence around the BP since the Feb. 11 shooting, with patrols every 30 to 40 minutes.
Neighbors of the gas station aren’t the only ones who are worried, Singh said.
“It’s part of living but it’s scary,” he said, adding that the proliferation of guns is a big part of the problem.
Singh said his family has owned the BP and the nearby GoLo gas station down the street at 330 Chicago Ave.
The BP’s proximity to the city has made it a bigger target for crime, Singh said.
He is aware of the neighbors’ requests for the BP to stop selling cheap cigars used for rolling blunts, but he said not selling them would put his competitors at an unfair advantage.
“I will stop selling cigars if all the stores coming before me and [those] on the edge [of town] stop selling them too,” he said.
A 24-hour business
While Waters is taking a more measured approach toward the BP, others in the neighborhood believe limiting the gas station’s hours of operations is part of the solution.
Waters met with Anthony Clark, executive director of Suburban Unity Alliance, to help organize the march. Clark told Wednesday Journal there is “no question” that the store’s hours of operation are a problem.
“Common sense will tell you that you are going to invite negativity to your establishment [if you’re open all night],” he said. “We have a suburban business with city practices. If it comes to a point where businesses are not going to change their practices or update their policies, then pressure will be applied.
“I’m not here to shut down the business,” he added. “I know it’s a family and they have to make a living as well, but they are making their business off the community.”
Waters noted that neighbors chatting online, particularly on the Facebook fan page, North East Oak Park Community Group, have advocated working to close the BP during the late night.
But of the nine major crimes committed there since the beginning of 2016, only three took place after 10 p.m. — all three were car thefts — and only one of those took place past midnight.
Waters said that even though she understands the urge to target the late-night hours, she doesn’t believe it will solve the problem.
“I don’t know that is the solution,” she said. “The fact is those incidents have occurred during [daytime] business hours.”
Oak Park Police Chief Anthony Ambrose also doesn’t believe limiting the gas station’s hours of operation will cut down on crime at the location.
“Hours of operation is not a concern of mine,” Ambrose told Wednesday Journal. “My concern is making sure there is a police presence throughout the community.”
He noted that police have increased patrols in the area and continue to hold monthly community meetings with the public. He believes the warm weather in January and February led to an uptick in crime.
“I think that definitely played a part.”
Closing the gas station down during the late-night hours could be difficult because it does not appear that the business needs a special permit of any sort to operate 24/7, according to village spokesman David Powers, who said in an email response to questions: “As best as can be determined, the station does not have any kind of special permission to operate 24 hours. Restrictions on hours could be part of a special-use permit. Provisions of special-use permits are determined on a case-by-case basis.”
Singh said he does not believe limiting the BP’s hours will help cut down on crime. Since his family first bought the store seven years ago, there has always been some crime, he said, and those calling for limited hours should consider that.
A carjacking took place down the street from the gas station shortly after the Feb. 11 shooting, he noted.
“Do we want to block the roads now, too? Or maybe we should have a curfew, so people can’t get out of the house after 8 p.m.”