On a Saturday afternoon in early September, Oak Park resident Michael O’Malley was in the back of his home in the 800 block of Wisconsin Avenue, when he heard arguing coming from the street outside.
O’Malley, who has lived at the corner of Wisconsin and Jackson Boulevard for the last 13 years, ran to the front of the house with his video camera at the ready. He suspected it might be another funeral procession — the kind that could get someone killed.
Peeking through the blinds of his living room, O’Malley recorded a group of about 30 people who had exited their vehicles and were yelling at one another. Suddenly the fracas erupted into a melee with men and women punching each other in a chaotic frenzy.
So-called “rowdy” funeral processions are not a new thing on Jackson Boulevard, but this one, which took place about 1 p.m. on Sept. 8, was the worst O’Malley has ever seen.
“I called 911 and it must have rung five or six times, and by that time it was pretty much breaking up, so I didn’t complete the call,” he said.
O’Malley said he has been trying to collect video of such funeral processions to give to police. He filed a report with the Oak Park Police Department later, but hasn’t heard back on the incident.
His neighbor, David Brumirski, also was home during the street fight but only witnessed the aftermath. He was told by his wife that the brawl spilled over onto his lawn.
“One woman was winded or hurt and sat down on my steps,” he said, noting that most of the fight took place on the street and in the parkway in front of his house.
Brumirski did call the police and later saw officers outside interviewing witnesses — but that was long after the funeral procession had moved on.
Unlike his neighbor, Brumirski said he was unaware that funeral processions ever became violent.
O’Malley said the processions he’s seen, which some funeral-home operators refer to as “high-risk funerals,” typically don’t result in individuals getting out of their cars. They are described as motorists driving erratically, swerving in and out of both lanes of traffic, blocking intersections, hanging out the windows of their cars and blasting loud music.
O’Malley began noticing them about eight years ago, but they’ve become more frequent in the last few years, he said.
The incident took place a few weeks before the Cook County Funeral and Cemetery Violence Taskforce held its first meeting. The working group, established in March by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, has been meeting throughout the summer with funeral directors, cemetery owners and law enforcement officials in an effort to find solutions to the growing problem.
At its first official meeting at Forest Park Village Hall on Sept. 28, the taskforce set a goal of submitting recommendations to the Cook County Board of Commissioners by the end of November.
Cook County Detective Sergeant Jason Moran, who serves on the taskforce, said much of the violence centers on the Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery at Roosevelt and Mannheim roads. He told task force members that the county sheriff’s department already is taking steps to address the issue.
The shooting death of Sirkarl Freeman, 36, at the Oakridge-Glen Oak Cemetery in February 2017, which was ruled a homicide by police, he said, prompted the cemetery to hire on-duty sheriff’s police officers to patrol the grounds at peak hours on Fridays and Saturdays.
The new police detail began on Sept. 28, Moran said.
“[Cemetery owner Devona Goodlow] is very happy and the staff is very happy because they feel very unsafe,” he said.
Goodlow encouraged funeral home owners and police to communicate with cemetery directors to let them know when potentially dangerous processions are headed their way.
“Funeral homes know what they’re bringing in to the cemetery,” she said. “When they meet with the families (of the deceased) they somewhat know what’s going on.”
She told the taskforce that the violence is not always between rival gang members. The cemetery can have as many as 25 or 30 funerals in a day over the weekend, which results in traffic congestion and angry motorists.
“Sometimes we put them on hold [coming into the cemetery] and they get out and start fighting,” she said. “They fight with one another … this is family fighting family.”
Moran suggested the possibility of creating an additional entrance to the cemetery and opening a second “economy” section to alleviate congestion in that part of the cemetery.
Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone, who attended the meeting but does not serve on the task force, said his community experiences “quite a number of these funerals that either travel down Madison Street or come through Forest Park on Jackson Boulevard, which I happen to live on, so I see these firsthand.”
He said the processions, which begin in Chicago, travel through Oak Park first. He encouraged the task force to include Oak Park law enforcement officials in the conversation. The processions also travel through Maywood, Broadview and Westchester before reaching their final destination.
Oak Park police could not be reached for comment.
“There’s not a simple solution to the type of behavior that takes place [during the processions],” Calderone said.
Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas said his officers have directed potentially violent processions onto the Eisenhower Expressway, rather than letting them pass through his community.
Oak Park resident O’Malley told Wednesday Journal in a phone interview that he was unaware that a task force had been established until he read about it in the newspaper. He said residents in his area have met in the past to try to figure out what to do.
For now, he’d like to see the processions directed to a different street.
“I think someone should talk to the funeral homes and not allow them access to Jackson,” he said.
The next task force meeting is set for Oct. 26, the location to be determined.