Block Club convention empowers local activists

Police, city agencies and community came together Saturday to talk about forging an effective front against gangs and crime.

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By BILL DWYER

Chicago Police Supt. Phil Cline led a contingent of city and county officials who showed up last Saturday morning at Austin High School for the community's first annual Block Club Convention.

Sponsored by the 15th Police District and the local CAPs program, the convention was intended to educate Austin residents on safety and legal issues affecting them. Accompanying Cline on the podium for the introductory part of the four-hour program were 29th Ward Alderman Isaac Carothers, 78th District state Rep. Deborah Graham, 15th District Commander Eugene Williams, and a group of officials from the Cook County State's Attorney and various Chicago departments.

"Think about things that have been successful on your block so that we can all share them," 15th District Lt. Penelope Trahanis told the more than 50 people in the audience. "Good ideas were meant to be copied."

Following the introductions, the audience went off to do just that. For the next three hours, the participants engaged in a combination of learning and sharing of best practices. School classrooms were turned over for seminars on creating Block Clubs, Crime Fighting Resources available to average citizens, a Safe Buildings presentation, and a presentation by Abraham L. Hackman, Jr. of the Cook County State's Attorney's office.

Many of the ideas and tips seem like common sense, but police and prosecutors say they're crucial to a safer environment?"points such as securing your garage, backdoor and gates, and lighting your yard.

The Safe Neighborhoods program also offered tips to landlords to help them make their building less attractive to gang members, including getting to know their tenants, and working to keep their buildings well maintained and inaccessible to non-tenants.

Cline said his presence at the event was meant to convey the depth of support that local initiatives such as Block Clubs can expect from police.

"We can't do it alone," said Cline. Local citizens, he said, are crucial to the successful prosecution of gangs.

"We've seen in the past, when we've taken down drug operations, unless we had the community involved, it doesn't hold," Cline said. The point, he said, is to make a given block uninviting to gangs and drug dealers.

Cline also was enthusiastic about citizens engaging in the process of sharing ideas and experiences with each other, as well as with police officials and others.

"We're sharing best practices, what's working in different parts of the city," said Cline.

For the local boots on the ground, that support is highly welcomed.

"We've been very fortunate to have the support we've had from the superintendent's office," said the 15th District's Williams. "A lot of [the gang crime activity] exceeds our ability to deal with (it)."

Williams particularly credits the creation of such programs as Violence Incident Strategy Evaluation (VISE) and the Deployment Operation Center (DOC).

For Carothers, such focused interconnection is just what his community needs.

"It's an extremely important process," he said of the convention activities. "These processes actively lead to empowering the community. There is no success without the police and community working together."

Carothers, who chairs the City Council Police and Fire committee, said that it's important that people understand the reliance law enforcement has on average citizens.

"The police are appreciative of all the community does."

For all the hard work at the grassroots level, though, developments in the state legislature may make law enforcement's job more difficult. A bill recently passed the House of Representatives that would require the erasure of all gun sale records after 90 days. Police currently rely on those records to track and trace back the sale of guns used in crimes.

"It's a really bad idea," said Graham Saturday. "That's one area where you see a huge difference [between Chicago and Downstate]." Downstaters, Graham said, feel their privacy is being violated by records being kept. However, Graham pointed out that Chicago-area legislators have frequently supported downstaters on issues important to them, such as funding for the elimination of rural methamphetamine labs.

"We support them, they should support us," she said.

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