On Thursday night, less than two hours after the announcement that that a suspect had been arrested in the murder of Leticia Barrera, about 20 people from the beat where she lived and died were sitting down in St. Michael's school cafeteria with their local police officers.
"When somebody does something, you guys follow through. Thanks for providing that confidence," said beat facilitator Marina Alonso, who doubles as Hedges Elementary School's parent coordinator.
Unlike every other beat meeting I have attended in Back of the Yards so far, this one has a steady facilitator who has developed strong relationships with the people who live in the beat. Alonso also draws up each month's agenda and stays in contact with the police between meetings to make sure that community needs are being addressed.
This month the community also thanked the police for retaking control of St. Michael's gym, which had been overrun by gang members openly representing and trying to recruit. We could hear the excited shouts and dribbling coming from the gym while the meeting went on.
The feel of the meeting was very different from others I have attended. The police were engaged in the conversation, not just sitting there talking among themselves or looking anywhere but at the residents. There seemed to be real dialog between residents and officers, not just residents making requests or giving their complaints.
The police also seemed much less defensive and more interested in residents' perspective here than elsewhere. For example, near the end of the meeting a female officer present said, "The mothers I've dealt with are helpless. They don't know what their kids are doing. Ninety-nine percent of them are lovely people, but their kids are lost." She wanted to know what is being done to help and educate parents so they can better monitor their children's activities. "These kids are someone's kids. Is there any way someone can educate the parents?"
Oscar Contreras, who works with youth and with parents to prevent gang violence, told her about a parents' group now meeting at St. John of God, 51st & Elizabeth, every other Saturday. Mothers there support each other in their efforts to help their children stay out of trouble and leave gangs if they have already become involved.
"That's great," the officer responded.
After the meeting, Alonso told me that the attendance Thursday was lower than usual because they had parent workshops at Hedges. Many of those who did attend had been at school most of the day already. Their stamina was rewarded with a stack of Little Caesar's pizzas afterwards. During pizza time, Alonso carried her granddaughter over her shoulder and chatted with other moms and grandmoms present. She always makes herself informally after the meeting to pick up sensitive information people might not want to give out in public.
Both she and Contreras credited residents for their courage in stepping forward with information that led to the arrest in the Barrera murder.
"The community came together," Contreras noted. Apparently, someone at the press conference questioned the significance of one arrest in a city full of violent crime. To the naysayer, Contreras said, "It is a big deal. It brings closure."
It also increases the community's trust that the police will come through. During the winter, after the news reports about the killing had died down and before there was much evidence beyond what security cameras in the area had been able to capture, 9th district officer Eric Wier met with residents and told them he felt "ashamed" that the case had stalled, Contreras told me. Wier vowed to keep the case moving forward, and "he fulfilled his promise."
For more on Wier, see the Sun-Times article here.
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