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Town hall meeting on crime held in Hyde Park but none in poorer areas

Crime is rocking all parts of Chicago. On December 1, Aldermen Sophia King (4th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) held a joint Zoom town hall meeting to address crime in Hyde Park. But residents who live in poorer, predominately Black areas in their wards, where similar town hall meetings are needed to address a crime problem that has a bigger battle and one that has been around for much longer, have received no such attention to their neighborhoods’ issues.

The two-hour town hall meeting in Hyde Park included remarks by the aldermen as well as Police Superintendent David Brown, a CPD District Commander, and a University of Chicago official. About 100 residents were given statistics and provided safety tips on how to avoid being a target on the street.

The town hall meeting came after University of Chicago student Shaoxiong Zheng, 24, was gunned down near the campus in November. Alton Spann, a 19-year-old Chicago resident, was charged with first-degree murder, unlawful use of a weapon and armed robbery in connection with Zheng’s murder.

About two hours earlier, just blocks away, businesses and cars were damaged by shots fired from a Hyundai Sonata at 53rd Street and South Harper Avenue. Several cars and two businesses were damaged.

The shootings were part of a spike in violent crime in Hyde Park, which historically has been one of the safest neighborhoods on the South Side, along with Kenwood.

The incidents reflect a growing number of violent crimes and burglaries that have rocked Chicago’s affluent neighborhoods and the ritzy Magnificent Mile shopping district. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Superintendent Brown have been under intense pressure to address the crime problem as businesses evaluate their future on the Mag Mile.

As Aldermen Hairston and King and Mayor Lightfoot focus on addressing crime in the city, their efforts renew concerns of affluent neighborhoods getting preferential treatment over Black, poorer neighborhoods where violent crime is even worse.

More than one month after Hairston and King held their joint town hall meeting on crime and safety in Hyde Park, neither has scheduled similar meetings in less affluent areas of their wards, which are parts of Bronzeville (4th Ward) and South Shore (5th Ward).

A Crusader journalist observed the Zoom meeting, which also included media representatives and prominent Hyde Park residents.

The town hall meeting opened with remarks by Hairston and King. Superintendent Brown spoke, as did Eric M. Heath, associate vice president for safety and security at the University of Chicago. King acknowledged the attendance of Chicago Police District 2 Commander Joshua Wallace and other high-ranking law enforcement officers during the meeting.

“We must do everything we can to make sure that we’re making appropriate investments into the community so we can all have a better and safer future,” Hairston said in her opening remarks.

In her opening remarks, King challenged Brown and other law enforcement officials to “come to the table with a plan of action.”

She said, “I think this meeting is really a follow up to the safety concerns the community has had as a direct result of the brazen crime that took place recently in Hyde Park as we all know, but also in general to a vulnerability the community feels about the growing crime, about the lack of safety, however you want to think about it.”

Brown then made a 12-minute speech that included a detailed narrative of how law enforcement used license plate readers, surveillance cameras and technology to find Spann and arrest him for allegedly killing Zheng. Brown said a witness to the shooting immediately gave police the license plate number of the stolen vehicle. Brown said license plate readers, which are located throughout the city, allowed Chicago police to see where the stolen vehicle was before and after the murder. He said video from an overnight surveillance camera showed that the car had been parked at a particular location for a long period of time. He said surveillance video also showed Spann tried to sell items he allegedly took from Zheng to a pawn shop. Brown said after several ballistic tests, his team was able to arrest Spann and two other alleged offenders in connection with Zheng’s murder.

“It’s really a testament to the tragedy and hard work that was done to bring this offender in custody but how technology, both video cameras and license plate readers, were critical in being able to bring this offender to justice,” Brown said.

“And that’s a segue into what our plans are to protect the people of the community in and around the University of Chicago, on the campus, in Hyde Park, in Kenwood, the whole second district.”

Brown also explained what foot- posts were, saying it’s part of a police officer’s job to get out of the car and walk a particular block or set of blocks.

“One of the complaints we hear is the officers are not connected because they just drive by, never get out of the car, never interact, never create a safe space,” Brown said. “Part of safety is the perception of safety.”

A similar town hall meeting is needed for South Shore in Hairston’s ward. While there were five murders in Hyde Park, last year there were 196 shootings, including 41 murders, in South Shore.

Nearly two weeks after the town hall meeting in Hyde Park, the Crusader emailed both Alderman King and Alderman Hairston to ask when a similar meeting would be held in other areas of their wards.

King’s staff emailed a response that said one will be held in Bronzeville next year but did not give a date. The Crusader searched King’s city ward and Facebook page but did not see any postings of a similar upcoming meeting in Bronzeville.

On December 20, the Crusader sent another email to King’s office with several follow-up questions, including one that asked if Superintendent Brown will be at the Bronzeville town hall meeting.

Two days later, an email from AK Alilonu read, “Let me see if we can answer all your questions.” But no one ever replied.

In a phone interview with one of her aides, Kimberly Webb, Hairston said she discusses crime in her monthly ward meetings and did not say whether a similar town hall meeting was planned for South Shore. Hairston said any resident in her ward could request a town hall meeting on safety.

She said her office gets hundreds of phone calls a day on problems in her ward, but she could not say how many phone calls are crime-related or are requests for a town hall meeting.

When asked how many phone calls her office received from Hyde Park residents who wanted a town hall meeting after the shooting, Hairston initially said three. Webb, her aide, interjected and said, “it was more than that,” but couldn’t say exactly how many. Hairston agreed when Webb said they received other requests from emails and walk-ins, but Webb did not give an exact figure.

It’s been years since Alderman Hairston held an official town hall meeting in South Shore.

With just under two years as the city’s top cop, Brown has yet to get the opportunity to speak to one of Chicago’s poorest, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Last June six people were shot, one fatally, after a driver in a Black SUV fired on a crowd near East 71st Street and Jeffery Boulevard. While Brown at the Hyde Park town hall meeting said license plate readers are located throughout the city, questions remain why police were unable to get the license plate number of the vehicle involved in this shooting. Police never caught the shooter.

The next month, a driver fired shots at an outdoor health event in the parking lot of the Jeffery Plaza. One of the bullets hit the Alpha Kappa Alpha’s mobile van as a woman was receiving a mammogram. No one was hurt but the shooter was never caught.

The Crusader spoke to five South Shore residents about crime in their neighborhood and the need for a town hall meeting. None wanted to speak to the Crusader out of fear for their safety. One resident who lives near 71st Street said several unreturned messages were left with Hairston’s office about a town hall meeting after the person grew tired of hearing gunshots on the block.

Last year, the Sun-Times reported that shootings in Hyde Park tripled to more than 16, but that’s still low compared to Woodlawn, the community area that’s part of Hairston’s ward. According to the Sun-Times, Woodlawn saw 83 shootings in 2021, an increase of 150 percent, compared to the same time in 2019. It’s also seen 13 homicides this year, up from 8 in 2020 and 9 in 2019.

After Zheng’s murder in Hyde Park, King and Hairston said in a Sun-Times article that a summit on Chicago violence needs to be held as soon as possible. Hairston spoke at a peace protest outside of Virtue Restaurant on 53rd Street in Hyde Park after Zheng’s murder.

“There needs to be a place where we are at the table with the governor, where we are at the table with the mayor, where we are at the table with the county, where we are at the table with the city,” Hairston told the Sun-Times. “It needs to take place quick, fast and in a hurry.”

In 2019, Hairston didn’t need South Shore voters to win a fifth term in the 4th Ward. Hyde Park voters saved her job after beating political newcomer and activist William Calloway by just 176 votes in a tight runoff race that led to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Calloway.

Results from the Chicago Board of Elections showed that of 41 precincts, Hairston won 18, but only one was in South Shore. Most precincts that supported her were in Hyde Park and Kenwood. Though Hairston won fewer precincts, those precincts that did vote for her had more registered voters; that gave her the edge.

Hairston has long been accused of catering to her Hyde Park base over her residents in South Shore. To her credit, Hairston finally helped bring a Local Market supermarket to South Shore in 2018, and there are efforts to bring a studio to the neighborhood. However, residents say crime is still the biggest concern in South Shore.

In a phone interview with the Crusader, Hairston said crime is everywhere in Chicago.

“I’m not immune of being struck by a bullet,” she said. “Crime in Chicago is out of control and we do need to have community meetings on crime. We’ve got to make sure that everyone is protected.”

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