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Despite Shootings, Gang Crime in Portage Park on Decline, Police Say

By Heather Cherone | February 7, 2013 7:33am | Updated on February 7, 2013 9:34am
 Jefferson Park Police District Cmdr. James O'Donnell discusses two recent shootings in Portage Park.
Jefferson Park Police District Cmdr. James O'Donnell discusses two recent shootings in Portage Park.
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DNAInfo/Heather Cherone

PORTAGE PARK — Two shootings — one fatal — in less than a week have some residents fearing that gang crime is spreading to the Northwest Side.

Police officials told residents that gangs aren't warring in their neighborhood, but more squad cars would be assigned to patrol the area nonetheless.

Area North Deputy Police Chief John Escalante told some 200 Portage Park and Jefferson Park residents gathered at Portage Park Elementary School Wednesday night that he's ordered four or five additional squad cars and a sergeant to patrol the Jefferson Park Police District in response to the crimes.

"There is no active gang conflict in Portage Park," Escalante said. "But I would rather err on the side of caution."

Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th), who represents most of Portage Park, told residents: "Gang members choose to live here for the same reason we do — this is a safe neighborhood."

The two recent shootings are not connected, residents were told. Both victims have lengthy arrest records and are known gang members, Jefferson Park District Cmdr. James O'Donnell said.

On Feb. 1, Manuel Hernandez, 21, of the 3900 block of North Central Avenue, was shot to death in the hallway of his apartment building. On Jan. 26, a 17-year-old man was shot in the buttocks while arguing with his girlfriend near Montrose and Central avenues.

Hernandez, a member of the Spanish Cobras gang, had just moved into the apartment building near Irving Park Road and Central Avenue, O'Donnell said. The victim in the other shooting, who belongs to the Latin Brother gang, is not cooperating, nor is his girlfriend, O'Donnell said.

No one has been arrested in either case, the commander said.

Overall, crime in the 10 blocks in the heart of Portage Park is down 9 percent since the first of the year, O'Donnell said. Arrests are up 130 percent compared with the start of 2012, and officers have stopped 49 percent more people.

"Our people are out there," O'Donnell said. "Our people are on it."

O'Donnell urged residents concerned about crime to be vigilant and double check that their doors, windows and garages are locked.

"Call if you see something that's not right, or doesn't seem right," O'Donnell said. "Go with your gut."

That prompted questions from the audience about whether a police officer would respond to those calls. Starting Sunday, police officers no longer will be dispatched to investigate property crimes or other incidents where no one is in danger and the perpetrator is long gone.

"This is a work in progress," O'Donnell said. "It will free up more officers to be on patrol, looking for the real bad guys."

O'Donnell acknowledged that he would like to have more officers, but said that wasn't realistic given the demands for officers in other parts of the city and the city's budget crunch.

"We do the best we can with the people we have and put them where they really need be," Escalante said, adding that eight officers recently were assigned to the division. "Hopefully, that's just a start."