SOUTH SHORE — After an unusually warm spring last year saw a spike in violence across the city, community members met Saturday to discuss how to make Chicago parks safer this year.
The conversation was part of a conference hosted by the Friends of the Parks organization in the city's South Shore neighborhood. The "security summit" featured a panel of park district and law enforcement officials who listened as community members suggested ideas ranging from installing security cameras in neighborhood parks to increasing park programs aimed at helping disaffected youth.
Common complaints included a lack of lighting and reports of criminal activity, theft and graffiti on park property.
Willet Welch, a member of the Tooley Park Advisory Council, said she would like to see an increased police or park district presence to help deter crime. Welch also said she wants residents to have a better way to communicate with authorities than just calling 911.
"We know what's going on. We see what's going on, and before something happens, we want to have a vehicle to talk to park district staff to say, 'Hey, this is a problem,'" Welch said.
Other community members, like Bernard Williams, called on park district officials to increase the number of cameras around parks. Williams said cameras could serve as a crime deterrant.
But Tom Byrne, the director of park services for the Chicago Park District, said the city is in the process of doing just that. He said there are between 185 and 200 city cameras on or near park district property, and the park district is in the process of gaining access to those cameras.
Residents also complained police do not regularly respond to calls of criminal activity happening in neighborhood parks. One woman said she called police "14 times" with a complaint and police still did not show up to address the issue.
Chicago Police Lt. Mark Harmon said police officials will know if officers are not responding to calls.
"If you're calling 14 times, that's documented," Harmon said. "Everyone's accountable."
Jessie Calderon, who heads the Hoyne Park Advisory Council in the city's McKinley Park neighborhood, said there are better ways to get police to respond. He suggested residents form a phone tree, something that he said has been effective in his neighborhood.
"The likelihood that the police department will respond to [one or two people making calls] is not very high, but if we get 50 or 100 calls for the same issue, then that forces the police department to respond to that issue," Calderon said.
Calderon said Hoyne Park has not had a park district supervisor for four years due to the district's budget issues, and the park used to have a gang problem as a result. Calderon said his organization has been able to drive the gang element out of the park through cooperation with local churches, his alderman and the CAPs program.
Calderon said it takes a "big community effort" to keep a park safe, and people cannot dump the problem on police or the park district.
"That's not going to happen, especially in today's environment with the budget cuts and the park district and the police department being strapped," Calderon said. "Crime is outrageous in this city, so we need to take ownership of our parks."
The Chicago Park District has a current operating budget of almost $411 million, up slightly from last year, but the district has a $16 million structural budget deficit, according to department reports.
Still, people like John McClain would like to see some of that money go towards more park supervisors and free programs to help the city's troubled youth.
"The kids are looking for something to do, and people are wondering why they're running with gangs. Nobody's giving them supervision," McClain said. "Kids are there, just nobody there to teach them anything."
But Calderon said when it comes to keeping parks safe this summer, residents should not wait for the city make it happen.
"Hey, you got to put in the work," Calderon said. "Nothing's going to just happen for you. This is Chicago."