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As West Side Block Sees Violence Surge, Residents Say Police Have Left Them

By  Alex Nitkin and Tanveer Ali | August 11, 2016 5:53am | Updated on August 11, 2016 3:57pm

 Michelle Hamilton said she only feels safe taking her granddaughter Astaria, 3, to their block's playlot in the early morning.
Michelle Hamilton said she only feels safe taking her granddaughter Astaria, 3, to their block's playlot in the early morning. "Astaria knows what happens here, why she can't go play there," she said.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

GARFIELD PARK — Delores Coleman watched 22-year-old Irell Mitchell's life come to an abrupt end around the corner from her home Monday evening and, she said, the police came and went in 90 minutes.

"They didn't talk to anyone ... they just picked up his body and left," Coleman said. "Didn't do no investigation or nothing."

Hours later, gunmen returned to her block, firing a volley of shots that hit 10-year-old Tavon Tanner in his back while he sat with his family on their front porch. The next day he was in critical condition, with a bullet lodged in his chest.

The 3900 block of West Polk Street has been choked by violence all year, but for her part, Coleman said the twin tragedies Monday made her feel abandoned.

 Katie Brown, 99, sits on her front porch with her great-great-granddaughter London, 2.
Katie Brown, 99, sits on her front porch with her great-great-granddaughter London, 2. "I try to tell her that the police are protecting her," Brown said.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

"It's clear the police don't give a f--- about us," she said. "They don't care. We call them, and they just ride right past us." 

RELATED: Rahm Rails Against Gangbangers In Tavon Tanner Shooting: 'No Moral Remorse'

Coleman's is among hundreds of West Side blocks seeing a sharp rise in violent crime so far this year, fueling about a 45 percent spike in shootings since January.

The neighborhoods around Coleman's block have had shootings more than double since last year, based on DNAinfo analysis of crime data. In West Garfield Park, shootings increased 143 percent. In North Lawndale, shootings are up 120 percent.

Seven shootings have been reported within two blocks of her home since January, compared to four during all of 2015, according to DNAinfo records.

With police traffic stops down by as much as 90 percent this year, many in the city have been left wondering if intense scrutiny has kept officers from preventing and responding to shootings on blocks like Coleman's.

Officers' reservations are compounded by fear for their own safety in the wake of recent high-profile killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.

Earlier this week, the Sun-Times reported that leaders from multiple West Side gangs had met to discuss putting a "sniper in place" to target uniformed officers. In response, police in the area were warned to "limit interaction and visibility" in the neighborhoods where they work.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement Tuesday calling "the idea that a bunch of gang members would threaten violence against [police] ... absolutely unacceptable."

Michelle Hamilton, one of Coleman's neighbors in the 3900 block of West Polk Street, said the absence of officers has never been more stark.

"We know there's always crime here on these three blocks, between Arthington and Flournoy," Hamilton said. "Why can't they send any cars here?"

For their part, police say they've stepped up enforcement amid the recent rash of West Side shootings.

"In response to the recent incidents in Lawndale, CPD has increased patrols and detectives are pursuing leads in the area," wrote Frank Giancamilli, a Chicago Police Department spokesman, in an email Wednesday. "But ... one of the best ways to combat violence is to rebuild trust with members of the community. We need to work together — block by block — to make clear that illegal guns in the hands of repeat criminals has no place in the streets of Chicago." 

As she walked her dog near the block's playlot Tuesday morning, Hamilton said she felt that trust had not been earned. She pointed up at a tall police camera looming over the intersection of Polk Street and Springfield Avenue.

"What's the purpose of having this camera here if they're never going to use it to catch anyone?" Hamilton said. "I don't even know if it works anymore."

The early morning hours are the only time Hamilton feels safe bringing her granddaughter, Astaria, out to the playlot, she said. The small park was where Mitchell had played basketball minutes before being gunned down by the driver of a passing sedan Monday.

"Astaria knows what happens here, why she can't go play there," Hamilton said. "She calls it 'the dirty park.' "

But for other residents on the block, like Ken Owens, the block has long been a refuge from the gang activity that swarmed them.

"About 90 percent of the people who live on this block are senior citizens, and the rest are just sort of old, like me," said Owens, an employee with the city's Finance Department. "We're just in the middle of a lot of trouble, that's all. And now the trouble is reaching here."

Meanwhile, Katie Brown, 99, said the "quiet" block had been through much darker days than this summer's violence. Brown, who's lived in her two-flat brick building since 1959, recalled being accustomed to picking up shell casings in front of her home during the 1980s and '90s.

"Of course it doesn't make me feel good to have my baby growing up around all this," Brown said, nodding at her 2-year-old great-great-granddaughter London, who squirmed in her lap. "But it used to be a lot rougher."

"I try to tell [London] that the police are protecting her," she added. "I tell her they're doing the best they can, 'cause they can't be everywhere at once."

But as Monday's shootings added an emotional knife twist to an already bloody summer, Coleman had less patience for the officers sworn to watch over them.  

"This is more than physical police brutality," she said. "This is them choosing to give up control."

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