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Riverwest, Crime, and Once upon a Time

Sonya Jongsma Knaussby Sonya Jongsma Knauss

A car pulled up to the curb and screeched to a stop. I looked over and my eyes connected with the passenger’s as he quickly swung the door open. The first thing I saw was shining silver steel, which caught the sun. As “GUN!” registered in my mind, I spun and grabbed my one-and-a-half-year-old baby who was playing four feet away from where the car door swung open. I knew he saw me see him. But he glanced past me and hit the ground running, heading towards a house some 50 feet away where a friend of his had been beaten up in some love-gone-bad situation by the girl’s father and extended family. A woman dressed as a fairy, in town from New Orleans to perform in the Circus of Tiny Invisibility that night at the Burning Snow Center, grabbed my three-year-old and followed me into the Co-op. I tripped over the doorstep and nearly knocked over the rack of Natural Ovens bread. “Lock the door!” I yelled. “They’re back with guns!” We had watched the drama unfold across the alley from our house earlier in the day. Loud arguments had culminated in a beating and a black eye. The victim took off with a screech of rubber threatening payback. We had called the police then; other neighbors had called earlier. Two officers came, looked around, talked to the people hanging out on the front porch, then left. “We asked them to stay,” one of the women at the house told me later. Five minutes later the other car pulled up. Cowering in the back corner of the store, locked into the bathroom, we heard what sounded like several shots. I was to find out later from a sergeant on the scene that a man was beaten with a pistol, which discharged as his head was hit. He did not suffer any gunshot wounds but was seriously injured from the beating. Squad cars surrounded the area for hours. Neighbors stood gawking, trying to piece together what happened. Eyewitnesses were interviewed. More than a year later, my oldest daughter still remembers that day. How could she forget it? I can’t. But at least I knew what it was all about. An officer on the scene told me I could call him if I had any questions, but I wasn’t allowed to attribute any quotes to him. “I care about this neighborhood,” he told me. “I think it’s a great place.” His openness to communicate with me was encouraging. A far cry from Police Chief Arthur Jones’ policy of non-communication. If I hadn’t been there, I likely would have heard about the incident second, third, or fourth hand, multiplying the way rumors of crime do. Why? Because our police department won’t tell us a damn thing. All media requests must be cleared by the chief’s office; the “community liaison” has a job description that seems to be, as far as I can tell, not telling anybody anything. It seems the only way to get good information about crime or crime trends in our neighborhood is to witness it directly or belong to RNAmail, the Riverwest e-mail network with more than 300 members, who keep each other up to date on crime in the area, among many other, more positive things. Last year, the Riverwest Neighborhood Association had a small group that would meet regularly with the 5th District community liaison officer on the first Thursday of every month at the police station. But even these meetings were something like a secret club. Not just anyone was welcome, as my husband found out when he tried to attend after the incident near our house. The community liaison, Officer Bruce Scott, stopped him as he came down the hall towards the meeting, barking questions – “What’s in the bag? Who told you about this meeting?” and insisted on searching the satchel in which he carried a few books. Fast forward to September 15 this year. The headline in the Journal-Sentinel read, “Man, 19, shot to death as he drives in Riverwest.” Details were sketchy. A car was driving northbound on the 2400 block of Booth Street. Shots were fired from the car behind it. The man in the first car was hit and careened into a parked car in the 2500 block of Booth. The second car pulled up and its occupants executed the man. I called our 5th District community liaison, Officer Bruce Scott, three times, leaving two messages, inquiring as to the nature of the incident. I had heard reports of increased ESM tagging in the area and there was speculation about gang activity. A simple bit of “just the facts, ma’am” information could have dispelled this as rumor. No callback. I was told by Ald. Mike D’Amato, whom I called to express my frustration with the lack of response from police, that the man killed was allegedly dealing drugs and lived on Richards Street. “They were looking for him,” D’Amato said. “This was in no way random.” How did he find this out? “I had to go in and talk to a sergeant… and he told me I couldn’t tell anyone who I got my information from.” Sounds familiar. When our city officials have to rely on secret communiques from officers who are forbidden to talk, it’s past time for a regime change in the police department. A neighbor who lives on Bremen south of Locust recently called District 5 to ask about incidences of arson near her home. She was told by Officer Scott, “We don’t have any information about arson in the neighborhood.” This was after a string of fires in July and August causing damage in the alley between Bremen and Weil on the 2800 block, and the loss of a house, garage, and car in the 2700 block alley between Bremen and Fratney. There were three garbage can fires in mid-September, one which damaged a garage, in the alley between Pierce and Fratney on the 3100 block. “It seems to me with that many incidents, arson should be on the map and they should have a strategy about how to stop it,” said another neighbor. “I can’t believe there would ever be that many fires east of the river without there being a whole big strategic task force on how to stop it.” So how do residents here get the protection they want from the police department? “You can’t put a lot of pressure on police if you have an aldermanic district where people don’t vote — and your biggest advocate is going to be your alderman,” commented one political insider. If a recent conversation is any indication, Ald. D’Amato, who will represent all but a sliver of Riverwest if re-elected next year, is up to the task. He has been out and about in Riverwest lately as the Third District election approaches. He encourages residents to put pressure on police, letting them know that “any and all types of drug dealing in this neighborhood are unacceptable.” In fact, he went on to say that anyone who needs help shutting down a drug house or getting police action on crime should contact his office whether they are currently in his district or not (see phone number listed on pg 2 in “Who You Gonna Call” box). “I promise every one of my new constituents in the 6th district that if they report a drug house, we will use every resource to start shutting those houses down,” he said. Ald. D’Amato continued to express his unhappiness with Police Chief Jones, reflecting the frustration many neighbors feel: “I have asked the police for information for two years; it frustrates each and every one of the Common Council members,” he said. “Working with the neighborhood is extremely important in policing. This chief is not a friend of neighborhood groups; he’s an enemy of them. He believes the best information is no information.” Other cities have had similar problems in recent years, according to a September 28 NPR program, On the Media. “There seems to be a pattern growing in municipal governments of channeling and restricting information,” a professor noted. In the absence of timely public information on local crime, we need to advocate for greater accountability and, if necessary, try to pick up the slack ourselves. RNAmail is one way to do that. One neighbor griping about crime on the e-mail list suggested that “moving to Bay View was looking mighty nice.” I was happy to see this suggestion met with good counter-arguments. Put your energy into caring about your neighborhood. Hold the police accountable for their levels of response. Keep each other informed. Take the Alderman at his word. And help make Riverwest a good place to live, work, and play. To subscribe to RNAmail, the Riverwest e-mail network, e-mail your name and address (kept confidential) to . A gatekeeper/moderator screens posts and sends out e-mails 2-3 times a week. RNAmail has many functions, in addition to crime alerts. To be a member, you must live in Riverwest. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 10 – October 2003