- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. (AP) - As Police Chief Mark Becker walked last week in the city’s South Side neighborhood, he recognized a woman he’d spoken to after a nearby homicide.

He asked how things had been going. She shrugged.

“Could always be better, huh?” Becker asked.

“It’s pretty decent now,” she said.

East Chicago police and one Lake County sheriff’s officer with the Region STOP Team canvassed several blocks last week, knocking on doors and asking residents if they had any concerns.

They handed out fliers with information on how to report suspicious activity and sign up for The Chief’s Email, a free service that provides updates on public safety issues.

“We don’t care about your name,” Becker repeatedly told residents. Just provide information, and police will take it from there.

Becker said he began the community walks in East Chicago after he became chief in February 2012.

“This is out third summer doing this,” Becker told The Times (https://bit.ly/1w5VVcv ).

The department does seven to eight walks a year, he said.

“There’s really no rhyme or reason to where we go,” he said.

He began doing community walks in Gary in 1997, when he helped start the Gang Response Investigative Team while working for the FBI. He continued similar efforts as Portage’s police chief, he said.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s one of the best parts of my job,” he said.

The walks help build trust between police and the community, he said.

“You’d be amazed what people will tell you when you’re on their porch in a nonconfrontational manner.”

As police walked along 151st Street, an officer pointed out a boarded-up home across from Kosciuszko Park. The property once was home to members of the Imperial Gangsters street gang, he said.

Down the street, Becker struck up a conversation with a woman sitting on her front stairs.

“Gang members lived down there,” she said of the boarded-up house. “It was good to get them out of there.”

Becker said police have partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and other agencies to fight gangs.

Four members of the Two Six Nation street gang and four associates were indicted Aug. 21 in U.S. District Court. They’re accused of taking part in a racketeering conspiracy involving two homicides and the distribution of marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin and Ecstasy.

In a separate federal case that started in 2011, eight of 24 reputed members of the Imperial Gangsters street gang named in an indictment have been sentenced. The indictment alleged the defendants were responsible for 14 previously uncharged homicides and an 11-year racketeering conspiracy that involved the attempted murder of 19 people and large-scale distribution of cocaine and marijuana.

“We’re pretty active with the gang stuff,” Becker told the woman. “It’s going pretty well.”

Deputy Police Chief John Verbich stopped to chat with a woman who asked about the police substation at 150th Street and Baring Avenue.

Verbich said the department recently hired 17 officers and has plans to staff the substation, particularly in the evenings.

The woman said she can’t take her children to the park sometimes because of suspicious people in the area.

“At this time of day (nighttime), they’re always stealing,” she said. “I mean, it’s crazy. It’s just getting ridiculous.”

Zubdiel “Ernie” Escobedo was happy to see police at his door.

“This is great,” he said. “I love it.”

Escobedo, who teaches at Ivy Tech Community College’s East Chicago campus, said he’s lived in the city most of his life. He said he used to be able to sit on his porch, but he doesn’t feel safe enough to do that these days.

“I can’t believe how much has changed,” he said. “So this is good.”

Along with the community walks, police have been interacting more with residents while on bike patrol, Becker said.

The department had more than 20 bicycles hanging on a wall when Becker started, he said. Officers went through training in April and began patrols after that, he said.

“That has really been an eye-opener for us,” he said. “I guess they just like to see cops on bikes.”

Second District City Councilman Lenny Franciski walked alongside the officers. He said he supports the community walks and bike patrols.

As Becker knocked on a door on Northcote Avenue, a group of children playing next door tried to get his attention. A girl on the porch there held onto a railing and bent over backward.

“You gotta not like the police,” she said, talking while upside down.

Becker responded, “You gotta not like the police? Why is that?”

The girl gave a muted response as she righted herself and walked down the steps.

Later, Becker said he told Mayor Anthony Copeland before he was hired that he would need the community’s support.

“I understand some people don’t like us, but we’re going to make it difficult for them not to like us,” he said.

Reported crime in East Chicago is at its lowest level in about 20 years, he said.

Becker doesn’t expect that trend to continue indefinitely.

There’s an ebb and flow to crime, he said. The goal is to try to maintain a downward trend and prevent any extreme increases.

He said the Region STOP Team has played an invaluable role in reducing crime. It’s unprecedented for local police agencies to come together without the lure of federal money, he said.

Building trust between police and the community also is key to keeping crime down, he said. The goal is to be proactive rather than reactive, he said.

When police receive more information about suspicious activity, they have to go on fewer emergency calls, he said.

“We’re interested in what you have to say,” Becker said. “And not only that - we’ll do something with what you tell us,” he said.


Information from: The Times, https://www.thetimesonline.com

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