As the debate continues over police staffing in the midst of fears over flash mobs and muggings along the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s neighborhood festivals began Thursday evening with one of the biggest seeing its traditional allotment of police officers slashed.
The annual Puerto Rican fest in Humboldt Park has traditionally been flooded with hundreds of police, a precaution made in previous years because of the volatile combination of rival street gangs and hot summer nights.
The surrounding neighborhood has been marred by gang fights and shootings in past years, and police have responded with scores of tactical officers and gang units.
This year, police manpower is down citywide, and with demands for officers elsewhere, Puerto Rican fest will receive fewer officers. The news was not well received in a neighborhood where security fears were already high.
"Complete disbelief," said Glenn Brettner, executive co-chairman of the United Blocks of West Humboldt Park. "Any pullback, and any decrease in police presence and force during the four days of the festival, we're just astonished by."
Brettner said residents complain every year about drinking, public urination and general rowdy behavior. But that violence has crept in, especially as the festival draws to a close on Saturday and Sunday.
"Fistfights, throwing bottles, throwing bricks," he said. "Every year there’s x-amount of stabbings and x-amount of shootings."
Chicago police confirm they planned to assign fewer officers to this year’s fest. Spokesman Melissa Stratton would not discuss numbers, but said the department was confident the event would be secure.
"There will be fewer officers than in years past," she said. "But we are utilizing additional resources to supplement patrol at the closing of the event to deter potential gang activity."
Executive director Amy Vega confirmed that she was told to expect fewer officers, but she insisted that organizers planned a safe family event. For the first time, even though admission is free, a perimeter fence has been erected around the entire festival area.
"Now we have five designated entrances," she said. "Two emergency blowout panels, to get everybody out at the end of the night."
"We have fewer police presence in the park," she said. "We still have police outside on the perimeter."
Alderman Roberto Maldonado said he actually applauded the decrease in numbers, which he and some other residents considered “overkill”.
"I’m not concerned; I’m in support of that," he said, adding that he believes the cuts will be applied to festivals throughout the city."
“I assume that there will be less police presence at Taste of Chicago," he said.