Tackling Violence with a Softer Side of Policing

By Emily Gray Brosious | Gapers Block | Jun. 30, 2015

Chicago Police Officer Diana Varga answers questions from children and youth at the Foglia Family and Youth Center in Chicago's East Garfield Park neighborhood. (Photo by Emily Gray Brosious)
Chicago Police Officer Diana Varga answers questions from children and youth at the Foglia Family and Youth Center in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. (Photo by Emily Gray Brosious)

When police officers couldn’t make it to a scheduled basketball match with youth in the East Garfield Park neighborhood last Wednesday, 11th District Chicago Police Officer Diana Varga swooped in to save the day with an impromptu meet-and-greet of sorts.

Dressed in plain athletic clothes, the outgoing young officer spoke about policing in Chicago to a few dozen people gathered in the gymnasium. Then she opened up for a question and answer session. Children and teens sat cross-legged on the basketball court, eagerly raising their hands to ask Officer Varga about her background, her police work and what it takes to become an officer.

“Everyone in here could be a police officer. Be athletic, be healthy, get your degree,” she said before leading a few lively rounds of training drills and breaking into some basketball practice with the kids.

This isn’t necessarily the picture of police-community relations that readily comes to mind following recent waves of protest and national outrage over the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of white police officers. Amid such tensions, it can be easy to overlook the individuals and organizations actively working to change that dynamic.

Organizations like Marillac St. Vincent Family Services, which planned Wednesday’s event as part of a larger collaboration with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) aimed at building trust between police and community members to help tackle gun violence in the Garfield Park neighborhood.

“With more than 1,100 shootings in Chicago this year alone, the community in Garfield Park is bracing for the worst as summer approaches and temperatures rise — conditions under which gun violence historically rises in the city,” said Stephen Barker, Associate Director of Development at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services.

Building a “coalition of peace” between the police and the community is a key strategy for lowering gun and drug related violence in the Garfield Park neighborhood, Barker said in an interview. “This is what saves lives.”

Officer Vargas echoed that sentiment and underscored the importance of community-police relations. CPD’s emphasis on community policing measures is actually one of the reasons she chose to join the department, she said in an interview.

Many children and youth were excited to meet with police officers Wednesday.

“A lot of people don’t like police because of shootings and things across the country, but I feel safer when they’re around,” 14-year-old Jacari Brown said in an interview.

He hopes increasing positive interactions between youth and police officers will lower the gang-related violence in his neighborhood.

“We want less gangs, less guns, less kids getting killed,” he said.

Family: Slain football coach Alexander Villafane kept kids off the street

By Emily Gray Brosious | Originally published at Homicide Watch Chicago | Feb. 17, 2015

Alexander Villafane named his youth football program after his second-favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots, family said.

The 39-year-old football coach did not get to see the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIXthis month because he was fatally shot in the head while working on a vehicle less than a week before the game, family said.

Villafane was replacing a stolen catalytic converter when he was wounded during a Jan. 25 drive-by shooting in the 3500 block of West 24th Street, family said.

Villafane, of the 2300 block of South St. Louis Avenue, died two days later at Mount Sinai Hospital, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

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“I’m at a complete loss … I would never imagine, in a million years, out of all the things that could happen, something like this.” said Villafane’s stepdaughter, Jennessa Martinez.

She said her stepfather dedicated his life to keeping children on the football field and off the streets.

Villafane started the Humboldt Park football team with his brother about 10 years ago as a way to help at-risk youths, family said. He coached more than 300 children, many of whom went on to play high school or college football, Martinez said.

“It’s hard to see that the very thing he was fighting against was the thing that took his life,” she said.

Relatives described the father of four as a “family man” who was a “role model” to many.

“He just taught me so much as I grew up in life,” said Villafane’s godson Angel Del Valle. “He didn’t give up on me. He worked with me, he worked with many of the other kids that were on the bench to better themselves so they can become better people.”

The family believes Villafane’s shooting might have been a case mistaken identity.

Witnesses only told relatives that a gunman inside a passing minivan shot Villafane, the family said during a press conference calling for more police cameras in the area.

Nobody has been charged for the murder.

Family members are asking anyone with information about Alexander Villafane’s murder contact Area Central detectives.

Grandmother: Slain teen Ja-Quez Williams wanted to be cop

BY Jessica Koscielniak and Emily Gray Brosious | Originally published at Homicide Watch Chicago | June 4, 2014

Ja-Quez Williams wanted to become a police officer to stop the violence in his Austin community, his family said.

The violence Ja-Quez, 17, longed to stop took his life before he ever got that chance when he was fatally shot in the head in the 5500 block of West North Avenue about 2:05 a.m. April 26, authorities said.

“He was a beautiful, vibrant person — full of life,” said his grandmother, Inez Williams said. “It was a senseless thing, I really don’t understand. No children should be gunned down like cattle.”

Inez Williams raised her grandson from a young age, she said. The two shared a bedroom and prayed together at the end of the day.

Each night before drifting off to sleep he’d say, “Goodnight grandma,” Inez Williams said.

Prosecutors said Frederick Woods-Rivas, 23, walked up to a group standing outside and shot Ja-Quez in the back of the head. Judge Peggy Chiampas ordered Woods-Rivas held without bond.

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Ja-Quez, of the 5400 block of West North Avenue, died at the scene, according to Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Ja-Quez had gone out to get a submarine sandwich and was waiting for his uncle to pick him up when he was gunned down, his grandmother said.

Inez Williams said the neighborhood is infested with gang activity, but claims Ja-Quez was not a gang member.

She has been weary of the gun violence in her neighborhood, but never expected it to affect her directly.

“Older guys, the ones that run the area over there, tased him and threw him in a car and tried to make him and the younger boys do things,” Inez Williams said. “They tell them they won’t go to jail because they’re minors.”

Inez Williams said her grandson wasn’t a violent person and was afraid of the gang members who threatened him for trying to avoid the gang lifestyle.

“There’s just too much violence and kids shouldn’t have to live like that,” she said. “It’s so prevalent in the city.”

After the shooting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called Inez Williams with condolences for the loss of her grandson, she said.

“I was surprised he called because I was feeling so hurt and I didn’t know really which way to turn,” she said. “He said when children are getting gunned down like that, we’ve got to do something together.”

Inez Williams hopes Emanuel can develop strategies to stop the violence.

Young people with guns need to understand the real impact of their actions and empathize with the pain they cause victims’ family and loved ones,” she said.

Gun Violence Prevention Advocates Rally for Congressional Action

By Emily Gray Brosious | Published at Gapers Block | Aug. 22, 2013

Demonstrators gathered Wednesday evening at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago to rally for gun violence prevention. The event, which was coordinated by volunteers with Organizing for Action, featured activists and community members who spoke out about the harmful consequences of gun violence and called on Congress to take action and support commonsense gun violence prevention legislation.

Chicago demonstrators demand tighter gun-control legislation. | Photo/Emily Gray Brosious
Chicago demonstrators demand tighter gun-control legislation. | Photo/Emily Gray Brosious

Here in Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn recently passed a law requiring background checks on all gun sales. “While this is a great step in reducing guns entering the illegal market, we need a strong national law to keep guns out of the hands of criminals,” said Mark Walsh, campaign director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

Carolyn Murray, who lost her 19-year-old son when he was fatally shot on November 29, 2012 in Evanston, said it’s time for everyone to stand up against gun violence and urged a united front–clergy, parents, politicians, and police–to “end this senseless killing of our kids.”

As tragic gun violence continues to shake our communities and the country at large, the need for national, comprehensive gun control has never been more obvious, organizers explained. Polls show that a majority of Americans now support tighter gun control measures, and demonstrators agreed that Congress must seize this opportunity to pass gun violence prevention laws that keep guns out of dangerous hands and make our neighborhoods safer.

Carolyn Murray, who lost her 19-year-old son to gun violence,  urges a united front to “end this senseless killing of our kids.” | Photo/Emily Gray Brosious
Carolyn Murray, who lost her 19-year-old son to gun violence, urges a united front to “end this senseless killing of our kids.” | Photo/Emily Gray Brosious

Demonstrators want to know what it will take for Congress to act on gun violence prevention. “If the will of the American people and the voices of the families affected by all these tragedies aren’t enough, what will it take?”

As one community activist, Victoria Jordan, put it, “If we can’t trust the people we vote into office to fight for us, who can we?”

Beyond implementing crucial gun violence prevention laws, Pastor Michael Neal of

Glorious Light Church spoke of the need for an integrated approach to curbing gun violence. “We must not settle for a simply reactive approach to the problem,” he said, “We should look holistically at the various ills that have caused this violence. Then, we who are able have a duty to consistently be active, serving, and supportive of the programs that bring life.”