Area police agencies team up for high-intensity patrols
Post-Tribune staff report August 31, 2013 11:30PM
Hammond Lt. Karl Eidam begins to search a car stopped for a traffic violation on Aug. 28, 2013. Police seized marijuana from the driver. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 2, 2013 6:24AM
EAST CHICAGO — Rolling off the Cline Avenue exit ramp in a tight line, 10 police squads make an impressive sight as they merge onto Martin Luther King Drive, headed west into the city for part two of their nightly patrol.
There goes the Regional Stop Team.
Residents in Hammond, Gary and East Chicago will see them regularly on neighborhood streets as part of a new cooperative action that started with a discussion about how area law enforcement could assist Gary with its rising homicide toll.
On Wednesday night, the weeklong oppressive heat broke, bringing good folks and troublemakers outside. Stop Team members checked loiterers at public housing sites, issued traffic tickets and kept watch for a white car with distinct features.
The driver of this white car was known to have an AK-47 rifle and had been shooting at people, East Chicago Chief and Stop Team leader Mark Becker said.
Throughout the night, the team stopped several white cars for minor traffic offenses, a perennially useful tool in law enforcement because it can lead to substantial arrests. They didn’t find a rifle, but did recover 3 grams of potent-smelling marijuana from an Indiana University Northwest student from south Lake County. He was on his way to a party in the Sunnyside neighborhood, where the team made several visits that night because of reports of a simmering gang war and gunfire.
The 21-year-old failed to signal as he made a turn. East Chicago Sgt. George Cossey and Hammond Lt. Karl Eidam pulled him over and immediately recognized the trash littering his car as signs of a marijuana user.
“He had blunts, packaging, cigarellos, loose tobacco, all kinds of stuff on the floor,” Eidam, an experienced drug detective, said.
As Cossey and Eidam searched the car — finding pot in a tightly closed jelly jar — Becker quizzed the kid about where he bought it.
“I just got arrested in Schererville with pot,” he told police.
Details gleaned from Becker’s interrogation will be forwarded to the appropriate police agency for investigation, he said. What that department decides to do with the information will determine whether the young man will ultimately be charged with possession or assist in stopping the dealer.
From the time Cossey made the traffic stop until all three units cleared, they spent about 30 very visible minutes in that one place. Most police working in urban areas rarely have that much time because calls pile up quickly — domestic disputes, theft reports, neighborhood arguments and the whole gamut of little events that keep them hopping.
Freedom to gather intelligence, spend whatever time is needed at any scene and making its presence known are at the core of Stop Team operations.
After four hours in Gary on Wednesday, the team moved to East Chicago. Hammond joined Wednesday, so patrols there are next. Several other area departments have committed part-time, affording their officers a chance to work at a more intense pace and providing experience that can help them identify problems in their own cities and towns.
Gary’s Lt. Samuel Roberts, familiar with the open patrol concept through his department’s old Uniform Task Force and more recent Crime Suppression Unit, said the Stop Team provides critical street-level enforcement.
“It’s pretty much the same,” Roberts said, comparing the Stop Team to his Gary assignment. “People are blocking the streets, violating traffic laws and selling marijuana and cocaine.” The Stop Team can focus aggressive efforts in known troubled spots with assurance they won’t get pulled away until they are satisfied with their work.
After a couple of particularly violent weeks in Gary, U.S. Attorney David Capp called a meeting in July of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to brainstorm on ways to assist Chief Wade Ingram.
Becker, a retired FBI agent who led the Gang Response Investigative Team for 11 years, launched his first Stop Team while chief in Portage, then began one earlier this year in East Chicago, with good results.
At the top-level meeting, Becker proposed a regional team that would divide its time in the more-urban north end of the county, but assist other departments as issues arise.
The regional team officially began Monday.
On Wednesday, the team arrested three people, including one wanted on a warrant. Officers seized a gun and more marijuana and spoke to residents in Gary and East Chicago, gathering important facts about what happens on their streets when police aren’t there.
But there’s more than the focus on criminal activity. While at the Guthrie Street apartments, officers heard from residents grateful for their increased presence. Becker urged them to call with tips, promising the team would respond.
During one of several visits to a Guthrie Street housing development, police questioned some young men, but the encounters were peaceful, marked by friendly banter.
“That’s one thing I insist on,” Becker said. “I told these guys from the outset that as far as pursuits, handling of evidence and other things they should follow their own department’s procedures. But they will all treat people like members of their own family.”
The exception, Becker said, is when the civilian is uncooperative.
Almost on cue, Cossey, Eidam and Becker approach yet another white car, this one driven by a young man with attitude. The East Chicago man had been at a nearby gas station while the other team, led by Sgt. Jose Rivera, made a warrant arrest. Officers told the man to leave the area, so he drove his car to a vacant lot adjacent to the business.
Officers who had been joking with apartment residents minutes earlier jumped out of their squads, hands on their guns, shouting orders.
In the face of angry police, the driver became apologetic and timid.
This time, he drove completely away from the scene.
At the end of the shift, the team gathered at the East Chicago police station to turn in their reports and review the night. There was good-natured ribbing aimed at Lake County Deputy Chief Dan Murchek, who had arrested a man the night before on a littering warrant.
“How stupid do you have to be to get a warrant for littering?” Murchek countered.
“Well, he probably won’t do it again,” somebody said.
One small victory for the Stop Team.