Residents in area where officer was slain report crime on the rise
By Michael Gonzalez Post-Tribune correspondent July 10, 2014 7:32PM
Wiilie Harris a resident of Van Buren Place since 1944 talks about the neighborhood where Patrolman Jeffrey Westerfield was shot on Sunday in Gary on July 10, 2014. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 11, 2014 2:00AM
GARY — Despite a heavy police and press presence this week, the West Side neighborhood where a veteran Gary police officer was shot to death Sunday morning always has been a quiet one, longtime residents said Thursday.
But some said forces beyond their control appear to be at work — new residents who are changing the area and not for the better.
Officer Jeffrey Westerfield, 47, was found dead about 6 a.m. Sunday in his squad car in the 2600 block of Van Buren Place. It’s a street that resembles much of Gary — occupied single-family homes mingled with a few abandoned ones, with many of the residents having deep roots in the neighborhood.
Their descriptions of the neighborhood varied, but some residents interviewed Thursday agreed they’re working through some challenges.
“We get gunfire here all the time,” said Willie Harris, who’s lived in his home since 1944. “If you’re not doing anything with the young people, what would you expect from young people? They’re going to get in trouble.”
Harris said he’s frustrated with public officials, from the mayor to precinct committeemen to county prosecutors and judges in not doing more to provide jobs and deter crime.
“I got to run to the car, and I run back,” Harris said as he sat on his front steps. “Nobody’s standing for Gary. They need to put the city to work.”
He attributed rising danger in the area to new residents, some of whom have moved from Chicago after the massive public housing complexes there were torn down.
As an unmarked police car rolled down a nearby alley, Brenda Perry, a resident of the neighborhood for 15 years, said she feels safe and even walks to her job at a nearby store.
“It’s basically a quiet neighborhood,” she said as she visited neighbors.
There was a house nearby where young people caused problems, but a police raid this week cleared it out, Perry said.
After Westerfield was found dead, Gary and Lake County sheriff’s officers and Indiana State Police swarmed the area looking for evidence. Two days later, city workers cleared brush out of alleys, cut down trees and tore down a dilapidated garage to help police search for evidence.
Having lived for 70 years on the block, Irma Davis said she has seen it go through major change, pointing to an influx of former Chicago residents, but it is still a quiet place.
“It’s a lot of new neighbors here, and a lot of people come from Chicago, when they tore down those (public housing) buildings,” Davis said, holding her screen door open slightly. “I used to know everybody on the block. No. I don’t feel safe. I used to not lock my door, but now you have to.”
Dozens of people, many from the surrounding neighborhoods, poured into Van Buren Baptist Church for a prayer service Wednesday, said the Rev. Dwight Mobley Sr., pastor of the church, which is about a half-block from where Westerfield was killed.
“In general, it’s very quiet, very peaceful,” Mobley, who joined Van Buren Baptist in 1995 as an assistant pastor, said of the area surrounding the church. “It really has never had that many problems that I know of, and I fairly know most of the people. If a new face that comes in, I kind of know, but I try to let them know we’re here for them, and we try to help.”
On the morning of the shooting, several members called Mobley to see if the church services would be held. They were, he said, and “we had great numbers who came out that morning and prayed and praised Officer Westerfield, and we prayed for whoever did this.”