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UPDATED 06/24/11 11:08 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Security concerns are in the air, as the Taste of Chicago opens for its 10-day run in Grant Park.
As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, the summer in Chicago has gotten off to a violent start, most infamously with a string of mob attacks close to downtown. Thus, police Supt. Garry McCarthy has increased patrols using undercover officers.
As police officers arrived in Grant Park Friday morning, restaurant owners welcomed their presence.
“All of it is a helpful action,” said Mary Madison, owner the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood Creole-Cajun restaurant Lagniappe. “I mean, it’s a collective effort. It’s the sum total that makes the whole. It’s not just one part. Everything they implemented, I’m sure will help will deter it.”
Madison said she hopes the string of mob attacks has boiled over.
“I think people should feel relatively safe, because the venue is enclosed. It has a designated entrance and exit way, and has a more concentrated ratio of police persons to people than they would on the street,” she said.
Generally, restauranteurs were not worried that violent mobs would come to spoil the festival.
“Something happens every year – something minor – but we’ve never had a problem,” said Alexander Dering of South Shore’s Parrot Cage restaurant. “I mean, we’re not worried about it.”
Added Paul Loduca of Adobo Grill: “We’re not worried at all. People come down, they have a good time. So we’re not afraid.”
But not everyone shares their sense of security, particularly because violent acts have plagued the Taste in past years. That fact, on top of the mob attacks that have left some people seriously injured, have prompted McCarthy to dispatch more officers to the Taste than ever before.
There will also be extra video surveillance, which can help deploy teams of officers to trouble spots more quickly, and can be used in prosecutions.
And McCarthy said earlier this week that the protection won’t end at the gates to Taste. In response to recent mob attacks close to downtown, he said police will set up “safe corridors” to and from the festival.
CBS 2 joined McCarthy as he got briefed by his officers in Grant Park near Buckingham Fountain.
“When I talked about the plainclothes thing, if that’s not what you want to do, don’t do it,” McCarthy said to a commander.
“We’ve done that, and that’s a good thing to have,” the commander replied.
“They could be out in the crowd – granted, even if they know who they are – eyes and ears
The mob attacks this month all happened within a mile of Grant Park. On June 4, two men were attacked by mobs of teens in Streeterville – one of whom was parking his scooter in the 300 block of East Chicago Avenue, the other of whom was assaulted while riding his bicycle at Lake Shore Drive and Huron Street.
Several high-profile incidents have hit the headlines since. A week ago, two teens were attacked by a mob of teens at Chicago and Wabash avenues in an altercation that began at the Oak Street Beach. On Thursday morning, the brother of Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan was attacked by a mob while riding the CTA Red Line subway near Chicago Avenue.
Within Grant Park, a commander described the area around Buckingham Fountain as “ground zero” for gang activity.
And as noted, problems at the Taste are nothing new either.
Three years ago, four people were shot – one fatally – as a crowd streamed out of Grant Park following the July 3 fireworks extravaganza. The shots rang out near Congress Parkway and Dearborn Street as people ducked for cover, and Courtney Thomas, 20, was soon pronounced dead.
Security was stepped up immediately afterward, with then-police Supt. Jody Weis dispatching so many undercover officers the following day that they sometimes outnumbered uniformed officers. And last year, the July 3 fireworks show was eliminated altogether.
Still, fights between gang members have broken out of the Taste in the past two years.
Meanwhile, doubts still remain among the public about why police really closed North Avenue Beach back on Memorial Day. Police have insisted it was because of the heat, and not gang violence. But now, 911 calls made that day seems to suggest concerns about the crowds.
A 911 caller that day described her concern before leaving the beach: “There’s thousands of people on that beach, and when they all come out of there, it’s going to be a nightmare.”
Sources told CBS 2 that North Avenue Beach was closed because of fights at Oak Street Beach. The two beaches are linked by a stretch of concrete shoreline alongside Lake Shore Drive.
Police on Friday morning released a statement repeating that concerns about heat and safety were the motivation for closing the beach.
“The Chicago Police Department made the decision to close North Avenue beach on Memorial Day in the interest of public safety and public health because of numerous heat-related illnesses on the scene,” the statement read in part. “The closure of North Avenue beach was unrelated to any activity at Oak Street beach on Memorial Day.”
Police pointed out that the Fire Department called an EMS Plan 1, which sends five ambulances, and took away four people with heat-related illness – one of whom was in critical condition. Meanwhile, police said officers made six arrests, including one for reckless conduct, an outstanding warrant and violations of Park District ordinances, and also ticketed 36 people for violating city ordinances.
As the debate about the beach closure continues, so do the mob actions. On Thursday night, 50 teens barged into the Walgreens drugstore at 757 N. Michigan Ave., stealing drinks and sandwiches. Police were able to arrest three of the subjects.
Police are now trying to ensure that at the Taste of Chicago, such mobs do not surface.
McCarthy says the extra patrols will not cost taxpayers more money, since they all come from redeployments of officers on desk duty and special units.