Police work to save Champaign neighborhood

Officer Tom Petrilli of the Champaign Police Department and a member of the Community Assistance Team poses in front of a row of police cars. Trevor Greene


Officer Tom Petrilli of the Champaign Police Department and a member of the Community Assistance Team poses in front of a row of police cars. Trevor Greene

By Mark Rivera

Officer Tom Petrilli of the Champaign Police Department calmly drove his police car down Bradley Avenue, until he saw his partner, Officer Kevin Olmstead, about to address two men walking down the street. Petrilli pulled off to help, but as soon as Olmstead got close, one of the men took off running.

Petrilli was instantly in pursuit.

Pulling beside the jogging suspect, he opened the driver’s side door.

“Dude, you need to stop,” he said. However, the suspect had different plans.

When Petrilli parked his car in oncoming traffic, the suspect took off running down Bradley in the opposite direction.

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Simultaneously exiting the vehicle and locking the doors, Petrilli sprinted after the suspect. With offender in hand, beads of sweat rolled down his forehead upon his return. Petrilli has had to fight two men within 25 minutes.

In July 2007 the Champaign Police Department created a Community Assistance Team, or CAT, in order to reclaim the deteriorating Garden Hills neighborhood northwest of campus. The team patrols a small area bordered by Bloomington Road and Bradley Avenue to the north and south, and Prospect and Mattis avenues to the east and west.

Officer Petrilli is part of this team. He starts patrolling at 5 p.m. and does not stop until 1 a.m. According to him, the work of the CAT team has improved the community.

“It is actually saving the neighborhood,” he said.

Tina March, a 3-year resident of the Garden Hills neighborhood, said that two months ago at least 100 juveniles gathered on her street around 2 a.m. She wondered where they all came from.

Petrilli said that similar large gatherings of 50 to 150 people – sometimes escalating into large fights – were once a problem. Roving gangs of adolescents ranging in the hundreds blocked main thoroughfares. Now, although there are continuing problems, Petrilli said groups just do not gather like they used to.

He compared the situation to problem neighborhoods in Springfield, Ill. As soon as police started focusing on working with the community, difficult areas started to improve.

“With a little attention, (Garden Hills) can be reclaimed,” he said.

The ability for the CAT team to make a real difference in the Garden Hills area is because it is uniquely close to the community. It works with local landlords, the Champaign Housing Authority and aims to recognize problem houses in an effort to root out crime. A normal beat officer who is in the area once a week cannot maintain the same type of close relationship with the community as do the members of the CAT team, Petrilli said. They are there four days per week.

Tina Marchsaid she hasn’t seen police officers come door to door, but she had noticed their efforts to connect with the community. March said a police representative was present at one of the Garden Hills residential meetings to take input and address major community concerns.

“We are dedicated to one neighborhood,” Petrilli said. “We hand out cards at gatherings with our cell phone numbers on them. We want people to know they can call us up.”

Despite overarching community difficulties, Ron Penny, a Garden Hills resident since 2002, said he has not had any problems on his street, although he knows of crime nearby.

“I’ve heard of drug pushing and robbery further down,” he said. “But I’ve never felt threatened.”

The fact that Penny had noticed more police on patrol made him feel safer, he said, but this safe feeling does not mean everything is fine.

Petrilli said current neighborhood concerns were juvenile fights, large juvenile gatherings, loud music and drug sales.

To combat these problems, police working closely with the Champaign Park District have put on close to eight events at the Garden Hills Elementary school, such as a drive-in style movie night.

While Petrilli was in a bowling league as a child, he said Garden Hills is an area where many children are not raised by their parents and do not have constructive outlets on which to focus their energy.

“We want to give the kids something to do,” he said. However he was realistic when it comes to the real difference police can make.

“The depths of community problems can’t be solved by police,” he said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Instead, Petrilli opted for the neighborhood itself to take a stand.

“Working closely with the community gives you more sets of eyes,” he said. “People need to step up as neighbors and teachers.”

Tina March shared her feelings on the need for community activism.

“Nothing’s ever safe,” March said. “But when it’s all said and done, it’s the people that make the difference.”