Howard Street’s hope

Abbie Vansickle

Stocky, with a slight limp, over-sized gold-rimmed glasses and a thick Chicago accent, Frank Ippolito, a 62-year-old retired Chicago Transit Authority bus driver, said he’s not afraid of the high crime rate and reports of gang activity near Howard Street in southern Evanston. He said he won’t quit until he’s made the Howard Street neighborhood a safe place for business owners, women and children.

To show he’s serious about fighting crime, he decided to volunteer five days a week, manning Evanston Police Department’s Howard Street Outpost.

After retiring from the CTA, Ippolito, a longtime Howard resident, said he didn’t want to “just sit and wait for the undertaker to come.”

Ippolito decided to fulfill a lifelong dream. He attended the Citizen Police Academy, a program developed by the police in which Evanston residents learn the duties of a police officer. After the first class, Ippolito said, He said, after the first class, he knew he was in the right place.

“I graduated fifth in the class of the police academy,” he said, touching his ball cap, a worn blue hat adorned with the logo of the citizen’s police academy. “I never missed a class.”

His experience at the academy rekindled Ippolito’s lifelong passion for helping others.

Ippolito, who studied to be a Catholic priest before meeting his wife, said he’s always been interested in community service. When Ippolito was a CTA bus driver, his route included Howard Street, where he saw opportunities for community outreach.

He said he feels closely tied to the Howard community and was excited to get a chance to make a difference in the area. When EPD Chief Frank Kaminski approached him about working at the new outpost, he jumped at the chance.

“I said to myself, ‘I hope I get it, God, I hope I get it,'” Ippolito said. “I had my fingers crossed.”

Ippolito started working July 11, the day the outpost opened. He said he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

The outpost, housed in an old storefront at 633 Howard St., was developed by EPD to cut down on crime in the Howard neighborhood and to give community groups a place to meet. The outpost also provides a place for state-funded community aid programs for battered women and children.

So far, the outpost seems to be working, said Officer Robert Mayer.

“The outpost was designed to get a partnership going with the community and the police, and to come up with solutions for problems here,” Mayer said. “Now the community has a place to meet.”

Fliers advertising neighborhood events and outreach programs, as well as photographs of community members and police celebrating the outpost’s opening, decorate the yellow walls of the building, affirming Mayer’s hope that the outpost will unite a fragmented area.

Mayer said he hopes the outpost will serve as a catalyst, spurring residents to join together in the fight against the gang violence and drug trafficking in the area.

Sgt. Sam Pettineo, director of EPD’s problem solving team, said the outpost’s location at the border between Evanston and Chicago also will serve to increase communication between the police departments of the two cities.

He said the outpost provides a place for police from both departments to meet and discuss the enforcement of the Howard area.

“There’s an invisible wall between Evanston and Chicago,” Pettineo said. “The outpost being there breaks down the invisible barrier.

“I’ve been a police officer here for 26 years. The outpost is about building relationships within the community, but it’s also about building relationships within the police.”

Pettineo said Ippolito is a vital part in the process of fostering that relationship.

“Frank is one of our most dedicated citizen volunteers,” Pettineo said. “We see Frank as somebody who can facilitate activities (at the outpost).”

He said Ippolito allows more officers to be out on the street in their patrol cars.

Instead of patrolling the area in a police car, Ippolito’s job is to do “walk and talks,” which means he must keep an eye on the neighborhood by walking into local businesses near trouble spots to make sure everything is normal.

Armed with a radio and a rosary, he steps out of the outpost, surveying the area.

“Come here and check this out,” he said, pointing at an object bolted to a nearby stoplight.

The shiny black object is a camera, Ippolito said. The camera, operated by a joystick in a back room of the outpost, lets Ippolito delve into the shadows of the alleyway behind the outpost, a popular place for drug deals until the police moved in.

“I’ve got eyes in the back of my head,” he said, grinning widely. “It gives the gang-bangers some food for thought. Wherever the crime is, I’d like to walk through it.”

He said he’s watched the crime in the area decrease dramatically since the outpost opened. The gangs that used to hang out behind the outpost building have disappeared, he said. Although he was quick to point out that offenders have probably just moved to another location, he’s still optimistic the outpost is making a difference.

But the area is still not safe, Ippolito said, citing several recent police sting operations and arrests. Most recently, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and EPD arrested more than 20 people last week on charges of selling drugs in Evanston.

But he also said he’s never afraid.

“I’m not scared, ever,” he said, fingering the black beads of his rosary. “I just keep praying, ‘Dear God, make Evanston safe.'”

Ippolito said his faith also gives him the strength to convince others that there is hope for the area.

Every day he goes into the businesses on Howard, from Popeyes to the pubs, saying, “Don’t be afraid, I’m here.”

He said part of his job is to protect local business owners, many of whom are immigrants who speak little English. He said this has become even more vital since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

He said he worries about hate crimes and acts of racial discrimination in the Howard area, but is confident he and the Evanston police can “make sure our fellow man is well-protected.”

Ippolito said the terrorist attacks also worried him because of the number of police officers and firefighters who lost their lives.

“I love all my police,” Ippolito said. “I have confidence in them and in myself. … Crime is here, but so is the Evanston police partnership. If we don’t do things with the people here, we’ll never succeed. They’re people, they’re human beings.

“We have to work together or we’ll fall apart. In New York they were all together and here we’ll all together. Got any problems? Come on in, we’ll talk about it.”

Gesturing toward his chest, he said: “No bullet-proof vest. No gun. I’m not afraid. If I was afraid, I wouldn’t be here.”