Just that one little parting of the clouds let Elyria police Officers Todd Straub and Tom Orsik know they could start their day at the Elyria Police Department’s Wilkes Villa satellite station in relative quiet.
For a few moments, at least, there would be no one to chase from the complex.
Other Elyria police officers wear black shoes or boots. They’re road officers who may filter in and out of the complex but aren’t stationed there like Straub and Orsik.
“If they’re not supposed to be here, they run. There’s a lot of foot chases out here,” Straub said.
He looks down at the floor. He’s wearing Nike running shoes. Orsik is also wearing Nike running shoes.
A different assignment requires a different kind of attire.
As long as the rain fell, there likely wouldn’t be any neighbors bothering other neighbors.
The kids — many of whom like to surprise the officers by playfully jumping on their backs for piggyback rides — will be inside. There will be no need to watch for them on bikes or darting across the streets on their way to the playground.
But Straub and Orsik still have work to do.
Their email inboxes were, of course, full of messages telling them what happened in the hours since they last were on Pratt Boulevard — which neighbors got into a squabble, what incidents from outside the public housing development may filter over from the city or who wants to secretly talk about what happens in the dark corners of the projects.
But as soon as the rain let up, a crowd of five young men were standing in the grass in front of one apartment.
“It starts like that,” said Straub, who has worked the Wilkes Villa assignment for about 2½ years.
He asked for the Wilkes beat as a stepping stone to further his career. It’s a good start if you want to go into the Neighborhood Impact Unit or become a detective. Everyone in those divisions has served at Wilkes Villa.
Straub glanced at the small pack of men.
Dressed in a black T-shirt, blue jeans and a black bullet-proof utility vest in addition to their running shoes, he and Orsik don’t look like regular patrol officers. But their less-formal attire does not mean they are any less serious about their purpose.
“When we come back here later today, they’ll be more. But as long as they don’t cause a problem, we won’t bother them. They know this, too,” Straub said.
It’s that kind of understanding that has dramatically reduced crime and violence in the housing complex. It’s not a perfect situation — concentrating people all facing the same level of poverty into one area.
It tends to lead to problems — problems the Elyria Police Department has learned will only get bigger if they don’t intervene early and often.
That’s why Straub and Orsik are at Wilkes Villa. They, like the officers before them, do their part to try and make Wilkes Villa a different place.
A bad rep
It’s been a good 15 years since the satellite station that Straub and Orsik currently man opened a stone’s throw from Fuller Road.
It sprung up after city leaders, Lorain Metro Housing Authority officials and police officers grew tired of the near-constant barrage of crime and violence at the complex.
“It was a very dangerous place and had a very dangerous reputation — rightfully so,” said police Capt. Chris Costantino.
Now the force’s second-in-command, Costantino started with the department more than 24 years ago. He saw the complex develop its reputation in the late 1980s and 1990s with his own eyes.
He remembers how every street light in the complex was shot out as soon as it was replaced to give crime the cover of darkness and how drug deals went down in broad daylight.
“The first night I worked an overnight there when I was on the road, I was told to always watch the rooftops,” said
Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely, once a member of the heavy-hitting Neighborhood Impact Unit. “There were people who would literally throw glass bottles from the rooftops at police officers or the crowd below. They were aiming for the cops, but a lot of times ended up hitting their neighbors.
“That was a long time ago. It’s nothing like that now,” he said.
Hundreds of man hours, arrests and officer rotations later, Wilkes Villa is still trying to shrug off the notorious reputation it earned.
Born out of a need to find minorities and low-income residents safe places to stay at a time when homeowners didn’t want to rent to either, Wilkes Villa was the answer to the problem of people living in makeshift shanties and garages. But the plan seen today is not what was originally planned for the development.
Herman Larkins, a former Elyria City Council member and past president of the Elyria chapter of the NAACP, said the idea was to make it bigger with more units. He strongly disagreed with that plan, as if he could foreshadow the Wilkes Villa of today more than 40 years ago.
“You just don’t put that many people with the some problems in one place,” he said. “Doing that doesn’t give them something to aspire to.”
Larkins, a straight shooter that at 81-years-old can still rattle off tidbits of Elyria history like they happened yesterday and who has lived five minutes from Wilkes Villa for decades, doesn’t possess a Pollyanna view of the area. He knows it has more than its fair share of troubles.
He was robbed at gunpoint by three masked man in his own driveway about four years ago. The crime reminded him it’s a slippery slope when poverty greases the way.
Larkins will tell you that Wilkes Villa, which opened in June 1972, did so to fanfare and was a feather in the cap of a local Methodist preacher who successfully lobbied for its construction. For years, residents coexisted in peace and Wilkes Villa’s reputation remained intact.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Two people shooting at each other in the late 1970s killed an innocent bystander, a young woman no more than 25 whose only mistake was looking out of a second-story window when she heard a noise.
“That was enough. It became the troubled Wilkes Villa on the troubled south side,” Larkins said.
With each step of each patrol, knocking down the notion of a crime-ridden Wilkes Villa has not been easy.
Wilkes was once a major drain on Elyria police.
Since 1995, Elyria police have answered thousands of calls at Wilkes Villa. Each time an officer is sent to the public housing complex, whether through a call to 911 or the department’s non-emergency number, a notation is made.
The number of calls peaked at 859 calls in 1995, according to the earliest available Police Department annual report posted to the city’s website. That year no one was killed, but officers investigated a rape, 10 robberies, four aggravated assaults, seven burglaries, 33 larcenies and 13 automobile thefts, among other crimes.
Calls for service dropped to an all-time low of 406 calls in 2011. And, as of Aug. 8 of this year, there have been 254 calls for service at Wilkes Villa.
The number of calls has gone down, and the nature of the calls has changed, too.
Now, most calls are from officers serving outstanding warrants or trespass notices to those who are banned from coming to Wilkes Villa. Simple assaults — fights between people — are also frequent call generators.
“This is just like any other place. Neighbors don’t get along, people play their music too loud, drive their cars too loud,” Straub said.
It is the duty of Straub and Orsik to restore order.
Both asked to be assigned there, as do all the officers who eventually go on to work the beat. Costantino said police leadership has learned over the years that the best officers for the job must want to be there.
“This is the kind of job that’s not based on call volume,” he said. “You are not just bouncing from call to call.
You are here for however long you need to be here, solving problems and being motivated to nip problems in the bud before they explode.”
When you volunteer to work Wilkes Villa, you do so knowing there is just one way to do the job.
There is no set schedule — alternating your schedule to start your day at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. or 6 p.m. may wreak havoc on your personal life, but the inconsistency in your schedule makes it harder for troublemakers to predict your moves.
“We move around as much as possible to keep them guessing,” Straub said. “We don’t want them to get used to when we’re here. They know enough when we’re not here.”
Straub, who the residents refer to as “Red,” said he knows about 90 percent of the residents by name and face.
Orsik, who was partnered with Straub three months ago, said he is getting there.
“But you will be surprised how quickly things, people and cars stick out to you as not belonging here if you’re around long enough,” he said. “The guy before me, they called Mohawk, and for weeks every time they saw me they said, ‘Where’s Mohawk?’ When you don’t belong — good or bad — everyone notices.”
Costantino said that the root of most of the problems at Wilkes Villa is outsiders — people who don’t live there but thinks it’s a good place to cause trouble.
An ever-growing list of people barred from the property has worked to change that.
Not to mention, Straub and Orsik have worked hard to perfect skills that go beyond just policing.
“Here they’re mediators, counselors, problem-solvers, and liaisons — they’re just about everything residents need. They’re role models, too,” Costantino said. “The officers who want to come here know they have to be more.”
Within an hour of arriving at Wilkes, Straub and Orsik head back to their car. The rain has stopped; people have
started to come out, so it’s also time for the officers to hit the road, too. Whether walking up and down the block or driving in their cruisers, they look residents in the eye as if to say, we’re here to stay, and you can, too — as long as you follow the rules.