Police Chief Rick Tanksley effectively wrote our editorial this week. In touting a 12-percent drop in Oak Park crime statistics in 2010, Tanksley said the perception of crime in the village remains problematic. He's right. Oak Parkers do not feel as safe, as well protected as the crime stats suggest we are.
The chief went on to make an essential point: Every crime has a victim and if you are a victim — even of a bicycle theft or a ladder pilfered from a garage — then lowered crime rates aren't much comfort. "Statistics are valuable as a resource management tool, but they are just numbers to most people. ... And whether the overall rate is up or down doesn't mean a lot to a victim of a crime," said Tanksley.
He's right again. If you are a victim, you feel violated in a palpable way. You stare at the pry marks on the garage door. You think about the birthday gift of a new bike that has just vanished from your kid's life. It feels bad, frustrating and scary.
In the old days, all of five years ago, you might tell a neighbor that your garage was broken into, and possibly only if they asked why the police car was in front of your house. Today you'll probably send an e-mail to the block party list as a neighborly heads up. Then you might add church friends or fellow local volunteers to your e-mail.
If the crime was a bit more serious, a bit more confrontational — a robbery in the Jewel parking lot, the back door of an apartment pushed in — then it is likely to get picked up by a surprisingly expanded and speed-focused local media. Two local newspapers, multiple websites and a desire for fresh news that drives traffic. Surprise! Crime news is always available, it is easy and cheap to gather up and nothing increases sought-after page views like a crime story.
Wednesday Journal and our Oak Park.com/RiverForest.com websites are an active part of this crime news mix. We're not apologizing for it. But it is a topic we are thinking through. Two decades back, at a time when crime was a lot more rampant in Oak Park, this newspaper did not even run a weekly crime blotter. Perhaps it was our social-engineering impulses, and we're not proud of them, but we felt that reporting every minor crime would skew perceptions of crime. Yes, we reported actively on serious crime but it wasn't a weekly representative sample like we run now.
Today, transparency is rightly touted. Only if everyone in the village is aware of crime, eyes open, looking at the fellow who doesn't "belong" in your alley, calling the cops, buying into community-policing policies, can crime stats be brought as low as they are today. The swap, though, is this focus on crime, often garden variety, and this nagging perception that our safety is compromised.
So here's the goal: Citizens and police need to stay vigilant. Working together, we can keep crime low. But take some pride in what has actively been accomplished. Crime is down notably in recent years, and dramatically over the past two decades. Enjoy it.
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