Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley and Village Manager Carl Swenson announced both good news and bad news regarding the 2004 crime rate at a village hall press conference last Thursday. The bad news is that overall incidents of crime rose to their highest level since 2001. The good news is that that overall increase can be attributed almost solely to the sort of crimes of opportunity that they say can be prevented with increased citizen care and vigilance.
While noting that Oak Park continues to enjoy "relatively low crime rates, especially in terms of violent crime," Tanksley said that opportunistic crime continues to be a problem.
"Our area of vulnerability continues to be thefts from vehicles and garages," he said. "All it takes to send our statistics up is one determined individual walking the alleys for a couple of days looking for (opportunities)." As an example, Tanksley noted that one individual alone was responsible for at least 26 burglaries last year.
Preliminary statistics released last week support Tanksley's contention. While there were 275 additional criminal incidents in 2004 compared to 2003?#34;from 2389 to 2664?#34;there were 477 additional incidents involving opportunistic theft.
The majority of the increase in thefts was attributable to bicycle theft, which ballooned nearly 800 percent, from just 27 instances in 2003 to 212 last year. The next largest increase was in motor vehicle burglaries, in which separate items are stolen from inside a vehicle. They increased over 50 percent, rising from 248 to 380.
The remainder of the increase stemmed from two crime categories that had had zero totals in 2003?#34;thefts of state license plates and thefts of license plate stickers, which totaled 56 and 60 respectively in 2004.
Noting that Oak Park is directly impacted by its proximity to the nation's third largest city, Swenson underscored that citizen cooperation was essential to any successful crime prevention effort.
"A spirit of cooperation between police and citizens is what keeps our community so safe and secure," he said.
"We all have a part to play in keeping our communities as safe as possible" said Tanksley. That includes, he said, making sure garages and vehicles are locked, valuables are secure and out of sight, and that police are notified immediately of any suspicious activity.
"Foiling one or two would-be thieves a year would significantly lower our crime rates," said Tanksley.
Tanksley also took a moment to encourage citizens to call police whenever they're at all suspicious, even if they can't be absolutely certain there's a problem.
"It's no bother. If something isn't right, that's when you should call," Tanksley said.
"Many arrests are generated by citizens calling us."
There was only one murder in 2004. While no arrest has been made in that January killing, which involved an Austin gang banger shot during a gang dispute, Tanksley said they have a suspect in that case.
For their part, Oak Park police plan to take several steps to improve their crime prevention ability in 2005. Nine additional officers will be sworn in this April, which Tanksley said will eventually strengthen the force and free up more seasoned officers for other duties. The Street Crimes Team, or tactical unit, has already added two officers, bringing it up to eight. That unit is responsible for more focused, aggressive patrolling of "hot" crime areas when and where needed. Their most recent high profile arrest was the Wrigleyville rapist on New Year's Eve.
Community policing, which has been a staple in the village since 1994, will continue to be a strong focus, said Tanksley, adding that there are ways to make that partnership even stronger.
"We need more foot patrols," he said. "Police walking the block and getting to know the people."
Swenson seconded that motion, saying that in his opinion the Neighborhood Beat program has led to an increase of citizen comfort and familiarity with police officers.
"The trust factor is really critical," said Swenson.
Being able to spot crime trends and respond to them in a timely manner is also important, Tanksley said. He said he plans to work with Swenson to add a full time crime analyst within the next several months to, as he put it, "get ahead of some of these trends."
That position is something that can be created administratively, said Swenson, who noted that the duties of senior officers could be shuffled around, with no need to create a new budget position.