Some cause for concern, but much encouraging news can be found in the recently released 2006 Oak Park Police Department crime statistics. While the total number of crime incidents increased by three percent over the previous year, there was a significant drop in the rate of several categories of serious crime.

In particular, instances of burglary, vehicle theft and aggravated assault and battery dropped significantly. Theft, however, increased 18 percent, with 205 more incidents. Robbery increased 18 percent as well, rising from 130 to 153.

“Burglary and theft, those are usually the biggest categories,” said Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley.

Tanksley pointed out one anomaly-the marked decrease in aggravated assaults and battery despite an increase in robbery. Usually when there’s a robbery, there’s often an aggravated assault or battery involved as well.

“That’s kind of weird and difficult to explain,” said Tanksley. “We’ll have to look at that more closely.”

Tanksley gave full credit to his department for the sharp decrease in auto theft.

“We had some enforcement activities,” he said. “We discovered that many auto thefts were gang-related.” Working with Chicago 15th District police and officials in Berwyn, Oak Park police beefed up street patrols in high-risk areas, increased police visibility on the street, and focused on late-night stops of suspicious autos during the hours most cars were being stolen.

The result was a drop in auto thefts of 41 percent, from 165 to 98.

Still, there’s only so much police can do, Tanksley said, pointing out that some people still leave cars running to race into a convenience store, or leave the keys in the ignition while getting gas.

Other crime categories have been tougher to attack.

Supressing drug traffic is critical

Tanksley was particularly encouraged by the swelling drug arrest statistics. After just 10 arrests in 2005 for drugs other than marijuana, police made 65 arrests last year. Tanksley reiterated his oft-repeated contention that drug traffic and the crimes often committed to pay for it, are the main root cause of local crimes of opportunity such as petty theft, garage burglaries and bike theft.

The war on drugs, he said, is an ongoing effort that isn’t close to being won, despite increased resources being applied.

“Coke and heroin are still a big problem,” said Tanksley, who believes the large increase in arrests is due to two primary factors. The first, as with auto theft, has been to operate in tandem with police across Austin Boulevard.

“What we’ve been seeing is a very collaborative approach,” said Tanksley. “Our street crimes teams have been working with the 15th District … to do [undercover] drug stings. In addition, the department has been detailing one officer each year to work with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Those skills and techniques are then incorporated into the department’s everyday policing strategies executed by its Street Crimes [tactical] officers.”

The effort is also assisted by some drug users’ lack of caution.

“They’re not very smart,” Tanklsey said with just a hint of a grin. “They just can’t wait to use. They pull up next to the police substation [near Harrison Street and Austin Boulevard.]”

Board urged greater traffic enforcement

A commitment to enhanced traffic enforcement came out of discussions with the village board in the summer and fall of 2004. After reaching full staffing strength in early 2005, the police department directed increased resources to such issues as general traffic violations and drunk driving. While Tanksley said it’s difficult to draw a direct correlation between increased traffic enforcement and lower crime, he suggested it has had some effect. In fact, the effort has payed off with demonstrable dividends the past two years.

DUI arrests, which numbered 28 in 2004, continued to soar. After nearly quadrupling drunk driving arrests in 2005 to 95, the department doubled up again, with a 106 percent increase to 196 arrests. Arrests for driving on suspended or revoked licenses also increased slightly. At the same time, traffic citations increased 13 percent, to 8,339, while traffic accidents decreased seven percent.

Public involvement essential

While Tanksley praised his officers for their efforts, he repeatedly insisted that any effort was doomed to failure without the cooperation of an aware citizenry willing to make a phone call when needed. He noted there was an increase in the number of “calls for service” to the department in 2006, up 7 percent from 45,959 to 49,412.

“In part, it’s a result of what [police] do,” said Tanksley. “But I sincerely believe a large part is due to citizen involvement.”

The chief said he is concerned, however, that citizen participation in monthly beat meetings has dropped off significantly.

The effect of citizens alerting police to suspicious behavior and other problems, he said, is hard to quantify.

“We don’t have a stat for, ‘did we stop a burglary,'” he said. Nonetheless, the police presence in areas as the result of calls to 911 or the station number (386-3800) make a difference.

“We continue to urge people to call us when they see something suspicious,” Tanksley said. “We can’t do it alone.”

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