Web Extra! See below for a letter from Oak Park Village Manager Tom Barwin regarding this story

After a summer that saw heightened concern for personal safety in the wake of numerous batteries and street robberies, Oak Park Village Manager Tom Barwin said Friday that police are responding both forcefully and effectively to crime. Barwin said overall crime in Oak Park is down nearly 17 percent, while serious crimes are down about one percent compared to last year. Police, he said, are also making more arrests.

As his police chief has done in recent months, Barwin hit hard on the need for citizen involvement and what it takes for a community in such close proximity to the economic and social ills of a large city to effectively deal with crime.

He also touted the results of a recent scientific assessment of 80,000 calls for service to police which placed the Oak Park police department at the top of a list of 25 suburban forces.

Both Barwin and Chief Rick Tanksley said that while citizen concerns about crime are not unfounded, the perception of crime here doesn’t always reflect the reality. Statistics compiled through September show that overall crime has dropped in 13 of 18 police beats compared to this time last year. Perhaps most significantly, overall crime decreased most dramatically along all eight beats bordering Chicago on Austin Boulevard and North Avenue, with lesser decreases in serious crime in seven of those eight beats.

Beat 1, with borders on the east end of North Avenue and North Austin Boulevard saw the largest overall drop, a 40 percent decrease, with a 13 percent decrease in serious felony level crime. Ironically, Beat 1 and Beat 4, situated on either side of Division Street, where a Chicago gang member was murdered Sept. 12, saw two of the largest drops in crime. Beat 4 saw a 32 percent overall drop and 11 percent drop in felonies.

Beat 12 in west central Oak Park, the scene of a recent shooting of an Oak Park man by Chicago police who were searching his residence on weapons and drugs charges, has seen a 6.5 percent drop in overall crime and a two percent drop in serious offenses.

In the wake of several unprovoked street attacks and a rash of bike thefts involving violence against village children, a number of letters to the editor have criticized police for not doing enough to prevent crime. One accused police of doing nothing but “writ(ing) reports.”

However, said officials, police made five robbery arrests and six for burglary in August alone, in addition to many others for DUI, theft, various batteries and lesser crimes. There have also been complaints that police don’t respond quickly enough, a contention Barwin flatly refutes.

“In the 14 months I’ve been here, I’ve gotten maybe six calls or e-mails suggesting that Oak Park police could have done something better related to a service call,” said Barwin.

“It is my experience that this is an extremely responsive police department.”

Barwin’s point of view was supported recently by a statistical assessment of Oak Park’s Police Beat and Resident Beat Officer programs by Dr. Carl Spight of Milhouse Engineering. Working with a 21 month set of data, Spight found the average response time for high priority incidents from the time a call is received to the time police arrive on the scene is 3.5 minutes. In urgent calls, the response time was 2.2 minutes.

“The study indicates we’re in the very highest tier for response times,” said Barwin.

“There are some real experiences that have affected (people’s) sense of safety,” said Tanksley. He acknowledged that the experience of having one’s child violently knocked of his bike and robbed is quite different from having mere property stolen. Throughout the summer numerous Oak Park kids were physically assaulted while having a bike stolen.

Other situations that people perceive as dangerous may or may not present actual threats, he said.

“We need to get the community to dialogue with us about these perceptions, and then we can address them,” he said.

Oak Park police arrested over 20 Chicago juveniles between Memorial Day and Labor Day, plus several from other towns. Three Chicago teens were arrested in July for aggravated battery in the assault of a youth on South Ridgeland Avenue. Three other Chicago youths and a Maywood boy were charged with attempted aggravated robbery in August after they displayed a pellet gun to an Oak Park youth and attempted to steal bikes.

The trouble makers weren’t all from out of town, though. A total of five Oak Park juveniles were arrested the second week of August in relation to a theft, battery and unlawful restraint that occurred near Rehm Pool.

Blaming the victims?

Police have also been criticized for blaming the victims of crime, a charge at which Tanksley bristles.

“Where did that come from,” he asked. “I’ve never blamed citizens for crime. I blame criminals for crime.” Echoing Barwin’s philosophy, Tanksley repeated his oft-expressed view that any successful attack on criminal activity in Oak Park requires the cooperation of citizens, police and elected and appointed village officials.

“Citizen involvement is a cornerstone,” said Tanksley.

Barwin agreed, saying the key to addressing most crime problems is an informed, aware public willing to call police when they see suspicious activity.

“(T)axpayers have invested heavily in the police department (and other supportive departments) and the police are well trained and anxious to prevent crime and catch criminals, but the effort truly has to be a team effort, a partnership,” he said in a follow up e-mail Monday.

That partnership takes several forms. Confronted with over 60 instances of graffiti, or “tagging” on properties in central Oak Park in August, police asked for parental assistance.

“I’m asking parents to step up and sit down and talk with their kids,” Oak Park Deputy Chief Bob Scianna said at the time. “We’re asking parents to find out what their kids are up to.”

When it comes to other types of crime, police say, too many people are still careless about such basic security techniques as locking doors and keeping valuables out of sight.

A July 10 police bulletin warned “Burglars cruise neighborhoods looking for… opportunity” and urged residents to utilize a variety of cautious, common sense approaches to safeguarding their property. It also offered the services of Resident Beat Officers to examine people’s property and offer practical suggestions for improving security.

Barwin, who served as a police officer himself for four years before entering the municipal management field, concurs. The average citizen, he said, is the key to effecting what he called “denial of opportunity,” that is, assuring that there are no easy targets for thefts and burglaries. Criminals look for easy opportunities like unlocked bikes, open or unlocked garages and valuables left in plain view inside cars.

They continue to find them. In August someone entered an unlocked garage on the 700 block of North Kenilworth Avenue and stole three rings valued in total at $3,350. That same night burglars stole DVDs, video games, clothing, and electronics valued in total at $3,500 from a car parked in another unlocked garage on the 800 block of Woodbine Avenue.

Both Tanksley and Barwin stressed that the need for such awareness in the face of an ongoing criminal presence is a hard fact of life. Tanksley said his officers are constantly vigilant and aware. Confronted by discernable patterns or trends, police commanders often utilize what are termed “directed missions.”

“We’d all like to live in a world, in a society, where that’s not the case,” Barwin said. “But unless there’s a police officer on every corner, there are no magic wands to wave.”

He said he understands the average citizens concerns and frustrations regarding crime.

“But what else can a police department do?” he asked. “It can’t create jobs. It doesn’t glorify violence like some in the music industry. It can’t improve our educational system.”

“These are the realities we’re left to deal with,” he said.

Next week: Barwin discusses the issues of race, socioeconomic class and the need for the federal government and other social institutions such as the major media to make more committed and effective efforts to address the root causes of urban crime.

October 8, 2007

Wednesday Journal,
Bill Dwyer

Follow up thoughts to 10/5/07 conversation.

I have been reflecting on your questions and our conversation related to the “perception” issue of crime in Oak Park.

The point I was trying to make when I was searching for the right word, and the point I would like to make is this, that I think most people, or perhaps we as a culture, are caught in a paradox when it comes to attitudes toward crime. Let me try to explain.

Through TV, movies, music, radio and newspapers, exposure to crime and violence stories permeate our culture. This creates a subtle but real underlying insecurity and uneasiness which leads many to think defensively and believe that something bad could happen to anybody, anywhere, at any point in time. Although most people are safe most places, most of the time, police departments throughout America continuously urge citizens to deny easy opportunity to criminals, i.e.”Don’t walk alone at night, lock your house, car, bike, etc. “

To live a quality life one can not, nor do statistics and reality in Oak Park dictate that we need to live in fear for our safety. While concerned about crime, most here do not appear to live in fear of it.

Although concerned about crime, the irony or paradox is, that the general public has also become generally desensitized to crime and violence, until of course something happens to them, in their neighborhood, or to their loved ones. At which point citizens rightly want action, results, and strategies to reduce, minimize and eliminate serious crime.

As someone who had been engaged in fighting crime for over 25 years I must be honest with the public. Until our states and America get serious about prioritizing the need to reduce urban crime and violence, which can surely be accomplished, a tenant of local policing will be to ask, plead, beg and cajole citizens to prevent the opportunity for crime and always be on guard for suspicious situations and characters, and call the police when something unusual is going on. Until national policies change related to guns and drugs, tragic violent crime will continue to permeate and ruin far too many lives and communities especially those immersed in concentrated poverty.

With an average Oak Park Police response time of 3 minutes the best way to prevent and reduce crime in Oak Park is for the public and police and Village Hall to be true partners in this effort. While we are surely not immune from wider societal problems and patterns, taxpayers have invested heavily in the police department (and other supportive departments) and the police are well trained and anxious to prevent crime and catch criminals, but the effort truly has to be a team effort, a partnership.

And someday, perhaps an Oak Parker will breakthrough the indifference, frustration and special interests and convince our fellow Americans that lethal and dangerous weapons must be taken off of the streets, that the drug war should be ended if favor of a far less costly health initiative, and that our national treasury should be invested in our cities to rebuild infrastructure, maintain quality schools, and provide hope, jobs and education for every American. The crime paradox, “fear of while being desensitized to” crime needs to be transformed to an intensity to heal our communities and set more intelligent priorities for the 21st century.

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