Faced, like most communities, with an increase in serious crime, Oak Park police say they’re responding with a combination of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground policing, combined with state-of-the-art technology, along with a redoubled commitment to increasing cooperation both with neighboring police departments and village residents. Securing their share of federal dollars promised in the recently passed economic stimulus package would be a bonus.

Police Chief Rick Tanksley said Monday he’d hoped to have final 2008 crime stats available by now. However, final reconciled figures won’t be available until March 20. Absent the statistics, Tanksley said the village board asked him to speak with the media about his department’s plans for tackling crime.

Monday morning, sitting with deputy chiefs Anthony Ambrose and Carl Leidy, Community Policing Commander Keenan Williams and crime analyst Susannah Yong, Tanksley discussed the various challenges facing his department and his plans to respond to those challenges.

As has been the case for over 10 years now, property crime in 2008 was the significant category.

“Theft and burglary account for 85 percent of all serious crime,” said Tanksley. Robberies, the subject of numerous media reports in 2008, made up another eight percent.

Tanksley noted that, while his department is taking the rise in crime seriously, the 2008 statistics of 2,061 serious (Part I) crimes actually represented the fourth lowest crime level in the past 27 years.

Boots on the ground

While he’s open to new concepts and tools, Tanksley said his primary focus is staffing.

“My main concern is to examine this organization regarding bodies on the street.” Tanksley noted the department is currently 11 officers under allowed levels. He hopes to be back up near full strength by late this year. Four recruits currently in field training are expected to be ready for independent patrol duty by mid-May. As many as six more recruits, expected to enter the police academy on March 31, will be through field training by early November.

In addition, Ambrose is currently working with the federal government to apply for funding under the recently passed economic stimulus bill COPS program, to fund up to five police positions currently unfilled.

In the meantime, Oak Park brass have shifted assignments to place more officers in the Street Crimes unit. That unit specifically targets high-crime areas and time periods.

“Those officers work more independently, are more aggressive,” said Leidy, who oversees police operations. “They’re looking; they’re challenging people.”

It was street crimes officers, he noted, who spotted a drug deal last week and arrested a dealer with over 160 capsules of heroin.

Better communications

Police are certainly busy. They arrested 38 people in the period between March 2 and 9, including six for drug violations, three for robbery, four for battery and one for burglary. Tanksley said the increased number of warrant arrests is the result of both strong investigative efforts and officers on the street paying close attention to things.

That includes patrol officers. While they often can’t take time from other routine duties to watch suspects, when they see suspicious activity, patrol officers let street crimes officers know about it.

“They’ve really turned it up a notch,” said Ambrose.

Police brass are also working to identify ways to keep the officers on the street out there longer during their shifts. That effort involves enhanced communications and information technology.

“We’ve had such an approach in place for several years now,” said Ambrose. “We have as many officers on the street as possible.”

Ambrose said the department’s substations allow officers to stay near their beat areas more often during their shifts. Rather than coming to the station to drop off reports, supervisors pick up those reports.

“We have a three-year program to replace our in-car computers,” said Tanksley of the department’s 50 or so marked squads.

Increased cooperation

Over the past decade, long-practiced informal cooperation between law enforcement agencies has evolved into routine and formalized sharing of manpower, intelligence, technology and best practices. If police are to continue to improve their effectiveness, Tanksley said, such cooperation is essential.

“More than ever, we must rely on partnerships with other agencies,” he said.

Existing cooperative efforts include the seven-department West Suburban Drug and Gang Enforcement (WEDGE), the 15th District (Austin) Joint Mission and the CTA Mass Transit Detail. In addition, Oak Park tactical and detective candidates routinely spend training time in Chicago.

The stress is on our relationships with our neighbors,” said Tanksley. “[River Forest] Chief [Frank] Limon is facing the same economic pressures. We have to share our resources.”

The commitment to cooperation is such that there is even talk of working towards uniform crime incident reports between departments.

Increased technology

Intelligence is another key component. Any intelligence gained by new technologies has to find its way to the cops on the street. Oak Park has utilized crime analysis since 1976 when it was mostly pins on a map.

With Susannah Yong’s arrival in August 2004, science has played a key role in crime prevention and criminal apprehensions. Her daily “crime pattern bulletins” have become a welcome addition to officer’s daily briefings.

“Susannah’s bulletins put us in the middle of where crime is happening,” one officer said of Yong’s work product.

Like her superiors, Yong will be sharing information and best practices with various peers in the area, sitting down regularly to compare notes.

Leidy, who spent 30 years on the Chicago police force before coming to Oak Park, has arranged for crime analysts from Chicago’s 16th District to visit Oak Park and share technological expertise with Yong.

Chicago has state-of-the-art photo and video image enhancement technology, courtesy of a grant from All State Insurance Company.

Now Leidy is seeking a similar grant to allow Oak Park to purchase and train personnel in the same technology.

As part of the preparation to obtain the image enhancement technology, Tanksley said officers will be surveying local businesses to identify which have surveillance cameras in and around their buildings. Besides compiling a list of businesses with cameras for use in future investigations, police will also visit each establishment to help them best position and train their cameras to assure quality, usable images.

Ambrose noted the department is also looking into acquiring the type of license plate-reading technology already in use by Chicago to deal with ticket scofflaws and identify stolen cars and warrant subjects.

As with everything else, the idea is to share technological know-how and empower other departments, with the goal of strengthening Oak Park’s own crime-fighting efforts.

Putting more POP in policing

Cmdr. Williams was appointed the new head of the Community Policing program in January, during which he oversaw the annual month-long series of comprehensive in-service trainings.

Williams said the rest of the year will be spent implementing and ingraining a new approach called Problem Oriented Policing, or “POP.” Like its forerunner, community policing, the POP concept relies on citizen cooperation and input to work.

In the past, Williams noted, police would be reactive to a given situation, such as rowdiness in a public park. Squad cars would be directed to drive by more often, looking for trouble.

Under POP, an effort is made to engage a wide range of stakeholders, including teens, their parents, park officials and Oak Park Township’s Youth Services Department.

“It’s not just the police department,” said Tanksley. “Citizens have a role to play. It’s a partnership.” The village’s 127 police personnel, he stressed, need everyone’s assistance.

“It takes a community to truly have an impact on crime,” said Williams. “You can’t reasonably expect a unit of 127 people alone to have an impact.”

Ambrose said the department is working to provide training for interested citizens in the POP approach.

“The Institute of Public Safety Partnership will come out here several times this year,” he said. Individuals such as block captains and Neighborhood Watch participants will be formally trained, so they can bring that approach to the greater community.

Williams said crime prevention goes well beyond locking doors and keeping valuables out of sight.

“Another aspect of prevention is to become part of the solution,” he said. “We need 50,000 people with eyes and ears. You see someone walking down an alley or a suspicious car, call the police.”

Tanksley stressed that, for all the manpower and training and equipment and technology available to modern law enforcement, it’s the everyday observations and information passed on to police that more often than not leads to crimes being solved or even prevented.

“I’ll continue to say it until I’m blue in the face,” said Tanksley.

Tanksley recalls an incident that still resonates painfully within the department, the brutal murder of Peter D’Agostino as he walked home from work in 2005. Several people, he noted, likely saw the killer walking on the street carrying a hammer, prior to the murder. But none followed up on it.

“They did think it was unusual,” said Tanksley, “but they didn’t call.”

CONTACT: bdwyer@wjinc.com

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Susannah Yong’s name.

In our March 11 front-page article [Crime-fighting tools rise with crime], we incorrectly stated that serious crime incidents increased to over 4,000 in the year 2008. In fact, serious crime rose from 1,970 incidents in 2007 to 2,061 last year.

Daily crime blotter online?

Forget about the weekly crime page. If Oak Park police have their way, Wednesday Journal’s police blotter could become a thing of the past, replaced by the department’s own daily online report.

“We’re going to put our daily summary online,” said Deputy Chief Tony Ambrose, referring to the log from which reporters learn about Oak Park’s crime incidents. “We’ve been having conversations about it the last couple of weeks.”

It’s still not certain exactly how or when the change will come, but it will happen in 2009, said Chief Rick Tanksley. He said the goal is both to educate people and be accurate about cases. Updates of crime incidents, particularly arrests, will be a regular feature.

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