Perception of crime – as much as its reality – shapes the public’s feelings of safety, according to Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley. Weed-choked alleys or neglected buildings might give the perception of danger he says, “even if I told you there hadn’t been a crime there in years.”

With a reduced police force (down to 113 from 126) and municipal belt-tightening, Tanksley wants Oak Parkers to understand the interconnected roles of law enforcement and other village departments, such as Public Works and Building and Property Standards. In the case of cluttered alleys, residents also need to understand their responsibility to maintain a safe-looking environment.

That’s why Tanksley department will present a Community Discussion of Public Safety in Oak Park at the Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School Auditorium on Tuesday, May 18 from 7 to 9 p.m. Brooks is at 325 S. Kenilworth Ave.

Trimmed budgets mean “community policing is more important than ever,” says Tanksley. “We need the public’s help in crime fighting. We want the community to talk to us and talk to each other.”

Perceptions aside, the realities of local crime (primarily thefts and burglaries) are influenced by the gap in the “social status of the communities around us,” says Tanksley. “It’s important to remember that crime is at historic lows. In the 80s there were twice as many robberies and burglaries.” But he adds, “All crime is bad crime.”

Cooperation between Oak Park police and Chicago police in West Side districts will be addressed by Chicago Police District 15 Commander Walter Green. The two adjoining districts coordinate, as they did May 6 to capture the man who had robbed the CVS on Roosevelt Road in Oak Park and fled into Chicago. Oak Park and Chicago police join forces in WEDGE (West Suburban Directed Gang enforcement) and the West Suburban Major Crimes Task Force.

Tanksley says the police rely on close-knit Oak Park neighbors and the “block party” culture to build relationships with citizens. “We attend every block party.” Tanksley says the department is collecting e-mail addresses to construct an electronic bulletin network. “Often we want [the e-mail address of] the individual who submits the block party permit. That’s a leader on the block.”

“We want you to talk to us,” Tanksley says. “Call all the time. That’s what we want.” Even Oak Parkers who are “unsure as to whether to call but [something] nags you a little. Don’t say, ‘I really don’t want to bother the police’ – that’s our job.”

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