The Oak Park Police Department’s top brass and officers with the village’s community policing program told residents Thursday that communication between police and the public is more important ever with crime on the rise.
It was a full house at the Veteran’s Room of Oak Park Public Library, where police discussed strategies to combat crime at the forum held by the village’s Community Relations Commission.
The panel of local law enforcement officials encouraged residents to attend monthly zone meetings held by police throughout the village. Oak Park has eight police zones, each of which is assigned to an officer on the force. Those cops are tasked with serving as a point of contact for the public – their phone numbers and email addresses are listed on the police web site – and holding the regular meetings to keep residents informed on crime trends and other information in the area.
Oak Park Police Chief Tony Ambrose noted that some crimes, such as motor vehicle theft, are on the rise this year. He said 58 vehicles have been stolen in Oak Park this year, but many could have been avoided. Twenty eight of the thefts were made easy for the criminals because the keys were left in the car, Ambrose said.
Community Policing Sergeant Dave Jacobson said so-called key fobs, which allow the vehicle to be turned on and off with the press of a button, also made it easy for criminals to steal vehicles. He said such crimes of opportunity also are common in Chicago and surrounding municipalities.
Jacobson advised residents to “be aware of your surroundings at all time” and not leave possessions, particularly keys and key fobs, unattended in vehicles. He noted that a vehicle was recently stolen in Oak Park because the driver left the key fob in the center console cup holder.
Bump-and-run car thefts also are growing problem in the village, according to Zone 2 Beat Officer Shatonya Johnson. Those thefts start off as a minor collision prompting the driver to get out of their vehicle to check the damage. Once out of the vehicle, a passenger from the offending vehicle runs to the victim’s vehicle and drives off.
“These are happening more and more,” Johnson said.
She advised those who are involved in such accidents to call police immediately, so an officer is in route.
“Take the key out of the ignition,” she said added. “If you’re not in your car, the key does not need to be in the ignition.”
She also suggested pulling into a busy area like a gas station or grocery store parking lot if possible. Johnson reiterated that criminals are looking for crimes of opportunity, and residents who make themselves a hard target could prevent them from being the victim of a crime.
Chief Ambrose said one of the foundations of the Oak Park police strategy is to treat the public with “dignity and respect” and to always explain to residents clearly why they have been stopped by police. He noted that there is an uptick in violent crime across the nation this year, and Oak Park is bordered by Chicago to the east and the north. “We do have our challenges,” he said.
Ambrose said the police department not only works to catch criminals but also to prevent accidents before they happen. Officers, for example, are working to educate kids about having a presence of mind while crossing busy intersections on their way to school.
“They’re talking (with their friends) and listening to iPhones and not paying attentions,” he said.
Officers also are aiming to educate juveniles about bicycle safety, according to Zone 7 Beat Officer Derrick Verge. He said children under the age of 17 must wear bicycle helmets. Those observed riding without a helmet will first receive a warning, but on their second offense could receive a citation.
Many beat officers carry extra helmets in the trunk of their patrol vehicles for kids who can’t afford a helmet, Verge said.
He also noted that there are “a lot of bike thefts in Oak Park” and encouraged residents to avoid cable locks when leaving their bikes unattended in favor of U-locks. He added that residents also can register their bicycles at the station, so if they are discovered in the hands of someone other than the owner, police can charge the person in possession of the bicycle with theft.
Chief Ambrose also noted that police are suspicious of juveniles riding two to a bicycle in Oak Park because it’s a common tactic used in committing crimes. The person riding can jump off and quickly commit a crime and then jump back on the bicycle being ridden by another juvenile.
Police encouraged residents to not be reluctant to call 911 if they see something suspicious or believe a crime is taking place. Johnson encouraged residents to call 708-386-2131 in case of an emergency, which would bypass the regional dispatch center 911 calls are sent to and instead will send them directly to the Oak Park police.