Faced with an uptick in overall crime and residents unnerved by a surge in carjackings, the Oak Park village board Monday considered requests to hire up to eight new officers, beef up the budget for police overtime, launch a pilot program to up the amps of streetlights and fund support of new social media communications from the police department.

Including two new police hirings previously approved by the board, the eight was poised to add officers to boost the number of sworn officers to 125. Police Chief Anthony Ambrose told the village board he needed the added resources to effectively fight crime in the village. 

Ambrose said a recent increase in police presence, including more marked squad cars and support from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department which has been patrolling in Oak Park began in late January, has been seen as a positive by residents. But Ambrose noted the officers from the sheriff’s department will not be available over the long term.

Ambrose told the village board that Oak Park’s police department has joined the Chicago Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice in a regional taskforce to address the recent surge of carjackings. In fact, Ambrose appeared Sunday at a news conference in the city where efforts were announced to change state law to toughen consequences for juveniles arrested for rising in a stolen car.

While Ambrose said in a separate interview that carjacking arrests made by Oak Park police have been split between teens and adults, that it is “very frustrating” for his officers to see juveniles rapidly released from custody and turned over to parents and guardians.

Public Works Director John Wielebnicki also attended the board meeting, requesting the village launch a pilot program to test new streetlights in the village. The board discussed four options for replacing street lighting throughout the village. The village currently uses traditional incandescent lightbulbs for most of its street lights but is likely to upgrade to more energy efficient LED lights.

Wielebnicki told trustees that the village has approximately 6,000 streetlights and about 1,000 alley lights, so replacing them is no small task. About 2,500 of those streetlights are in residential areas, while the rest are in business districts, he said.

New LED lights would result in a 50-70 percent energy savings, although new fixtures could cost as much as $350 each.

Trustee Dan Moroney voiced support for the new LED lights but said he does not support a wholesale replacement of lights throughout the village, rather favoring a piecemeal approach over five years.

Trustee Bob Tucker said he has no interest in “lighting the village up like a Christmas tree” adding that “the pilot program sounds like the perfect program for now.” Trustee Andrea Button suggested conducting a block-by-block analysis to determine where the need is greatest and whether residents there want new lights to “pay attention to the needs of different blocks.” 

Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said at the meeting that as recently as 15 years ago, the police department had upward of 170 sworn officers. But along with the rest of village government, the department “tightened its belt and that meant (cutting back on) staff.”

The request would entail hiring six police officers and one patrol commander and possibly one additional officer.

“The additional commander would provide relief to assist the patrol division (which is the busiest shift) and to cover other time off of the commander group and the other officers would allow the department to increase staffing to each patrol shift by one officer and increase support services-investigations by three detectives,” a village memo notes.

Police did not detail how much it would cost to hire the additional officers, but the additional overtime request would increase that budget from $450,000 to $700,000 for fiscal year 2018.

The part-time communications specialist – who would run the department’s recently created Facebook and Twitter accounts – would cost the village about $50,000 annually, and two mobile surveillance cameras would run about $19,000 apiece.

Ambrose noted that in terms of carjackings, it has been quiet since Cook County began sending more sheriff’s officers to the village. That’s prior to six carjackings – four unsuccessful attempts and two successful – in the village since the beginning of the year.

He noted that there seems to be no pattern to the crimes, considering they’ve taken place throughout the village and arrests “have been split between adults and juveniles.”

The request for additional officers was referred to at the meeting as over hiring of police, an effort that would help cover the department when officers go on leave for a disability. Pavlicek explained that overstaffing helps keep the department fully staffed when officers are injured. 

Oak Park currently has 23 sworn officers per 10,000 residents, according to a village memo. 

“Excluding Chicago, both Oak Park and Evanston have the highest number of officers per 10,000 residents amongst all communities over 34,000 population based upon 2016 Illinois data,” the village notes. “Oak Park however, is more densely populated with over 11,000 residents per square mile while Evanston is estimated at 9,600 residents per square mile.”

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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