Recent and violent criminal activity that has been occurring in the greater western suburbs, specifically areas covered by Wednesday Journal and its parent company Growing Community Media, is not only shocking, but in many ways is predictable.
There have been several high-profile shootings, murders, and violent acts in Oak Park of late; a trend in River Forest, Forest Park, and communities covered by the Landmark, including Riverside, North Riverside, and Brookfield.
Oak Park had several murders and high-profile shootings occur in June in which offenders brutally murdered individuals or “sprayed” a residential area with bullets. Recently in Forest Park, where social media played a major role, a group of rowdy and criminally intent juveniles took over the Forest Park pool. There were high-profile criminal acts in River Forest and violent crimes at North Riverside Mall, a double homicide in Riverside, and continued acts of violence throughout the western suburbs.
What is behind this?
A lack of proper staffing for police agencies, low morale, ridiculous decisions constantly being made at the prosecutor’s office in Cook County, low political support, and, at times, media expectations of police that are not possible.
Do not get me wrong, the media has every right to expect police officers and police leaders to be at the top of their game, professionally, ethically, and to act in the best interests of residents they serve. Unfortunately, law enforcement, like every other profession, has some bad individuals. However, they are few and far between and do not represent the overall culture of law enforcement or police in America, let alone the west suburbs of Cook County.
When I was chief in Riverside, one of our main goals (likely the same goal of every police chief), was to reduce crime. We would just try to push crime into another suburb so it did not happen in ours. That is what is happening now, but it is the city of Chicago that is desperately trying to push its crime west into the suburbs — and they are succeeding.
Many times, police chiefs and their command staff never looked at things regionally or globally and just wanted to ensure it did not happen in their jurisdictions. Those days are long over. As you can tell from the widespread violent criminal activity in the western suburbs, it is just that — the entire west suburban area.
More needs to be done with regional policing. I am going out on a limb here because I am sure I will get knocked for this statement, but it is time for us, as a state, to look at regional policing as a whole. That means combining police agencies so we have a bigger force, more resources, better talent, better able to fill shifts without adding tax burden to the taxpayers, and really just getting a better overall product for law enforcement services.
We must overcome barriers that prevent this. The big one is pensions. There have been some municipalities in Illinois that have tried to merge with their neighbors, but every time that happens it has been stymied by pension obligations and unions.
I was a union member for 15 years on the union side and served as a board officer. I was also a representative on the bargaining team as the chief of police in Riverside, so I have served on both sides and I can tell you, it is time for us, as a state, to accept the concept of regional policing and move toward what I would call metro policing.
We would better serve our residents, without a doubt, if smaller municipal police departments joined together as one force.
Many other states in America have regional policing, and it is quite common in Michigan and Florida. Many municipal police departments in the gulf region of Florida are patrolled either by the Sheriff’s Department or the local police departments have joined forces to have one metro police agency. There are numerous other success stories throughout the country.
This is a long-term vision. I do not believe any current employees should lose their positions, but positions should be evaluated through attrition. Let’s face it, we are not necessarily attracting a throng of applicants anymore and top-tier candidates just are not coming at the quick pace they did 20-30 years ago.
With an explosion of violent crime in the west suburban communities, I am envisioning one day when our political leaders, police leaders, union leaders, and concerned citizens come together to start forging the framework for metro policing.
I believe if you polled rank-and-file officers and told them what benefits they would get from this, what benefits the community has, and what the realities of policing are today, you would get their support. It is not easy, and will take time, but it is achievable.
If we do not begin soon to head down this road of metro policing, the quality of life for our suburban Cook County residents is certainly doomed.
Tom Weitzel, a graduate of OPRF High School, is the retired chief of the Riverside Police Department after 37 years in law enforcement, 13 years as chief of police. Opinions are his own. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @chiefweitzel.