Just How Safe is It in the Western Suburbs?
A roundup of statistics, perceptions and policies on safety in the suburbs
The flurry of car jackings in Oak Park last year unnerved Ben Bottorff, a longtime resident. The proximity of the crimes to his home and the time of day when at least one happened — late afternoon — particularly troubled him. “My kids are brought home with the babysitter then,” he explains.
Yet he does not worry about his own safety. “I’m not a likely victim of a crime. I’m a very fit, confident-walking white male. I look like someone who practices martial arts,” says Bottorff, who has a furniture refinishing and custom cabinet business.
That dual thinking about crime — a back-of-the-mind anxiety but a conscious feeling that a serious, personal crime is unlikely in the suburbs — seems to be common. But how safe actually are the suburbs? And what are police departments doing to deter crime and keep us safe?
A Matter of Perspective: Data vs. Perception
Suburbanites dwell in a dual reality. Crime leads the nightly news and morning newspaper. Yet the suburbs seem safe.
Americans in general struggle to reconcile perception with reality regarding crime. Gallup polls in recent years show Americans believe “there is more crime than there was years ago.” But FBI statistics show serious crime has sharply decreased since 1994, when the crack epidemic raged. The national crime rate is about half of what it was in the early 1990s. Violent crime — murder, robbery, aggravated assault and criminal sexual assault — has fallen by 51 percent since 1991. Property crime — burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, arson — has tumbled by 43 percent.
Criminal justice policies, particularly increased incarceration, are not the main drivers of the decline in crime, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Instead, wider social and economic changes such as growth in income and an aging population play a more important role.
We actually now live in a kind of golden era of civilized relations — centuries ago getting clubbed in the head and propelled into eternity while tending your fields or walking home from the market was frighteningly commonplace. The homicide rate in medieval England was 10 times that of 20th-century England. Everyone carried a knife (to eat), and people quickly resorted to violence to settle disputes. Killings declined with the rise of state power and the acceptance of courtly manners, according to homicide experts.
The United States witnessed the same drop in homicides as its civilization matured. The homicide rate of an estimated 30 per 100,000 people in 1700 dropped to fewer than 20 by 1800 and to fewer than 10 by 1900. The murder rate in 1992 was 9.3 per 100,000.
What about the western suburbs? Crime came with the first white settlers in the middle of the 18th century. The long-ago days were simpler but not more innocent. Murder was a spectacle. In the 1890s an eager crowd of thousands watched as a convicted murderer was hanged at a well-known gravel pit in Naperville. Yet even back in the day the stereotype held — murder was seen as the province of the hardboiled city, not the pastoral suburbs. Convicted of murdering lovely Agnes Johnson near West Chicago, John Preston got the electric chair in 1931 — the first person in Illinois to die that way. He was an outsider, of course. “Again Chicago jungaleers have come into DuPage County and smeared up the landscape with the result of their lust and animal instinct,” the Wheaton Illinoisan newspaper thundered.
Today, crime in the suburbs has receded. According to FBI statistics, violent crime fell 3.3 percent between 2015 and 2016 in a survey of 80 communities in the west and northwest suburbs, according to a story in the Daily Herald. Violent crimes decreased to 2,492, down from 2,576 the year before. Property crimes fell to 28,375 from 29,306.
Each Day Can Be a Mini-Wave of Crime
Elgin police filed 276 reports over two weeks in March, some serious and some less consequential, according to CrimeReports (www.crimereports.org). There was an assault at 1 a.m. on the 400 block of W. Chicago Street, a break-and-enter at 7 a.m. on the 3100 block of Gansett Parkway, a retail theft at 8 p.m. on the 1000 block of Summit Street and a theft from a vehicle at 11 p.m. on the block of 600 Covered Bridge Drive, as well as a loud party at 1 a.m. in the 2300 block of Camden Lane, an intoxicated person at 3 a.m. on the 100 block of S. Randall and the police stopping of a suspicious pedestrian at midnight on the 300 block of McLean Blvd.
A small city of 113,000, prosperous in some sections and struggling in others, Elgin has a stable crime rate. Serious crimes in the city decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017. But crime has been on the decline for years in Elgin, and the 2017 serious crime rate is its lowest in decades.
Elgin police attribute the decline to its community policing model and its Resident Officer Program, in which officers live in the neighborhoods they police. Residents also are quick to call the police when they have a problem or see something suspicious. The police department reportedly handled nearly 58,000 calls for service last year.
Elgin also alerts residents to crime patterns to help deter crime. It is one of a handful of local suburbs that provide data to CrimeReports. More than 900 police departments, sheriff departments and other agencies in the United States use CrimeReports including the Plainfield, Roselle, Villa Park and Woodridge police departments.
An Uptick in Incidences in Towns Closer to the City
Bordering Chicago, Oak Park has shared some of the violent crime that plagues the city. Its police investigated 15 car jackings and four attempted car jackings last year, eventually making 10 arrests. Two homicides occurred, the first in Oak Park since 2012. Overall, the village reported a two percent increase in crime in 2017. Police investigated 1,635 crimes in 2017, up from the 1,605 crimes in 2016.
Burglaries and thefts constituted most crimes — 82 percent, in fact. Police investigated 1,035 thefts and 311 burglaries in 2017. The department also reported 107 vehicle thefts. As in other towns, Oak Parkers displayed a won’t- ever-happen-to-me mentality — the keys were left inside unlocked, running vehicles in 32 of the car thefts.
The car jackings caused an uproar among residents, who expressed frustration with not knowing what was happening. Police held a series of community forums, created a Facebook page and opened a Twitter account to share breaking crime alerts and police summaries.
“They have a much more thorough social media presence now,” says Bottorff. “They’re doing a lot better at that now.”
Community Awareness and Action
The first half of March saw half a dozen police reports for a small stretch of southern Naperville just west of Knoch Knolls Park, according to the online Naperville Public Safety Incident Map. There was a burglary in the 1100 block of Cordula Circle; a runaway minor in the 1200 block of Springdale Circle; marijuana possession in the 500 block of Eagle Brook Lane; a speeding violation on Plainfield Naperville Road; a driving-under-the-influence stop in the 600 block of Gateshead Drive; “a suspicious incident” in the 2200 block of Salisbury Drive; and a sex offender tracking registration in the 300 block of Westbrook Circle.
Whether you view crime as rampant or low level, police departments have stepped up efforts to let residents know about crimes in their neighborhoods. In late 2016, Naperville launched its online crime map, detailing 20 types of crimes and traffic violations including robberies, assaults, drug offenses and burglaries to motor vehicles. The site is updated a few times a day. Users can look at crime over a week, month, year or other time frame.
Information is power, according to Naperville police. Knowing burglaries have occurred near home might compel residents to lock their car and garage.
The crime map also scratches the curiosity itch. What kind of crimes happen near the Starbucks you frequent or what went on last weekend near North Central College or near a favorite bar? General crime statistics give the big picture. There were 125 violent crimes in 2017 in the city of 147,000, compared to just 93 in 2016.
As with other suburbs, property crimes are much more prevalent. Naperville saw 1,625 instances in 2017, 1,598 in 2016 and 1,655 in 2015.
“We are a safe community,” says Police Chief Robert Marshall. Others agree. Naperville was named the seventh safest city in Illinois last year by SafeHome (www.safehome.org) and one of the safest in the country among towns with 50,000 people or more. The organization used FBI statistics and a university study of American fears to do its rankings.
The annual chance of a Naperville resident suffering a violent crime in town is astoundingly low — a 0.0008 percent chance. The chance of a resident suffering a property crime is one percent.
When Marshall hosts informal gatherings around town to meet with residents and address their concerns, he fields a lot of questions about parking and traffic enforcement. “These are quality of life issues,” he says.
The relative safety of the town does not mean murder and assaults don’t happen. “The same crimes happen in the suburbs as in the city. It’s a matter of frequency — for a variety of reasons,” says Marshall.
Burglaries tend to cast an oversized shadow in Naperville. One neighbor may have his car or home burglarized, but the crime resonates with an entire subdivision. A few years ago, after a string of burglaries hit a south Naperville neighborhood, more than 300 residents crammed into a community meeting held by the police. Neighbors also organized a Facebook group called Neighborhood Watch of SE Naperville.
Naperville residents volunteer for crime prevention initiatives. Naperville Crime Stoppers provides tips to the police, and Community Radio Watch, begun in 1982 by the police, uses residents trained by the police to “act as additional eyes and ears for the police,” according to its website.
Recently a resident called police after seeing four suspicious people in a backyard. Police arrested them, believing the group was responsible for a series of burglaries. “The awareness of residents to what’s happening in their neighborhoods is a big help,” says Marshall. “There are only so many officers. Police can’t be everywhere. We rely on residents to call us if they see a suspicious person or car.”
How Technology Can Help
People worry about crime. More homeowners are putting in security systems. “Years ago you wouldn’t see too much of it. Now when people buy a house they think about it right away,” says Jay Rutili, manager of Forest Security in River Grove. A home security system, the most popular protective device, typically costs around $500 with a monthly fee and a small installation fee. Technicians once had to spend days at a home to install a system instead of the few hours required now.
Other common choices are video doorbells and cameras for the front and rear of the home that provide real-time images.
Crime is corrosive. When it happens to you, or your neighbor, it erodes confidence and security. Luckily, most suburbanites don’t ever suffer a violent crime or even experience a property crime and typically don’t fret about either. Those who do have more reason to worry about crime often take due precautions.
Bottorff of Oak Park has a porch light, uses a motion sensor light system and has cruised his neighborhood on the lookout for suspicious cars or people. “It’s just a regular urban sensibility,” he says. “I’m not fleeing Oak Park. I think it’s reasonably safe here.”
When Policing and Health Issues Intersect
Suburban police are evolving their techniques and tools as social and health problems become more widespread and known. Police often encounter people with dementia or autism yet often have no way of knowing the underlying condition. So Oak Park police now distribute simple silicone bracelets to identify for them a mental health issue.
One of the more prominent and enlightened new policing initiatives is Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, undertaken by many police departments. Sgt. Kevin Licko of the Lisle police put his training to use when a suicidal man stood perilously close to the balcony of a high-rise housing complex. He had taken 40 hours of training on mental health issues. “The idea is to slow things down,” says Licko. “The old approach was to take charge of the situation. Now we try to defuse it. We don’t want to rush in there heavy-handed.”
The man was coaxed back into his apartment without incident or injury.
In Lisle, 10 officers went through the week of training, and all 30 officers have taken a one-day workshop. Officers learn not only about basic signs of mental illness but also resources available for those with mental health problems. Instead of ending up arresting a person for creating a disturbance, police able to recognize mental health symptoms can help stabilize a situation.
We’re not social workers. But we want to humanize a situation, to develop a rapport with someone, “ says Licko, a 14-year veteran. The skills learned through CIT are transferable to other encounters with residents. “The skills carry over. It teaches us to de-escalate a situation.”Edit Module