Police Chief Al Roechner put out a call for more community help in fighting crime and got a mixed response Wednesday at a town meeting where residents criticized the way police officers do their jobs.
The meeting at the VFW Cantigny Post was held to address an outbreak of shootings in West Side areas, but little time was spent on specific incidents.
“Victim refused. Victim refused. Victim recanted story. No witnesses,” Roechner read off from a series of police reports on 62 incidents of violent crime in Near West Side neighborhoods, making a point that police need more cooperation from crime victims and the community.
He encouraged residents not to be afraid to walk in their neighborhoods, saying he would join them if necessary.
“I’ll come walk with you,” he said. “Call me. You need to get out there, because [criminals] are not going to do things if they see you out there. You’re a deterrent, believe it or not.”
Roechner’s comments, however, were met with a barrage of skepticism from several of the first speakers at the meeting, who voiced complaints about the police department.
Will County Board member Rachel Ventura said she tells her children to stay away from windows for fear of stray bullets and called for an independent search for a new police chief.
Mady Perez talked about the number of times her house has been shot at and said, “Not anybody in my opinion has protected me.”
Ernest Crim III, a teacher at Joliet Central High School who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in April, said residents are leery of police.
“You want us to talk to you, but we don’t trust you,” he said, adding that Roechner has not returned calls from him.
It got better for police as the meeting went on, and several people echoed Roechner’s call for greater citizen involvement.
Jeff Grimes, too, said people need to get out more in the neighborhoods.
“Good people in our neighborhoods are not being seen,” Grimes said. “The reason they’re not being seen is they don’t want to go out of their comfort zone. People committing crimes are getting out of their comfort zone.”
Mark Singletary said law-abiding people need to “take risks.”
“You have three options,” he said. “You can put blinders on. You can walk away and hide. Or you can take action. If you take action, the crime will go somewhere else.”
Roechner said violent crime is up in the central district of the city, which includes the Near West Side, from last year. But, he said, it’s below the five-year average.
In one neighborhood, Reedwood, he said, there have been six shootings so far this year compared with four at this point a year ago.
Residents from the Reedwood neighborhood have called recently for an expansion of the Neighborhood Oriented Policing Team to that area.
Candace Johnson, co-president of the Bicentennial Bluffs Neighborhood Association, said the NOPT program can make a big difference, pointing to what happened in her area when neighborhood policing was disbanded about 10 years ago amid budget cutbacks.
“When we lost them, the impact on our neighborhood was ginormous, which is why we all rallied to get them back,” Johnson said.
While the NOPT program has been restored, it has about half the staffing it had previously. Johnson said it has not been restored in some neighborhoods that had it before.
The city now has 265 police officers compared with 302 in 2008, Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said. But nine new officers are in the process of being hired.
“We’re certainly not at the low point,” O’Dekirk said, noting the numbers have gone up and down since 2008.