Battling Perception With Action To Curb Violent Crime In Rockford

Aug 4, 2017

Statistics show that violent crime in the city of Rockford has dipped over time, but perception doesn’t always match data. On this week’s Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Jessie Schlacks looks at frontline efforts to fight crime in the city:

Safety Starts At Home

“...Or you can put it on the window. When you raise the window, it breaks it, so that would give the ‘wooh’ real loud noise, and hopefully scare the intruder away. Those are only like nine bucks.”

“Yeah, but that’s perfect.”

Cost-effective home security was the topic of a recent public presentation by the North End Square Neighborhood Association (NESNA).

Rockford resident Vickie Fogel is on the board. She said there are creative ways to make your home safer.

“I have a friend of mine who actually recorded the barking of a pitbull that her friend had, and she keeps it right by the door," she said. "If anybody ever gives her any trouble, she’s going to hit that button. And trust me, they’re not going to come in if they hear that.”

Fogel said it’s important to be proactive in guarding your home.

“If anything ever happens, I don’t want to look back on it and say, ‘Boy I wish I would have.’ I want to have already done it and tried the best I could to take care of my home,” she said.

A key mission of the group is to keep crime down. Fogel said banding together with neighbors and taking pride in the community has made the North End a better place to live.

“If you want good neighbors, you have to be a good neighbor," she says, "and you have to take care of your property and your home and those types of elements in your life.”

Mixed Statistics

Assistant Deputy Chief Doug Pann has served many roles with the Rockford Police Department. He’s been actively involved in combating crime in the city.

Pann said that, as of the end of June, overall violent crime is down about eight percent. He also said property crimes have seen a 15 percent reduction.

But Pann said a lot of work is still needed to keep violent crime down; he said violent gun crimes drive fear in the community.

“Where you see most crime going down, violent crime has been very steady, so up-and-down, up-and-down," he said. "But, it’s still a problem."

Overhauling The Approach

Pann said the department has revamped the way it tackles crime, which Pann said means shifting away from targeting “hotspots” – or areas where crimes tend to happen.

Doug Pann, Assistant Deputy Chief of the Rockford Police Department

“We’ve recognized that focusing on an area of the city geographically isn’t the answer," he says, "and what we need to do is focus on the most violent people that are involved in the crime.”

Pann said it can be damaging to cast a net over a certain area of the city.

“There are a lot of good people who live there who aren’t involved in the crime; they’re coming and going from work and trying to raise their families, and they’re not involved in crime," he said. "But they fall to minor violations and enforcement from law enforcement.”

Tapping Into New Technology

So, instead, Pann said the department is investing more in its technology, like social network analysis; it helps find connections between people, rather than locations. He also wants to have easy access to businesses' surveillance cameras. 

“If we can have a relationship with them, and for a relatively small amount of money, be able to connect into their system – not to watch it all the time – but to access those cameras when needed," he said. "We have a crime that happens, a violent crime that happens in that parking lot, can we access those cameras right now -- that’s what we want to do.”

Pann said the department is also working to implement gunshot-detection systems, which use triangulation to pinpoint where gunfire occurs.

“...Instead of an officer getting a call for service where someone calls in that there are gunshots, and it happened two blocks that way ‘I think, but I’m really not sure where it happened,’” he said. 

Pann acknowledges it’s an expensive system, but said it can make the department more efficient. Nonetheless, he said it’s still crucial for residents to report crimes.

“Only 20 percent of the time, statistically, nationwide, are people calling the police when they hear gunshots. That’s not acceptable in the community," he said.

Bridging Community Trust

He attributes the inaction to a lack of trust in law enforcement, which he said is needed to solve and stay on top of violent crime. 

“We need the community to bolster our efforts and to talk to us when something happens – to trust that they can come to the police department when they’re in need and not get arrested – that they can share information and we’re not going to divulge that," he said.

Pann said the department is bumping up its community engagement to help bridge the trust. For example, he said each district’s police station has a community room for recreation. Pann said he witnessed a group of young people heading to the station’s basketball court.

“And when I pulled up, there’s a van out on 10th street, the side street where the police station is, and there were about 15 kids who got out of this van and went into the police station. And it was the coolest thing," he says, "because you don’t see that very often.”

Pann said many of the department’s activities, like block parties and kite-flying, are focused on young people.

“And we know that we need to reach them at a younger and younger age all the time if we want to make an impact," he said.

A Chaplain's Take

Lou Ness leads the chaplain division for the Rockford Police and Fire departments.

Lou Ness, Director of the Rockford Police and Fire Chaplains division

She said chaplains are part of a lesser-known effort in the battle against crime.

“You’ll see chaplains, and it often looks like they’re doing nothing besides standing there, but we really are paying very close attention. And sometimes we’ll just go stand near people. We are the non-anxious presence in the midst of anxiety," she said.

Ness said chaplains also are responsible for giving death notifications to families.

“We don’t use any flowery language," she said. "You can’t ease that kind of news into people besides being direct.”

Ness said she doesn’t believe crime and violence are rampant in the city, but commends law enforcement for making strides in strengthening community relations. 

"I mean, if you come to district offices, they’re pretty empty. Because everyone’s on the street," she says, "and that’s really where they’re supposed to be.”

Combating Perception With Action

But, Ness said, public perception of crime may be worse than reality.

“We don’t want to talk about what’s really working and what we’re doing well and the difference we made, because people are pretty much ‘the glass is half empty,’” she said.

She encourages people who don’t like what’s going on to get involved with neighborhood watch groups, or to do volunteer work.

Credit Jenna Dooley

“There’s so many things that people can do to make a difference in the city," she said. "Complaining about it and doing nothing – that’s not very effective.”

Going forward, Ness said Rockford faces racial and economic segregation, which may contribute to the crime and public perception of the city being dangerous. She said these topics need to be addressed on a larger scale.

"So, I would love to see Rockford as a community engaged in a vigorous debate about how those two things – race and poverty – harm the city and get in the way of reducing some of the crime,” she said.