Rockford Pursues Geographic Policing

Oct 23, 2012

Several northern Illinois cities use some form of geographic policing, which focuses on placing officers into defined districts. From North Aurora to Roselle, different variations of the model are being carried out. In Rockford, city leaders want to follow suit by making big changes to the police department’s structure.  But not everyone is on board.

The big question being asked in Rockford right now is whether the department should decentralize by moving out of its downtown headquarters, and divide its operation into three separate locations. The department brass and union leaders disagree on the plan. Some of the residents we spoke with have opposing views as well.

John Linblade is a resident of the city’s far east side, which is several miles from police headquarters. He says if the plan is cost-effective, he would support having a police district building closer to his neighborhood. 

“I think that anytime that they’re closer to the neighborhoods they’re policing, they’re more responsive to the needs of that neighborhood” Lindblade said.

Fellow resident Chad Cook says the question shouldn’t be about where you put police stations, but how many officers are patrolling the streets. Cook says based on conversations with his friends on the force, the Rockford Police Department is understaffed. He feels hiring additional officers would make him feel safer.

“My neighbors got broken into a week ago, and I’ve got two police officers for neighbors. It’s not their fault. They can’t be standing vigilant in their backyard all the time. But [I would just like to see] a stronger police presence in general speak, more volume per-se” Cook said.

While the debate plays out, Rockford leaders are trying to get city council approval, with the goal of carrying out their plan as early as next year. City administrator Jim Ryan says the effort is a natural progression of the type of policing the department has focused on in recent years.

“With a city [that has] the geographic size of 61 square miles, a centralized physical location really doesn’t work very well when we’re trying to promote community policing” Ryan said.

Ryan says they want to reduce the city’s notoriously high crime rate by building strong relationships and a higher level of trust between police officers and the neighborhoods they patrol. He says they believe switching to a geographic policing model will only enhance their approach.

“When you look at successful cities that have implemented geographic policing, the neighborhood stations are much more accessible to the public. [They’re] very close to the homes and businesses with that particular station. And it’s just a much more comfortable environment” Ryan said.

In preparing their proposal, Rockford officials have been studying the geographic policing model in Madison, Wisconsin, which has five stations spread across the city. 

Rockford officials say in addition to believing that a similar approach is needed in their community, they’re feeling pressure to move out of the Public Safety Building, which where the department has been housed since the 1970’s. The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department and local jail operations moved out of the facility in 2007, and city officials say it doesn’t make sense financially to stay in a half-empty building in need of upgrades.

But police union president Terry Peterson questions whether the city would actually save money by moving into three new buildings. Like resident Chad Cook, Peterson says Rockford can improve public safety by bolstering the police force.

“Right now, we don’t have enough people to staff the streets. There’s no way we’re ever gonna be able to staff a district and put into effect even a small program similar to what they want” Peterson said.

Peterson says the union also worries about the effect the move would have on police operations.

“I think that we need to keep a lot of things centralized for investigative purposes, if for no other purpose. There’s an information exchange that occurs when everyone is centralized, especially in the detective function” Peterson said.

Peterson says the union isn’t necessarily opposed to exploring an extension of community policing. He says they just feel the city is trying to do too much in implementing its proposal. He suggests starting off with something smaller, such as a police sub-station.

Dennis Bowman teaches law enforcement at Western Illinois University. He also consults with law enforcement agencies on community policing. He says in the U.S., the concept began to take shape in the late 70’s when there was a sense of a growing disconnect between police departments and the communities they served. 

Generally speaking, Bowman says there’s no clear evidence that this philosophy has had a major impact on reducing crime rates.  But he says that a lot of that has to do with how committed a certain community is to making it part of its crime-fighting strategy.

“My contention is that if there was a true and full implementation of a community policing philosophy in a given community, then you would definitely see significant impacts in terms of crime reduction occurring in those places” Bowman said.

That question of whether it makes sense for Rockford to undergo a major expansion of community policing will be answered in the months ahead.