By Brian Novak, candidate for Village Trustee
I'm generally a glass-half-full kind of person. A realist, I know that we need to have a thoughtful and sensible discussion about public safety, and it needs to include more than merely quoting crime data.
As an independent running for Skokie Trustee, public safety is my FIRST priority, and if I am elected, it will be the topic of the FIRST discussion I will have with the Mayor and my fellow trustees. The people of Skokie deserve leaders who know that there is no more important commitment the Village can make than ensuring their safety – and leaders who are willing to act on this principle. Our public safety is crucial to the success of our community – now and in the years to come.
We have had enough headlines reporting that Skokie’s overall crime stats have been declining in recent years. We have had enough cries about declining public safety that don’t include concrete ways to address the issue. We have had enough dismissal of discussion of hiring additional police officers based solely on the cost which it entails.
Instead, our community needs and deserves leaders who not only acknowledge issues but also offer concrete paths toward solving problems – while facing the reality that we must invest in public safety, even if it means making adjustments elsewhere. Thus, my plan for public safety includes the following:
- Comparing Skokie’s law-enforcement employee numbers with those of other local communities
- Evaluating what tools are at our disposal to keep Skokie safe
- Leading a discussion on how the perception of crime affects our sense of community
Residents should be extremely proud of the Skokie Police Department and its officers. Their commitment to our safety is apparent, and it is commendable. In addressing public safety issues below, in no way am I suggesting that my ideas are a substitute for the experience and expertise of the SPD. However, as trustee I can guarantee my commitment to giving the SPD the support it needs to ensure – and to enhance – the continued safety of our community.
Statistical comparisons with neighboring communities
According to the 2011 Crime in the U.S.statistics published by the FBI:
- Skokie has 2.14 “law-enforcement employees” per 1,000 residents. This puts our community behind Evanston (3.00), Lincolnwood (3.41), Niles (2.24) and Morton Grove (2.49).
- With the fewest law-enforcement employees, Skokie has the second-highest violent crime rate (behind Evanston) at 2.17 per 1,000 residents, compared with Evanston (2.38), Lincolnwood (.55), Niles (.74) and Morton Grove (1.07).
- Skokie ranks in the middle of the pack with respect to property-crime rates at 26.52 per 1,000 residents, compared with those of our neighboring communities: Evanston (28.46), Lincolnwood (44.90), Niles (23.58) and Morton Grove (16.07).
These statistics show that Evanston has approximately 10% more violent crime, but it has 40% more law-enforcement personnel than Skokie has. Comparatively, Lincolnwood has 70% more property crimes, and 60% more police personnel than Skokie has. Morton Grove and Niles have significantly lower rates of violent crimes than Skokie has, while these communities also have the benefit of comparatively larger police forces. Therefore, it is apparent that the Skokie Police Department is understaffed compared with police departments in neighboring communities.
The 2012 National Citizen Survey reported that the number of crime victims in Skokie appears to be increasing. In 2003 the citizen survey reported 11% of respondents having been crime victims; in 2006, 12%; in 2009, 13%; and in 2012, 16% of respondents reported they had been victims of crime. However, the 2012 survey also reported that those who were victims of a crime were less likely to report it to the police. Of those reported to be victims in 2009, 79% reported this to the police, but in 2012 only 71% of crime victims did. Does that mean that in the last few years fewer crime victims are coming forward? If so, why?
The Skokie Police Department publishes only the number of crimes that are reported. The statistics that the Village of Skokie leadership is promoting as a decrease in crime refers only to this “reported” crime rate. If 8% fewer people are reporting crimes over the last three years, what does that indicate about the actual crime rate in Skokie?
Additional Law-Enforcement Employees
The discussion above indicates that by hiring 10% more law enforcement employees (most or all of whom would be sworn police officers), Skokie will be in line with the police personnel capacities of Morton Grove and Niles. The addition of 10 or 11 sworn Skokie officers would increase police presence on Skokie streets, a deterrent that would be one important tool for reducing crime rates to proportions more in line with those of neighboring communities.
The need for more officers is evident in the numbers, yet the current Skokie leadership persists in focusing on the slight overall decrease in the crime rate without putting it in context. This context requires consideration of 1) comparative police staffing and crime statistics for neighboring communities; and 2) the emerging pattern of specific types of violent street crime in Skokie that occurs regularly in specific geographic areas of the Village, as frequently reported by local media.
The cost of hiring additional police officers is significant and cannot be denied. To this I respond: 1) It is incumbent upon Village leaders to conduct a thorough and transparent re-evaluation and re-prioritizing of existing Village revenues (without levying additional property taxes) toward this end; and 2) Hiring additional police officers is an important tool the Village can use to enhance public safety – but it is not the only one. Other measures can be taken to supplement – but not to substitute for – the hiring of additional police officers.
- Radar speed signs: Skokie currently has only two radar speed signs that flash how fast speeding drivers are going. Each of these signs costs $5,000 to $8,000, mostly one-time expenditures (with additional costs associated with downloading data, moving signs to new locations, etc.). As these devices have been shown to be effective in reducing speeding, thus freeing up police offices for other tasks while not compromising traffic safety, the Village of Skokie should consider purchasing more of them.
- Neighborhood Watch: The Skokie Police Department has worked diligently to promote the Village’s Neighborhood Watch program, which currently has more than 200 residential blocks participating. This longstanding program has many benefits – from learning how to recognize and identify problems in specific areas to increasing police communication by bringing the community together to teach us how to make our neighborhoods safe. As a formal program however, Neighborhood Watch is not a panacea, as it speaks primarily to residents who are particularly motivated, leaving many areas in the Village uncovered by this useful program.
- Additional law-enforcement facilities: Discussions regarding the implementation of satellite stations/sub-stations/community stations in our community are necessary. Police substations bring the police closer to neighborhoods with high levels of criminal activity, and data indicate that this can help reduce crime and improve residents’ feelings of safety.
- Police community outreach: Programs that increase a sense of community in our neighborhoods are effective tools for cooperation and fear reduction. For example, the Skokie Police Department’s “Know Your Officer” campaign is an effective community-outreach tool that encourages residents to get to know police officers and to work with them to make their neighborhoods safer.
Perceptions of crime/community building
Residents who sense cohesion, trust, and value sharing among their neighbors report less fear of crime. Thus, the Village should make a dedicated effort to strengthen neighborhood organizations in order to engender a sense of community cohesion among residents.
According to the 2007 National Citizen Survey in the Village of Lincolnwood*, residents there felt safer than those who lived in Skokie in 2003, 2006, 2009, or 2012 with regard to violent crimes, property crimes and neighborhood safety (during the day and night).
Now, why do people in Lincolnwood, which in 2011 had a significantly higher property-crime rate (44.90), feel safer than residents of Skokie (where the rate was 26.52)? This is an important question deserving of Village leaders’ attention – because when people decide where to live, they tend to compare one community with its neighboring communities rather than focusing on where a community stands relative to national benchmarks.
Comparing results from the 2003 and 2012 National Citizen Surveys – which the Village of Skokie voluntarily commissions every three years – provides a useful starting point for a discussion of why Skokie residents appear to feel less safe in our community over time. In 2003, 73% of respondents said they felt safe in downtown Skokie after dark, whereas by 2012 that number dropped to 66% – a decrease of 7%. More troubling, though, was the decrease in the feeling of safety in one’s own neighborhood after dark, which decreased by 13% from 78% in 2003 to just 65% in 2012. Further, residents reported feeling less safe from violent crime (12% fewer) and property crimes (13% fewer) between 2003 and 2012. In addition to promoting the positive indicators of the National Citizen Survey, Village leaders must also address these less-than-positive trends.
What people perceive is usually what they believe, and it is based on what they see, hear and think. We need trustees who recognize the importance of data, but who also realize that public safety is more than merely crime statistics. Village leaders must understand this and must act on it. This is the beginning of a real discussion, and I pledge to lead that discussion when I am elected.
I am asking for your support. Vote Brian Novak, independent candidate for Village Trustee, on Election Day, April 9. To learn more about my candidacy, please visit my website at www.novakforskokie.com.
*2007 is the most current Village of Lincolnwood Survey