By Michael Kleen
In a recent report on crime in Winnebago County, former Rockford Register Star Executive Editor Linda Grist Cunningham concluded that fears about Winnebago County crime are “more hype than fact.”
Given Rockford’s reputation for being somewhere between Mad Max and Grand Theft Auto, Cunningham’s conclusion may be superficially true. However, her assessment fails to acknowledge the profound impact both crime and the fear of crime have on society as a whole, particularly on the local economy.
In other words, crime is not merely an issue of criminal and victim, courts and judges, costs and savings. Crime and the economy are intimately connected, and a safe and prosperous community cannot be built without taking that connection seriously. Dismissing public perception as hype or irrelevant is not helpful.
It is no coincidence Winnebago County has been in the top five Illinois counties in terms of both crime and unemployment rates for more than a decade. Robberies, especially armed robberies, have a devastating effect on business. It is not just money taken during the robbery that is lost — the damage can be measured in terms of customers who stop visiting for fear they will be there at the wrong time, employees who are too scared to come back to work, and in difficulty in hiring new employees. As a result, a business that was already operating at the margins can be forced to close, lowering surrounding property values and adding to urban blight.
Almost every day in Rockford, there is a carjacking, armed robbery or assault. At the beginning of May, for example, a young woman working at the Burger King at the corner of Bell School Road and State Street was robbed at gunpoint while she was leaving work. That night alone, there were two more robberies in the city, including one at an ATM machine on Auburn Street. Another 22-year-old man was simply sitting in his car at an intersection when two men pointed handguns at him and demanded his money. One Subway Restaurant on East State Street has been robbed more than three times since December.
Incidents such as these create a climate of fear that stifles economic activity. Rockford is the third-largest city in Illinois, with a number of fine shops, bars and restaurants in our downtown. Why aren’t they overflowing with customers like those in smaller cities like Naperville, Schaumburg and Aurora? The answer is an ever-present anxiety — a conscious or unconscious decision made on the part of many area residents to evade danger by avoiding entire sections of the city, including any businesses that happen to be located there.
The City of Rockford has done little to address this issue and has occasionally managed to make things worse. Turning off more than 2,300 street lights last year to save money, for example, was a step in the wrong direction. Nothing makes people feel less safe than having to walk home (or to their car) in the dark.
In one flippant response to a resident who inquired about her now darkened street, a Public Works employee told her to rent a light from ComEd if she was concerned about safety in her neighborhood. The concerns of local residents need to be taken seriously, not dismissed.
Some, including the editors at the Register Star, have suggested Rockford is simply suffering from a negative attitude. Like the young orphan girl in the children’s novel Pollyanna, who transforms her aunt’s dispirited New England town into a pleasant place to live by looking at the bright side of every situation, these Rockfordians believe they, too, can transform reality by only looking at the positive, but it will take more than a Pollyanna-esque attitude to turn things around. Problems need to be acknowledged before they can be solved, and so far, wishful thinking has not brought about an economic recovery or reduced crime.
Concrete steps need to be taken to change the perception of public safety (or lack thereof) before any serious economic recovery can get under way. One simple thing the city can do is increase police foot patrols downtown and in high-crime areas. Police officers should be visible at major intersections and should be given responsibility for a square block or section of businesses. This would send a signal that public safety is a high priority, and business owners and their customers (as well as potential criminals) would know police are always within shouting distance. Anti-vagrancy and public decency laws should be vigorously enforced. Finally, Rockford needs a local concealed carry ordinance, so residents can defend themselves if attacked.
Together, these steps would greatly reduce crime and — more importantly — dramatically increase public perception of safety. Only then will the local economy truly begin to recover.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian, and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and master’s degree in education.
From the May 16-22, 2012, issue