City Beat: Meeting Rockford’s new top cop

By Shane Nicholson 
Managing Editor

It’s a new city but a similar set of challenges for incoming Rockford Police Chief Dan O’Shea.

“Probably the one thing – the most important thing we have to do – is communication,” he told The Times during a sit-down last week. “To work on communication the community, to get buy-in within the department from bottom to top, that has to be the priority.”

O’Shea, a 27-year law enforcement veteran and former Elgin Police Department Commander, says that striving for open lines of dialogue with everyone in the city creates a more transparent and more sympathetic policing structure.

“We try to get as much transparency as we can, and let them know what we’re doing,” he said. “Police work isn’t a secret; it’s been around forever. Less than 1 percent of what we do we need to keep in-house, whether it’s investigations or what have you. The other 99 percent? Communicate with the outside. It’s something I did very well in Elgin and it’s something I’m going to make sure we do well here.”

O’Shea says continued efforts with community policing across the Rockford area’s numerous law enforcement bodies will help keep those lines open. He says that good policing means being members of the community first and an officer second.

“You can give me a thousand officers; I’m not going to solve the crime problem. Not until I have 150,000 residents who are all actively engaged, but they have to be comfortable.”

He says that level of comfort comes from seeing individual officers not just as a person behind a shield but as a neighbor and partner in the fight to make Rockford a better place to live.

“People have to know they can call us and email us, that they can reach out to us and we’re going to be there,” O’Shea said. “There’s some programs I want to be able to bring in from Elgin and there’s programs here we can marry with those ideas to create a stronger city. But we don’t do that without being community members first-and-foremost.”

Technology and privacy

O’Shea has been credited by officials around the state as a pioneer in bringing police body cameras to Elgin back in 2014.

Those systems, currently on trial as a pilot program in Rockford, have found a place in the spotlight following recent high-profile officer-related shootings, including the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who fired 16 rounds at the teen in just 13 seconds.

The new chief says that being ahead of the pack on technology is just another way to assure the public that the police department is working for them.

“It’s the kind of culture we had in Elgin and it’s the kind of culture I want to bring here,” said O’Shea. “It’s got to be the culture of a police department that wants to embrace community policing, that wants to do the body cameras and the in-car cameras. And that comes from wanting to be transparent with the community.”

O’Shea says that while the cameras are far from a be-all end-all solution, implementation of the systems can not only improve relations with the community but also protect and educate officers further in the execution of their duties.

“Way back when we started the in-car cameras, it wasn’t about catching an officer doing something wrong,” he says. “When it does catch someone doing something wrong, you look at it. You correct them, you train them, you discipline them or worse.

“But generally, complaints come back to communication. The officer isn’t communicating properly, the resident isn’t communicating properly, whoever. And that can lead to animosity. So you have to use these tools to train officers and reassure the community that we’re here for them.”

Cost concerns are still paramount with the cameras, however. O’Shea says that many times residents and civic leaders simply don’t understand the economic resources needed to support a body camera system.

“People say, ‘Oh, just slap a body camera on them.’ Great, but now you need one for every officer. You need back ups for those. You need back up power supplies for those. You need all the equipment to be able to use that video appropriately. You need to follow the state laws. You need to let people know you’re not invading their privacy.

“Then you have to be able to store all of this video, and have staff that knows how to manage it when you need it. It’s a lot of video,” he said. “Now, I have seven-to-10 officers at an incident that lasts an hour or two. You’ve got 10 or 15 or 20 hours of video to look through. I have to watch it, all the officers have to watch it when they file their reports. I have to have the secure systems to be able to do this all on. (The state’s attorney) has to be able to watch it and have that equipment.

“So it’s not just as easy as turning on the camera and all the problems of modern policing go away,” he added. “But it is another tool that we can use to do our jobs better and engage with the community.”

Battling Big Brother

Beyond the body cameras, O’Shea says there is now a wide-range of technology police can use to increase public safety.

“I would like to see more in-car cameras before we go all-out for body cameras,” he says. “They’re cheaper to implement, the systems are easier to maintain and ultimately you’re getting a lot of the same feed back.”

And, he says, citizens don’t have as many concerns around privacy with the in-car cameras and some departments have experience with their body cams.

Other systems the new chief plans to bring to Rockford are expanded outdoor camera systems downtown and enhanced traffic cameras.

“High-traffic areas are your high-crime areas,” he says. “Period. In any city, crime moves where the traffic moves, whether it’s people on foot or people in their cars. So if we can see that in real-time we can react in real-time before situations arise.

“Not only do these things help us solve crimes but they protect people. People want to be safe, and these are ways we can do that without being overly invasive.”

He stresses that while these modern technologies can improve public safety the last thing he wants is for people to view the police as being intrusive on their lives.

“We want community input and we want community partners. People have cameras on their businesses and their homes already and we hope we can use those to better serve the community,” says O’Shea.

“But we don’t want to be looking over your shoulder,” he continues. “I’m afraid of Big Brother. But we can work together to improve our community through some of these structures already in place.”

Improving the organization

A complete evaluation of the entire department is O’Shea’s first priority, he says. Set to begin work next week, going through the layers of RPD and moving resources into the right places will be his first tough task.

“There’s a great department here, but obviously we can always be doing better,” he says. “All that tech, all this knowledge and information, we have to look at how we share it across divisions and how we use it to help the community.”

O’Shea has met with Mayor Larry Morrissey and the police union multiple times in advance of his first day, attempting to get a grasp on the problems facing the Rockford department.

“Getting your officers and the right kinds of officers in the right place is the first thing we have to do right,” he says. “Put traffic cops in areas of high traffic. You do that, you cut down on accidents, you cut down on complaints and you improve by being proactive.”

He adds that while reactionary policing is unavoidable, that by analyzing data and trends the police can be more effective in their response times and engagement.

“You see a problem, you fix the problem,” he said. “You don’t file a report and then wait for someone else to do it. We can’t work like that and we won’t.”

Getting officers on the street and in the right neighborhoods is something he says saw violent crime drop in Elgin.

“We get out, we knock on doors, we make sure people know that we’re there and we’re there for them,” says O’Shea. “You can’t police by showing up after something has already happened. You have to be there to stop it from happening in the first place. And that comes back to communicating with your residents and listening to what they tell you. No one knows better what’s going on in their neighborhood than the people who live in that neighborhood.”

Working with civic leaders

The new chief says that those same open lines of communication have to carry all the way to the top. Open dialogues with city hall and the police union are crucial to winning the battle against violent crime.

“I worked with two labor unions in Elgin, and have managed to go without grievances for years,” he says. “You do that by responding to a text from the union heads or picking up the phone when they call. You do it by, again, communicating as effectively as you can will all your people all the time.”

But he says those relationships have to be a two-way street.

“I always have to be looking out for the best interests of my officers, and I will so long as they stay between the lines,” O’Shea said. “If you go outside the line, then we have to look at retraining or discipline or sadly, at times, terminating them. But working with the union keeps that measure of trust that we’re all doing to the right thing in frame.”

And taking those talks down to city hall ensures that the mayor and city council are always up to date with what’s happening in the department.

“I’ve already had hours of conversations with the mayor where I told him and he told me, just a back and forth,” he says. “And he knows, I will always have the city’s best interests at heart and those of my department. That’s what a department head has to do; same as the mayor.

“I will always have the mayor’s back and he’ll always have mine, but not at the expense of treating someone unfairly or unjustly. You do that, you erode the trust of your officers and of your community.”

O’Shea says a community input meeting back in November helped him in preparing for what would be his new role in Rockford.

“I look before I leap,” he said. “And I wanted to get out here and listen to what the people had to say. They complained about the communication and problems internally in the department, they complained about the crime problems, and they complained about the juvenile crime problems.”

But he says his experiences in Elgin – which has produced eight police chiefs currently serving in cities around the state – mirror many of the same problems that Rockford faces today.

“I wanted to come here, and I firmly believe Rockford Police Department is a top agency in the state,” he said. “But I want to make it the top agency in the state. That’s not going to be done by just me; that’s going to be done by the 290 officers and the 60 civilians that work beside them.

“I hope to just lead them along the way. And my goal is to mentor, train and cultivate the current crop and the next generation to make this a better place to live. That’s what I’m here to do.”

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