6. Safer streets

In February, we introduced our “Contract with the Community,” a 10 item list of simple reforms and ideas intended to bring about a more open, honest and transparent government. Over the coming weeks, we will explore in-depth each of those 10 items. This week, we look at No. 6, “Safer streets.”

[dropcap]As[/dropcap] Tom McNamara cruised to victory last week in the mayoral race, shots were fired in the Rolling Green neighborhood. A 23-year-old woman was shot in the arm.

Public safety was a central theme through election day in Rockford. And the newly elected mayor and aldermen were quick to promise safer streets the following morning.

Can they deliver? What works? Some people believe more police are needed. Others think more programs and jobs mean less crime. The Brennan Center for Justice’s study, “What Caused The Crime Decline” offers insight.

Let’s begin with what does not work.

The report cites a lack of evidence for increased incarceration as a crime deterrent. “Crime’s responsiveness to incarceration has decreased dramatically over time.” It cites overuse, a criminogenic effect on low level offenders (imprisoned low level offenders graduating to higher level offenses upon release), deteriorating conditions, and lack of effect as reasons why incarceration does not reduce crime rate.

There are those who believe – rightly or wrongly – that the prison system is no longer effective because lawsuits brought by inmates led to cable television and other amenities being provided to inmates. The report did not address changes in the prison system, whether bureaucratic or court ordered, as factors in the effectiveness of incarceration.

Winnebago County once had a robust data-proven center called the Resource Intervention Center (RIC). The RIC was utilized as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders at a higher risk to re-offend with the hope that utilizing RIC resources would eliminate or mitigate the criminogenic effect of incarceration.

Dr. Penny Bilman studied the RIC program through 2014. She notes two keys to the RIC’s success. The first was separating those at a high risk to re-offend from violent offenders. Exposing an individual with a high risk to reoffend to a violent offender is like exposing a person with a compromised immune system to pneumonia. They’re more likely to have a worse case of pneumonia than the average person.

The second key to the RIC’s success was a comprehensive program. If the program could not determine “why the person is doing what they’re doing,” then it could not address those motivations and move forward.

The RIC programs were effective, to the point of saving taxpayer dollars. The budget deficit and shifting priorities moved tax dollars from those programs in 2014 over the objections of Joe Hoffman and then county board member John Guevara.

There is currently no measurement of the few remaining RIC programs. County Board Public Safety Committee Chairman Dave Fiduccia could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Bilman also cited the Swift, Certain, and Fair Justice initiatives as a separate alternative for violent offenders.

The report did cite a few factors which have some effect on reducing crime rate. Unemployment and inflation were shown to have the least effect. Consumer confidence and increased alcohol consumption ranked slightly higher.

Income and police force size were among the highest in this group. When both were higher, crime rates dropped. When they were flat, crime rates were flat. When they fell, crime rates rose.

The research on income’s effect on crime rate will be interesting over the next decade. Researchers should compare the effect on crime rates in states that are increasing the minimum wage against those who do not.

Further studies point to living conditions as a catalyst for crime. While often an indicator of income, the presence of lead throughout a neighborhood has shown to be a precursor to higher crime rates.

A paper by former HUD and DOJ official Rick Nevin in 2000 pointed to a specific lag time of 23 years from the peak of leaded gasoline exhaust in the air during the 1970s to the peak of violent crime, teen pregnancy, and other social indicators in the early-to-mid-1990s. While crime has dropped nationwide in the past quarter-century, the metropolitan areas facing the worst crime issues today are those most likely to have lead still present in the paint and piping of their homes.

What has reduced the crime rate the most? Bilman’s report found that police departments utilizing Compstat reporting saw the sharpest reductions in crime rate. Compstat stands for computer statistics. It’s a way to map offenses by location. The cities that use Compstat the best, drilling offenses down by location, time, and the officer on duty in that precinct, saw the largest reductions in crime rate.

Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana agrees that safer streets are not only a personnel issue. He says that the officials responsible for public safety need more “tools in the toolbox” and that includes patrol officers and Compstat style programs like ShotSpotter and camera access throughout Rockford.

He is convinced he will need more officers on patrol to get it done. “We can’t run it on overtime continuously. We’ll burn out individuals.”

Rockford Police Chief Dan O’Shea has echoed similar sentiments, calling for increased coverage of cameras and gunshot detection devices in the city. He has continued to push forward with a program to have more officers live in the neighborhoods they police, an initiative that saw positive results in his former jurisdiction of Elgin.

But O’Shea also stresses repeatedly the need for community buy-in. Rockford’s top cop has called on neighbors, parents, teachers and family members to intervene and notify officers if they know a crime has been committed.

“Addressing crime in our city is a shared responsibility,” the chief told The Times in January. “We need and are asking the public for their assistance. We simply cannot successfully prosecute cases without information that leads to arrests.”

Utilizing the right tools, with the right number of officers – while including comprehensive and separate programs for nonviolent offenders with a high risk to reoffend and violent offenders through following in the Swift Certain Justice mold – will make sure we have safer streets in the future.

“This didn’t happen overnight,” O’Shea said of the city’s crime problems. “And there isn’t a snap-your-fingers solution to crime; there never is anywhere.”

He’s right. Which is why public officials should commit to data proven solutions. That’s their part.

And the community should focus on mitigating risk factors for crime like teenage pregnancy, literacy, and drug use. We need more Big Brothers and Sisters, more mentors, closer neighbors, and more friends.

That’s our part.

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