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Rockford Crime And Safety

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Victor Yehling
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WNIJ

We examine the perception and reality of crime in Rockford. We talk with people directly affected by violence, and examine efforts to prevent violent crime and ensure the safety of residents.

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Part one of WNIJ's series on crime in Rockford (extended version)

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Part two (aired 5/29/15)

Rockford-area State Representative Litesa Wallace recently introduced a resolution calling on the Governor, the Mayor of Rockford, Attorney General and others to get to the bottom of the crime problem.

House Resolution 494 reads “WHEREAS, Violent crime is a serious problem in the City of Rockford; therefore, be it RESOLVED, BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES that there is created the Rockford Violent Crime Task Force within the Illinois State Police.”

Sounds very official, but it’s tough to understand the extent of problem in such a formal reading. And it's certainly not the first time someone has tried to address crime in the city.

ROCKFORD CRIME STATS (Released May 21, 2015)

Rockford Police Deputy Chief David Hopkins has been watching crime trends for several decades. In 2011, the department started releasing more information to the public about crime stats. New numbers are released monthly.

"I don't have a crystal ball and I don't have any fairy dust to throw at our problems," Hopkins said. "We do look at the trends. You look at the big issues because murder many times is a byproduct of gun violence. Murders happen in other ways, but gun violence is probably the most frequent. That's what we look at: what types of situations are we having in the city as a whole?"

Son Taken By Tragedy

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Brandon's high school basketball uniform and his diploma.

Rosemary and Donald Wright lost their son Brandon to gun violence in 2011.

"We are at the stage in life where our friends are sharing pictures of their grandchildren," Rosemary Wright said.  "When things like this happen, people don’t know how it affects your future. Life goes on, but you have to learn how to manage through it."

Donald says he often wonders what his son's spouse would have looked like.

"This is the new journey. It’s not what we selected but it’s a journey we have to live in," Donald Wright said.

The Wrights have organized rallies for awareness to prevent similar tragedies. They are also active in the Winnebago County Homicide Support Group.

Religious Leaders Intervene

When violence hits home, it’s often pastors and preachers who reach out to the family first. That includes William Wentink, who spent 40 years consoling families whose loved one were victims of tragedy.

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Father William Wentink spent 40 years as Rockford's Police and Fire Chaplain working with families touched by tragedy

"I went down to the police station the first or second day I was in Rockford, introduced myself to Chief Del Peterson, and said 'I'm the new priest in town, can I ride in a squad car and get to know the city?"

That tradition continues. There is now an organized arrangement where different faith leaders take certain days of the month to be "on-call." Wentink says if you look at the number of murders in Rockford over the years, there are different years that it really peaks out.

Wentink says, through the tides, his work remained the same-- working with families as they grief a loss.

"The police and fire really don't have time to do that, they are not social workers, they are going from one call to the next. Our chaplain can sit down and take the time to do that," Wentink said.

Rockford leaders also hope these religious leaders can be a bridge between people in the community who have information about crimes, but may be scared to go to the police.

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Deputy Chief David Hopkins domestic-related incidents have historically been the number one or number two call for service. 

"When you are talking about domestics, many times, unfortunately sometimes there's a death in a domestic. Those situations are very deep, they are emotionally-charged. There are all kinds of dynamics that go into that," Hopkins said.

What about preventing crime instead of reacting to it? That's another complex puzzle. Hopkins says over the years, Rockford police are getting better at tracking cases with other entities.

"We are not to the promised land yet, but with the coordinating court system where we have law enforcement, we have the courts, we have social services and they are actually working together in a coordinated fashion, now there is that 'proactive.' "

New Perspectives

Terrance Hall is with the newly-formed Wabongo Leadership Council of Rockford. He’s young,  ambitious, and not from Rockford. He moved here a few years ago. That perspective can be useful, but he also has a steep learning curve when it comes to past attempts to combat violence.

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Terrance Hall and Joshua Patterson of the Wabongo Leadership Council discuss Rockford crime and prevention in the WNIJ studios in Rockford.

“At the heart of the problem of violence is economics," Hall said. "I’m under the belief that the vast majority of people don’t want to commit crimes. You’ll always have an element of an underground economy. With capitalism, you will always have that. The more people we can help to participate in the above-ground economy, I believe, the less crime there will ultimately be.”

Hall says crime is about opportunity.

“If you think of kind of a small town that has a couple of big companies. You may grow up in that town and your brother went to work for this company and maybe your uncle went to work for this company too. Naturally, you have a couple of references, a couple of entry points to this company. I believe the same thing is true for crime. If you grow up in a household or a community where you have so many references to crime a lot of times it’s very easy to get caught up in that crime. Once you are in the system, it’s very hard to get out of the system." -Terrance Hall, Wabongo Leadership Council

Those connections go both ways.

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Jefferson High Schooler Juliana Solis is part of the district’s academy program. She wants to work in law enforcement because she’s seen her aunt work her way up in the field. She says her friends know that’s her dream too, but she says sometimes, they just don’t get why she’s interested in this line of work:

"Rockford would have a better 'rep' if it wasn't for the way people perceive it based on the effect social media has on it now, especially on people my age," Solis said. "I feel like they aren't invested in actually learning the actual facts of it, or actually putting themselves out there because they're so blocked out because whatever they try to believe on social media."

Search For Solutions

While the crime stats are real, Solis says she tries to combat a negative perception that things will never change because she wants to stay in the city.

"I want to return and give back to this community," Solis said "I have been here since I was four. I just want to do anything possible to help that. If I do move up in law enforcement here or the criminal justice system here, that will help me make a bigger impact than a 17-year-old now. Especially with the rate of murders right now going up-- who knows, maybe it will start going down or maybe it will go up even worse. But I do want to somehow give back here and help out here."

Deputy Chief David Hopkins has three decades under his belt in law enforcement in Rockford. He has let his career play out in the city, and says, out of 150,000+ people, most are very law-abiding. They don't want to have these types of things happening in the community. He says there are a few that step out of bounds, and that is where the police come in.

Hopkins says one-on-one interaction will be key to addressing crime.

"In the past, you would come into the department and you would generally work an area and get to know those people. This puts an entire team of officers in an area to get to know the people that live there. It is best to develop that relationship before you need it. All relationships move on the speed of trust. There has to be a genuine trust between the police and the community.”

Neighborhood Building

The neighborhood concept is one that the group Transform Rockford also wants to build on.

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“Each neighborhood has assets and strengths," said Mike Schablaske, Executive Director of Transform Rockford. "We might not see them or appreciate them right off, but they are there and they are to be worked with, built upon, and lifted up. It’s critical that we get to know them if we are going to transform the region. We need to get past broad generalizations like “East Side” and “West Side.” That doesn’t do justice to the neighborhoods and the people.”

Joshua Patterson is president of the Wabongo Leadership Council. He didn’t grow up in Rockford, but came here for a job. When he first moved to the city, he was told to avoid certain parts of town.

“I kind of coined a term that I used to describe some people I engaged with. That term is “Rockford native-haters.”

Since then, he formed the Council which works with students to take part in job fairs and learn how to market themselves to potential employers. The organization has found that some students lack the confidence to see what their strengths are. He works with them to develop lists of their skills that could make them good workers. They also sponsor college tours because, he says, some young people have never left Rockford, and don't always know what other opportunities they may have.

Patterson says this is his mission because he had lots of mentors when he was growing up. He says it wasn’t just one person-- but coaches, YMCA leaders, and others who he says probably didn’t realize how large their imprint was.

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Personal Mission Out Of Tragedy

Rosemary Wright, who lost her son to Rockford violence, says she feels safe in the city.

“I will not walk around in fear because I know God has not given me the spirit of fear,” Wright said. “People think just because we lost a son, that we feel different about Rockford. I still like Rockford.”

Like Patterson, Wright sees her role clearly in the community right now.

“Our kids need help. That’s one thing I plan to do. I plan to retire this year, and I want to really get involved with our kids because our kids are really hurting. Rockford is a good place, but Rockford can be a better place.”