Sharing Experiences In Illinois Law Enforcement In Large And Small Communities
The Illinois Humanities series “The Country and the City: Common Ground in the Prairie State” addresses issues affecting both rural and urban Illinoisans. As part of the series, we get two perspectives from Illinois communities nearly 400 miles apart.
Carla Redd is an assistant deputy chief with the Rockford Police Department. Rockford is a historically industrial, ethnically diverse city near Illinois' northern boundary.
Jerry Suits is the Sheriff of Pope County, the state's most sparsely populated county with about 4,000 residents. It's located along the Ohio River in southeastern Illinois, and most of it lies within the Shawnee National Forest.
Redd and Suits compared their perspectives as law enforcement officers who serve their own Illinois communities, one urban the other rural.
Redd says she has quite a few fond memories of growing up in Rockford. She says her parents instilled in her a “You can do whatever you set your mind to” attitude growing up.
Finding Their Calling
But she says she did not always want to be a police officer. That changed with a personal experience.
“A neighbor of mine was a victim of domestic violence and her abuser quite often would outrun the police or take off before the police would get there,” Redd recalled. Sometimes, she said, the police would meet at her house in an attempt to get more information to capture him.
That’s how she found her calling which led later to pursuing a job in law enforcement.
“During my interview, one of the commissioners asked me, ‘How far do you see yourself going?’ I looked at the assistant chief. I said, ‘I'm not trying to be funny, but I want his job.’ So essentially I worked my way from patrol officer to assistant deputy chief.”
Meanwhile, Jerry Suits says his path to policing started in Pope County where he says he always felt safe.
“Nobody locked their doors,” Suits said. “If my neighbor needed a yard mowed [or] their lawn mower broke down, we just went over and mowed their grass. If they needed their hay hauled in, we hauled their hay in.”
He says many of his childhood friends are now his mentors and people he can reach out to.
Earlier in his career, he was a communications officer for the Pope County Sheriff's Department and attending Southern Illinois University. He was employed with the Illinois Department of Corrections and had that job for about 30 years. He retired at the age of 50 and said he got bored.
“Somebody asked me to run for the Pope County sheriff, so the good Lord opened some doors for me and I kept shutting them because I didn't think I wanted to be a sheriff.”
Personalizing the Role
“People call the sheriff's department in Pope County and they want to know what the post office’s phone number is,” Suits said. “They tell you about a dog that bit somebody. Down here, we are trying to provide a service.”
But he says resources are pretty thin.
“It's me and two other full-time deputies,” Suits explained. “I try to see all the people I can. If I see a guy on tractor out here, I'm stopping and talking to him. I try to go to the senior citizens. I'm in the courthouse a lot. I serve a lot of papers myself, and I pretty well know where everybody lives and just try to take it to a personal level for me because of the resources that I don't have.”
Despite Rockford’s size, Redd says officers try to personalize their interactions too and calls Rockford a “little big town.”
“There are a small fraction of individuals that tend to drive the crime,“ Redd noted “With a city of our size, and the call load that we deal with, that sometimes does become a challenge for us, because our officers are often going call to call to call. When they have an opportunity that they can engage a little bit more with a citizen, they definitely will take that time.”
In Pope County, the challenges are often financial, according to Sheriff Suits. He says it’s a big difference from the resources available in a city the size of Rockford.
“I can't imagine having to find resources that can buy that many vehicles or uniforms or those kinds of things,” Suits said. “I bought my own uniforms. My deputies, they buy their own uniforms.
And transportation expenses aren’t always due to high mileage.
“It's ‘Deerville’ down here,” Suits joked. “We're probably hitting deer with squad cars once a month.”
He says there isn’t money for a school resource officer in the schools he represents.
Domestic Issues Lead to Violent Crime
For Redd, violent crime is a problem. She says often the crimes are committed randomly.
“They're targeting very specific individuals that they have a conflict with,” Redd said. “Unfortunately, from time to time, we may have an innocent civilian become victim of a gunshot. Our numbers have gone down, our ‘solve rate’ has definitely increased. But it's a constant for us where we're trying to reduce the violent crime that we face in our community.”
For Suits, drug use is a pervasive problem.
“When I was first elected nine years ago, I didn't have a clue about methamphetamine,” Suits said. “I found out about it pretty quick. We're starting to see a lot of cocaine.”
Like Rockford, Suits says domestic violence is also something he has to address in southern Illinois.
“I guess the big surprise of my nine years is the people that just don't get along,” Suits said. “Maybe I've lived a sheltered life or didn't want to see it. It's a daily thing for us.”
Redd says being from Rockford has been an asset in building trust.
“I've had individuals responsible for shootings reach out directly to me or tell dispatch they only want to talk to ‘Chief Redd’ and turn themselves in,” Redd said. “I've had family members call literally in tears because they're afraid that if their loved one is apprehended by someone that they don't know that it may end tragically, so they will call and ask if I can help facilitate this individual turning themselves in.”
Redd says that means she works to build those relationships to extend beyond her.
“I need them to be able to trust that next officer that's going to come out,” Redd said. “And that works both ways with educating officers too.”
Redd says relationships have not been smooth sailing across the board between law enforcement and the community.
“We recognize that whatever those differences are, we have to be able to sit down at a table and have those tough conversations,” Redd said. “Because we need each other to combat the issues that we're facing, we've kicked it into high gear over the last several years to build relationships with the community in which we serve."
Suits says police mistrust is not near that level in Pope County.
“I've never had anything that felt was distrust toward law enforcement,” Suits said. “People call me ‘Jerry.’ Everybody's got my cell number.”
In hearing the experience of Assistant Deputy Chief Carla Redd in Rockford, Pope County Sheriff Jerry Suits told her that her work is impressive considering the city is authorized to have more than 300 officers compared with Pope County’s two.
“If you're ever looking for a job, think about Pope County,” Suits joked. “I'd be glad to have you down here.”
Suits continued that the jobs are so different after all.
“Your numbers are a lot bigger than mine,” Suits said. “But you're still providing that service up there like I'm trying to do and you love your area. You're a Rockford person and I love my area.”
Interviews conducted by Matt Meacham, program manager for statewide engagement with Illinois Humanities. The discussion series, The Country and the City: Common Ground in the Prairie State, addresses issues affecting both rural and urban Illinoisans. The first season of the series included a discussion of law enforcement-community relations in urban and rural communities. Interviews were recorded at WNIJ studios in DeKalb and WSIU in Carbondale.