John Schlaf has been Galesburg Police Chief for ten years now and has become a formidable influence in both the community and the City Council. He is simultaneously in charge of maintaining the Public Safety Building, implementing the enhanced 911 system, influential in many of the decisions concerning the new jail and administering the police department. I sat down with him Monday evening for what we both expected to be a brief conversation and, over an hour later, our discussion had covered the gamut.
I asked the Chief to summarize 1999 from the perspective of Galesburg Crime. I mentioned the apparent contradiction between nationwide statistics that show crime way down and the continuing posturing by many politicians that crime is out of control. He cautioned that last year's statistics have not yet been fully compiled and offered his observations.
''I guess I would say that locally the activity has been up, at least that is my impression in the absence of the raw statistical figures,'' began Schlaf. ''That tends to indicate that our crime figures will also be up. Requests for police service by the public are up; telephone calls are up; officer reports are up and taken together this would tend to indicate that crime has been up in Galesburg. This is in contrast to the statewide and national trends downward reported by the FBI's crime statistics.''
''The last FBI statistical reports stated that, in summarized form, crime in America was down to levels not seen since the early 1960s. In fact, our stats for 1998, in contrast to the FBI reports, which are a full year or more behind, we're up in total if not in each of the eight major categories measured. We have compared our data to the state and we are up. Out of the four violent crime categories that are down across the state, three out of the four are up in Galesburg.''
The four FBI categories he referred to are murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault/battery. Galesburg's size also complicates interpretation of crime statistics expressed as percentage increases or decreases. When there are only a few incidents of a specific crime, one more can make a significant percentage change and lead to erroneous conclusions about trends.
''I made that same point a few years ago when I received the Flub-A-Dub award from The Zephyr,'' acknowledged Schlaf with a broad grin. ''In those [violent crime] categories, sometimes it is not a fair or accurate comparison due to the low frequencies. What we tend to look at are the trends across a number of years. We like to summarize those categories so that we examine total violent crime and make comparisons with these higher numbers. I think this provides a fairer, more representative comparison than possible with the individual categories. This still shows our stats to be up in general, but only a modest amount.''
Property crimes are the most common. Simple theft is a very real issue every day.
''It is our sense that generally speaking most property crimes are committed by a relatively small number of offenders. I hesitate to use the word professional because I think that term gives the sense that the criminal activity is the person's sole means of support. That's seldom the case,'' observed Schlaf.
''One trend that doesn't get a great deal of attention yet is significantly up in Galesburg, not only over the last couple of years but going way back to 1994, is auto theft. Our numbers here are not only up but way up and climbing throughout this period.''
''As you know we have had exposure on both sides of this issue. We certainly have documented auto thefts by organized groups as well as joy riding but I don't think we have ever attempted to breakdown our data in that way. I can tell you that it is my feeling from reading the reports that more and more of these stolen vehicles are leaving the area. Not all of those that leave Galesburg are broken down or resold however; a fair number are eventually recovered. We believe that many auto thefts in Galesburg are committed to provide a means of transportation in some other criminal activity. These aren't local kids stealing Galesburg cars and leaving them elsewhere, rather we have criminals who use the vehicle and discard it after the criminal activity is concluded.''
''My sense of it is that burglaries in Galesburg are running pretty constant and perhaps even down a little,'' said Schlaf. ''The last time we spoke about crime statistics, you may recall, the community had just experienced a series of residential burglaries and also business burglaries. We made arrests in both instances and, amazingly enough, down went burglary incidents. I think we're going to be down a little bit.''
I asked the Chief if too many resources are allocated to the ineffectual war on drugs.
''One, I don't think drug activity gets too much law enforcement attention. I remain concerned that there are people in our community or neighborhoods that are intimidated or made uncomfortable through exposure to criminal activity related to illegal drug trafficking. The second reason I think we can never focus too much attention on drugs is that we really have some people with serious drug abuse problems -- so serious that they will put their drug needs above the welfare of their own children. I'm not trying to be dramatic either; we see this all too often, even in Galesburg. We have a very serious problem and we need to keep on top of it.''
If we are to continue the war on drugs, I asked, why don't we set our sights a little higher than the user or low-level dealer? Wouldn't it be better to arrest the upper-level dealers where the quantities of both drugs and cash are much greater?
''I couldn't agree with you more,'' agreed Schlaf. ''But many of those people who are involved with serious quantities of drugs or the financing of drug trade don't need to live in Galesburg and are most probably from areas outside of our community. I don't know what you might consider an 'insignificant' amount but to me if a man or a woman is willing to forego the needs of their children or family just to smoke a single rock of cocaine, then that is too much.''
It is a common complaint from residents that some locations housing obvious illegal activity seem to remain untouched by police efforts. Schlaf is aware of the problem but says that there is no simple solution.
''Sometimes the assumption is that the police do know and have chosen not to do anything about it. Sometimes the fact is that the people most likely to know what's going on live in the neighborhood. If someone doesn't let us know it may be some time before we become aware of the suspicious activity. We always encourage people to call us whenever they suspect something illegal is going on.''
''What I think is especially frustrating for people to have called us about a problem and then not see any immediate action,'' added Schlaf. ''All I can say in these instances is that just because you don't see us doing something doesn't mean we aren't working on the problem. Frequently it takes a good deal of low-key investigation to gather the evidence necessary to make a case that will hold up in court or meet the needs of the State's Attorney's office. Just last week we checked and found that our department has been averaging right around 30 search warrants per year -- and that is a significant number of search warrants. Last year the number of search warrants was about 60. I would say that a fair percentage of those were initiated on the basis of neighbor calls to the police and those have been successful better than 90 percent of the time.''
''This discussion brings to mind a relatively old crime prevention tool that I have found especially effective and our department continues to encourage -- the Neighborhood Watch. This has proven effective in a wide range of areas beyond drugs and has the added benefit of strengthening the community. The Neighborhood Watch program is really just a return to the watchful and caring neighborhoods that I remember as a kid. Where I grew up on Blaine Avenue, you just didn't get by with much mischief because no one on that street was shy about calling your parents. Neighborhood Watch is nothing more than an organized effort to restore the caring and accountability that once characterized neighborhoods naturally.''
Real police investigation is slow, frequently interrupted, and almost never is allocated the amount of resources TV has led us to expect. Fortunately, there are far more master criminals on television than in real life.
''Sometimes our solving a case is based on the conduct of the people involved -- either because of clumsy execution of the crime or due to their subsequent behavior. But there has also been a lot of improvements in the way police agencies such as ours operate that greatly aid in solving crimes even when these changes aren't that obvious to the casual observer. Many of these changes have been subtle.''
''One example is the greater use of computers by police departments,'' noted Schlaf with pride. ''We've done some tests over the last couple of years to help us learn how to use computers more effectively. We have gone back to research solved crimes, backward, if you will. We backtrack through everything we now know to look for things that might have helped us identify the names of those involved earlier if we had thought to examine things differently. We are working to identify clues we missed or failed to capitalize on that would have helped solve the case sooner.''
''What we are doing today is supplementing the old-fashioned, tried-and-true crime-solving techniques with new ones, including increasing use of computers. We now will have an officer or another individual alongside an officer begin working through computer files to try and develop a suspect that way. For example, in a recent attempted murder case, we used computer searches to identify a list of eleven likely suspects located between Galesburg and Springfield. By the time that case was solved, five of those eleven were actually involved in the crime.''
Maintaining a roster of ''the usual suspects'' is no longer practical. ''I think the percentage of people who come to Galesburg and commit crimes is up. These people have come to town from outside of the area and subsequently become involved in criminal activity. I can't say for certain that that is why they came to Galesburg in the first place but there aren't many other obvious explanations. I think that because of the way society works nowadays, as mobile as we all are, crime activity is certainly more 'global' than it ever was in the past. We used to be able to say that certain crimes were 'big city' problems but that just isn't the case any longer.''
Schlaf peered into his crystal ball to speculate on what the future might hold for Galesburg's men and women in blue. ''Most people have seen some of the use of the in-car video that has become more and more commonplace today. While there is a good safety factor, I have never been entirely convinced that in-car video is the best way to go. I would like to see officer mounted cameras rather than the car-mounted cameras.''
''There are some clear logistical problems accomplishing this but I foresee technology soon getting to the point that we can conveniently mount video cameras on the officer. I keep looking into this because I think there is a great safety factor for both the officer and the public by adopting such a system. Often the view of the car mounted cameras is at a bad angle or obscured, decreasing greatly the value of the tool where an officer-mounted camera would come as close as possible to creating a record of exactly what took place from the officer's viewpoint.''
Galesburg is probably an unlikely candidate for an episode of ''Cops,'' but that doesn't mean that being a local police officer is necessarily boring or mundane. ''I like to think that over the course of a typical 20 to 30-year career in law enforcement, a Galesburg officer will come across just about the complete range of crimes and criminals but in more manageable portions than you might find in the big cities. Likewise, Galesburg Police officers have been fortunate not to have many incidents of armed confrontations with offenders where shots are fired or either suspect or officers are wounded. What is of concern to me is that we are now noticing a higher frequency of contact with people who are armed, thus leading my officers to display their weapons more often than ever before. That's definitely an unwelcome trend.''