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Normal's police chief says new license plate cameras are already paying dividends

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Normal Police's newest officers were sworn in Friday. Here's Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli and, from left, Logan Meagher, Sabryna Murray, Justin Dixon, Brandon Kochurka. These four officers will begin their 16-week training this week at the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center.

Something happened this week at the Normal Police Department that hasn't happened in a while. They’re actually at full strength, at least on paper.

Police departments across the country face recruiting and retention challenges and a lot of turnover. At Normal Police, that staff turnover includes a new chief, Steve Petrilli, who’s nine months into the top job.

WGLT’s Ryan Denham spoke with Petrilli about staffing, the department’s new license plate reading cameras, gun violence, and other topics. A transcript of their conversation is below, lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: A lot of police departments are facing challenges with recruiting and retaining. How does the staffing situation look in your department?

Petrilli: Normal PD is not unlike what you've seen around the country. So we've had our definite challenges with both recruiting and retention, which are two separate issues in and of themselves.

But I can tell you, we've pushed aggressive efforts, getting out in different community groups and colleges and schools, some military recruiting offices, really trying to extend our reach to good, qualified candidates that include minority candidates. And we're also part of the 30-30 initiative, which is trying to have 30% of all of our academy classes be representative of females by the year 2030. So those have been big pushes for us.

But it's been challenging. It really has. And I think with that comes some opportunities as well, to kind of look at, hey, how have we historically looked to recruit qualified people and retain them? And what can we do to maybe take a different look at that? We're still getting good candidates, but just not near the volume that we used to get.

We've tasked some folks within our department, within our recruiting section, at really doing that. We're actually swearing in four new officers on Friday (Jan. 6) that will put us at full strength on paper. And we really haven't been there for about two years.

So you’ve got new officers. How do you keep them? What’s your retention strategy?

That’s a lot of my job, to create that culture within the department that makes people want to stay there. And I think that you do that by investing in your people. They are our greatest resource.

I changed some things when I came in (related to) our core values. One of the core values I brought in was wellness. Wellness is a huge focus of mine. I do a lot of work in the wellness arena, for decades now, coming up through the organization. And that's been something I've been a champion for and an advocate for. So we're really trying to drive the wellness component within the department. Keeping your mind healthy, keeping your body healthy, keeping your relationships healthy. And giving officers the tools to do that.

We actually hired an intervention specialist not too long ago. And she works within the building and is putting together a lot of great programs internally, from peer support opportunities for officers to just overall wellness opportunities. That's been a good thing.

Another interesting stat, though, is that we have turned over about a third of our department (in the past couple years). We have a lot of young officers that have come through the doors here in the last couple years. And I really see that as an opportunity. I think having some new staff is an opportunity to really take the ideas, the enthusiasm, the skillsets that come with this generation of the workforce and really hone that into, what are the needs in the community, and then really capitalizing on that.

How diverse is the workforce within Normal Police right now, and how does that compare with where you want to be?

We have a diverse workforce, and they come from all walks of life, which is good, because you bring a lot of different skillsets to the table by doing that. About 10% of our force is representative of minorities. Females, that’s just under 20% at last check. But it ebbs and flows, because we have people that retire and take other opportunities and do different things. So it's definitely a moving target.

But are we where we want to be? No, not yet. And that's why it's been a real focus of ours to get out in the community, expand our reach, just not out around the central Illinois area, but really look at, hey, how can we get into different subsets? Whether that's higher education, maybe that's the military – getting to some of these prospective employees earlier in the high school ages and things like that.

When it comes to lateral transfers, have you had much success in recruiting officers from other departments?

Our lateral program has not been tremendously successful. We've had a couple of folks go through the application process and either weren't a good fit or didn't necessarily meet all the qualifications. We've actually put some financial incentives within that package — a recruitment bonus, allowing people to also accrue vacation time and things like that at an accelerated rate based on the years of service that they bring from other departments. But it's challenging right now for all PDs, so the lateral transfer "portal," if you will, is not really paying off as we had hoped.

Both Bloomington and Normal police departments have recently begun using Flock Safety's license plate reading cameras.

It's been several months since your department began using license plate reading cameras, made by a private vendor called Flock Safety. How many do you have, and how have you decided where to put them around the community?

We almost have them all installed, which would be 28 cameras. On the town-owned roads, we were able to put the cameras up fairly quickly because we didn't have to go through the permitting process that we do on IDOT roads.

And they’ve paid benefits. Literally, right away, one of the first weekends that we had our cameras up and going, they were beneficial in identifying a vehicle that was involved in a shooting in our city. There's been a litany of cases that they've been beneficial. … So, I would say in that respect, they've definitely paid off. Exactly the usefulness that we were looking for, we're getting from the cameras.

As far as the deployment of those, our focus is on the entrance and egress from the community. So we wanted to get the cameras in areas that … we have three major interstates that surround our community. And then also school safety, making sure we had cameras in areas around campus, areas around our major high schools, things like that, that should we have an incident that we had those cameras in areas that generally we're going to catch (it).

There is a 5-page policy that guides how NPD uses these cameras. It references a “department hot list.” How is that hot list used?

There’s very specific criteria that are outlined in the policy for what the procedure is for hot-listing a vehicle. Those are going to be vehicles that have been associated with a crime, that we have reasonable suspicion to believe that this vehicle’s involved in such-and-such incident at this location.

The hot-listing feature provides our detectives extended resources that, when they have a suspect vehicle that's been involved in something, they can get the vehicle hot-listed. And that gives the officers on the street at least some awareness, should they come across that vehicle, of possibly what the vehicle has been involved with. So there's an officer safety portion of that. But then there's also the investigative nexus that it allows them to do some further follow-up. And that's really what the whole gist with these cameras were, is providing public safety.

One of your lieutenants is tasked with randomly reviewing five inquiries made to the data coming from the cameras every month, to make sure those inquiries are legitimate. Have those checks revealed any problems or areas where training needs to be improved?

Absolutely. That's our CID lieutenant who's in charge of that. And like any other new technology, when you implement it, we have to make sure it's being implemented the right way.

But you also see with that, there's errors that happen. And things that aren't necessarily intentional. But you may have had a vehicle search that was done and the criteria for that search just wasn't spelled out in enough detail. So there's been some opportunities for training for that, which I think is the best part of those random checks.

Obviously, if it was done intentionally for a nefarious reason, we've got a mechanism to deal with that, through discipline and other things. But the vast majority of those, 99.9% of the ones that we have seen to this point, have just simply been keystroke errors. They've been a training issue that hey, we need to let the officer know that's entering that vehicle that we need more information.

We learned last year that the town would be getting a $500,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, for community development and violence prevention. That’s going to the police department. Where do things stand with that money and how to spend it?

That’s actually been kind of an exciting process. It’s not very frequent that we get half a million-dollar grant to spend on crime prevention and community development.

We've gone through the initial phases of (the grant). And we've got that submitted to the state. So we're waiting to hear a response from the state on whether we need to tweak some of the things that we're looking at purchasing.

We’re looking to lean heavily on technology. We're looking at some things like trailer surveillance cameras, tethered drones, a 3D scanner that we had put in as a request for equipment. Another piece of software called Berla, which has been instrumental. That allows us, with a warrant, to analyze black boxes in vehicles to gather data when bad accidents happen.

It's exciting. And it's given us a needed boost to our current budget that's gonna allow us to really make some good advancements in technology.

 Olive the dog
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Normal Police
Olive the dog joined the Normal Police Department in November.

Normal Police now has a new police dog named Olive, who is a little different from other dogs that folks may associate with your department. What is Olive doing?

Olive is great. She’s been a welcome addition to our police department. She is what we refer to as a “facility dog.” So she has no operational responsibilities, like you would think of as a traditional police canine. She's not out on the street detecting narcotics, or are doing any type of patrol dog work. She really is a facility dog that we then leverage to go out into the community. She's been very effective at getting into a lot of the schools, a lot of community events. She has been taken to hospitals, nursing homes.

She's very active in the department. I do a meeting every morning at 8:45 with a group of supervisors and people that are in the building. Well, Olive is there every morning. And she always adds a little bit of … you can't be around Olive without smiling, right? So it's really nice. What you see is that she has that effect on everybody within the building. Police work is hard, it can be a tough job. And people that are victims of crimes that need to come to the department for an interview or to retrieve property or things like that, it's an opportunity that we can sometimes use the dog in difficult situations to kind of put people at ease. That's the whole point of the dog is to bring that that kind of sense of comfort and relief to folks in a time of need.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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