Most, but not all, crime categories are steady in Normal
Overall crime rates in the Town of Normal have remained fairly static over the last five years, said Police Chief Stephen Petrilli, though weapons offenses and gun incidents jumped last year.
Department reports showed a 79% increase in gun incidents and nearly 60% growth in weapons offenses. There were 52 gun incidents last year and 67 weapons offenses in the town.
“There are a lot of different reasons for that. Being able to pinpoint one, that's difficult. I think we've done a good job of making sure we were aware of that trend, and then deploying resources as needed to ensure we addressed incidents in a timely manner to restore order,” said Petrilli.
A look over five years showed weapons offenses rose 20%. Petrilli noted the first five months of this year have shown a 40% drop in such offenses from 2022, and a decline of more than 25% from the five-year average of the early months of the year.
Weapons offenses include unauthorized possession and or storage of weapons, unlawful use of weapons, aggravated or reckless discharge, a firearm, unlawful sale or purchase of firearms, unlawful possession of firearms or firearm ammunition, defacing identification marks of firearms, and not having a Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) card.
A weapons offense is not always somebody firing a gun, said Petrilli.
“We don't have a lot of gun violence. When we do see an uptick, in say the unlawful discharge of a firearm, that can skew the numbers in a very big way with a relatively small number of incidents,” said Petrilli.
Crimes against people
Part One crimes, or crimes against persons, are steady over the five-year period, said Petrilli, though up close to 45% year- to-date from January-May 2022. Within that category most such crimes stayed relatively even: homicide, sexual assault, burglary, robbery, motor vehicle theft, arson, and human trafficking. The increases have come in thefts and aggravated batteries or assaults.
“We're seeing significant increases in catalytic converter thefts. That's a metal piece from automobiles that can that (have) a very high dollar value on the black market,” said Petrilli.
Aggravated battery and assaults also have spiked.
“These could be a myriad of factors. If we respond to an incident, maybe a large party or large fight, then we have several victims of a battery. That can swing those numbers. We've also seen an uptick in response to our local hospital, staff that are dealing with folks that may be unruly or who have assaulted a staff member,” said Petrilli.
He said calls to Carle BroMenn Medical Center could involve substance abuse, other issues in play, or have a "mental health nexus."
Calls for service
More people are asking for police help and more officers are initiating help — nearly 59,000 calls for service in all. Officer-initiated calls outnumbered public requests nearly three to one. Data showed a 22% increase in total calls for service January-May 2023, +13% from the public and +26% by officers.
“We're seeing more people relocate here because there's a lot of opportunity. I think that increase in population density requires more services,” said Petrilli.
The police department also had been operating with a significant number of vacant positions from 2020 to 2022. The department annual report indicated the NPD hired 18 new officers last year. Petrilli acknowledged coming close to full staffing improved the department’s ability to initiate its own actions.
“There were never any issues with response time. But we're getting more people out on the street, and we're staffing our shifts better. It's allowing folks to take time off in some of the things that for a while just weren't happening the way that we had normally operated at our department,” said Petrilli.
The new officers allowed the department to put more effort into the 6 p.m.-to-4 a.m. shift last year, the time of day that produces most low-level ordinance violations such as noise complaints, carrying open alcohol, and so on. Additional staffing helped the department reallocate folks to special details like ordinance violations and traffic enforcement. Ordinance violations are currently up over 56% year to date from 2022, but still down over 8% from the five-year average.
“These are low-level violations, yes, but they tend to curb some of the other violations that we see some of those Part One crime: the aggravated batteries, the thefts, criminal damage to property, some of those things,” said Petrilli.
Traffic citations are up 43% year to date and 8% over the five-year average for this time of year. Traffic stops are up more than 52% year to date and 11% from the five-year average.
“Having our staffing back where it needs to be allowed us to re-staff the traffic unit with two full-time patrol officers. That really is their sole responsibility, day in and day out, to go out and look for the violations that cause traffic accidents, everything from speeding to distracted driving,” said Petrilli.
Hiring so many new officers also helped department diversity efforts. Petrilli said each new cohort conformed with the departmental goal of women making up 30% of new academy classes. Nationwide, that target is called the 30 by 30 initiative.
“We've also done a really good job of staying committed to hiring good quality minority candidates, so our department becomes representative of the community we serve,” said Petrilli. “We've been able to achieve some success with that.”
“These are low level violations, yes, but they tend to curb some of the other violations that we see, some of those part one crimes - the aggravated batteries, the thefts, criminal damage to property, some of those things,” he said.
Last autumn, the police department added a number of license plate reading cameras around town. Petrilli said they have begun to harvest data from those to investigate solely criminal offenses.
“If we have a Part One crime that may have occurred and we've got a vehicle description, we have used that in real time to get suspect vehicle information,” said Petrilli. “We've recovered numerous stolen vehicles. If you take a report and get that figured out quickly for the victim, it has really been a game changer. We've had real-time instances to develop suspect information to help determine whether there is an unlawful discharge of a firearm or a more violent criminal offense committed.”
He noted the camera use policy is available online at the town transparency portal.
A nearly $500,000 state grant also paid for a tethered drone and two mobile surveillance trailer cameras that recently arrived. The NPD technology officer and another detective are moving through the drone licensing procedure and officer training has begun for a number of potential applications.
“We could use that at a large traffic crash. Being able to get eyes above incidents, whether that is a train derailment (such as the one a few years ago near Uptown Station), civil unrest, any type of large event we would have to manage from an emergency services perspective. It can be used for a lost child that is in a wooded area. That really does give us some tools,” said Petrilli.
The mobile surveillance cameras will be used to monitor public events, not to put together criminal investigations. Petrilli said the application is for a public safety addition to parades, festivals, and community events.
“That allows us to have real-time access to the event should we need that and then the recording ability, if a crime is committed, so we can react quickly and effectively,” said Petrilli.