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Peoria's Resident Officer Program Is Growing. But How Well Does It Work?

Dana Vollmer
Peoria Public Radio
Officer Jerry James, Jr. stands outside of his residence at 1839 N. Wisconsin Ave.

A handful of Peoria police are working double duty as patrolmen and neighbors.

The resident officer program places police in high-risk neighborhoods to deter crime and build relationships with residents. There are four in the city and plans to add another.

WCBU recently rode along with the newest officer participating in the program.

It’s a routine call for Officer Jerry James, Jr.: following up on a report of a home that might not have heat.

James is dropping by a house on Thrush Avenue with a city inspector to make sure the residents are safe. They also brought information on how to get help covering heating costs.

Before he leaves, James hands the homeowner a business card and tells her to call or text him any time.

“I get a chance to make myself known to her,” he said. “This encounter was nothing negative. It wasn’t ‘Hey, the police are here. You’re in trouble.’ It’s ‘Hey, there was a complaint for a welfare check, but now we’re here to offer any assistance as needed.’ And then it kind of gives me a chance to get an idea of the full story.”

Credit Dana Vollmer
Dana Vollmer
Officer Jerry James will serve as the East Bluff's resident officer for at least three years.

At James’ next stop, just a few blocks over, he’s checking in on a resident whose car was stolen a week before.

Flora Randle has rented her home on Arcadia Avenue for 16 years. She has recently dealt with a rash of property crimes: break-ins, slashed tires and, that same morning, a torn yard sign.

Randle said she appreciates how kind James has been to her.

“I feel more secure — for a personal officer to check up on you and find out how I’m doing,” she said. “It used to be a nice area. But now, these young kids have taken over and do what they want — especially to the older people that live here. They seem not to give them no respect at all.”

James said he sees his job as making the East Bluff feel like home again for residents like Randle.

“I know as times have changed and the neighborhood’s changed, some people are like, ‘If you don’t like it, leave,’” he said. “How do you tell someone that’s lived their entire life here to leave? You have every right to stay here.”

James said that also applies to businesses, like the El Paso grocery store on the corner of Wisconsin and Frye. There’s a sign on the window: no more than two unattended kids allowed inside at a time.

Inside, Jackie Nieto is working the cash register. At first, she looks confused to see a uniformed officer in the store. But when he tells her he lives down the street, Nieto perks up.

She said the store’s experienced theft in the past. But now she knows she can call James.

“I feel safe,” Nieto said, adding matter-of-factly, “He’s the police.”

James is the most recent addition to Peoria’s resident officer program, which started in 20-13. He covers the East Bluff from his city-owned home at 1839 N. Wisconsin Ave.

Resident officers are strategically placed in high-crime areas throughout the city. The idea is that known police presence will deter crime and that working in the neighborhood they serve will help officers connect with community members.

Peoria Police Chief Loren Marion said while it’s difficult to quantify how well the program builds trust, there are a few measures of success.

“Oddly enough, when we first put a resident officer in the area, we will actually notice after the first few months that the calls for service will increase in those areas,” he said. “But that's actually a good thing ... because that's showing that the community is putting more trust into the police and are calling to report things that even though they may seem minor, but they want them addressed.”

Marion said the call volume eventually drops, as community members turn directly to the resident officer for help with things like barking dogs, noisy neighbors, and property line issues.

He also points to large crowds at community events hosted by resident officers as a sign that outreach efforts are working.

Marion said all four neighborhoods with a resident officer have seen some form of drop in crime, although some are larger drops than others.

For example, from 2013 to 2017, the resident officer area in the West Bluff saw a 59% decrease in crimes against person — things like battery, assault and robbery. During the same period, the resident officer area in the South Side saw only a 4.9% decrease in these crimes.

Still, some academics are skeptical these numbers tell the whole story.

Dr. Ashley Farmer is an assistant criminal justice professor at Illinois State University who specializes in community policing.

“It was really interesting to me that there’s no scholarly studies or data that really evaluates how effective these programs are, especially since a number of them have been around since the early 1990s,” she said.

Farmer said that leaves the narrative about how well resident officer programs work in the hands of the people running them.

“What we know about them pretty much comes from police departments themselves saying that this is an effective program — our crime decreased by such and such percentage, our calls for service decreased by a certain percent,” she said. “We know crime was decreasing generally across the entire United States at that time, as well. So if that can really be attributed to the resident officer program is hard to tell.”

Farmer said it’s also unclear whether the entire neighborhood benefits or just the immediate area around the officer.

“Are we decreasing the crime rate or is it just sort of displacing it elsewhere? People know they’re not going to commit crime on a street where a police officer lives now, but maybe they still will four blocks over,” she said.

Farmer said regardless of measurable “success,” resident officer programs show police departments are thinking outside of the box. She said any effort to improve police-community relations go a long way — much further than just patrolling neighborhoods.

Not that improving those relations is easy. Officer James admits not everyone warms up to him right away. He says he hopes that over the three years or more he serves in this role, they'll come around.

“Tomorrow’s a new day. We’ll try this again at some other point,” he said. “I won’t force the issue. But just letting them know, ‘Hey, I’m still here.’”

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