Rarely does a week go by that Elmhurst police don't release a report of a burglary or attempted burglary in town.
Some of the most frightening cases involve breakins while the victim is home, like these reported this week, earlier this month and earlier this year.
Elmhurst Police Chief Michael Ruth knows the impact of these crimes perhaps to a greater degree than most. While serving as police chief of Countryside last year, his officers were among the first on the scene of a burglary in Indian Head Park that ended with the murder of 14-year-old Lyons Township High School freshman Kelly O'Laughlin.
Kelly came home after school in October 2011, interrupted a burglar and was stabbed to death. John L. Wilson is still awaiting trial for her murder.
Never let it be said that people's fears aren't justified, Ruth said during an interview earlier this month.
"The impact of crime is deep, and it causes fears and concerns," Ruth said.
By the Numbers
If it seems like the number of attempted burglaries has increased in Elmhurst, that's probably because it has. Here is the data provided by Elmhurst police Nov. 13:Date Attempted Burglary Burglary Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2012 19 48 All of 2011 4 66 All of 2010 8 53
In 2010, a burglary occurred on average about once a week. Burglaries increased almost 25 percent from 2010 to 2011.
This year, Elmhurst is on pace for fewer burglaries than last year; through October, Elmhurst has had about 73 percent of the number of burglaries reported in all of 2011. But attempted burglaries have increased 375 percent over last year, with two months of 2012 not yet counted.
To some it may seem like the number of burglaries is even higher than the numbers indicate. For crime victims and their neighbors especially, the perception is that Elmhurst is becoming a scary, unsafe place to live.
"It's your home. What's more private than your home?" Ruth said. "And someone comes into your home and goes through your stuff. It's very tough. It affects people for a very long time."
Still, it's important to look at the hard numbers, he said. During his years as a police commander in Skokie, he worked to educate the community on reality versus perception.
"In Skokie, there was a perception that gang influences and low-income housing were causing neighborhoods to be unsafe and crime-ridden," he said. "Statistically, we were able to show that wasn't the case. There was a slight increase (in those areas), but nowhere near the perception."
The bottom line, though, is if a burglary happens to you, statistics don't matter.
"If I'm the chief all year, and at the end of 2013 I can meet with the public and say we've reduced residential burglary to only one this year, I'd be feeling pretty proud of myself," he said. "Everybody would be feeling pretty good—except the 25 or 30 homes on the block that had the burglary."
It's All About Drugs
Elmhurst is certainly not alone when it comes to burglaries, Ruth said. From Palos Heights to Bensenville, whether it's gypsies, street gangs or individual thieves, the overriding reason people steal is to feed their drug habit.
"Narcotics drives it," Ruth said. "If you look at the people Elmhurst police have arrested, there is a strong narcotics component to it. They're breaking into homes to get money to buy drugs."
Elmhurst police are working with other communities to arrest burglars. Ruth said burglars get comfortable with their routines, and that's how they get caught.
"We're working smarter," he said. "We're capturing all this data—who we are arresting and where they are coming from. From that we can look at crime trends and work in a proactive fashion. We're creatures of habit. That's our nature—criminals, too. If it works, they keep doing it."
Burglars can tell what's inside a home by looking at clues, he said. If toys are laying around, that means kids are in the house. If kids are there, so are electronics, credit cards and ATM cards. Older residents usually have cash or collectibles.
"They're sizing up potential targets," Ruth said.
What Can We Do About It
Looking again at the number of attempted burglaries through October of this year, a 325 percent increase may indicate that residents are heeding the message from Elmhurst police on how to thwart these crimes.
We've all heard the importance of crime prevention through environmental design: keeping bushes low, using motion sensor lights and alarm systems, always locking doors and so forth. But the biggest thing is for the community to work in partnership with the police department, Ruth said.
Many residents have said they want to see more patrols on the streets, but Ruth said that is not going to solve the problem. If someone is sitting in a car in front of a house, only residents will know if it's the teenage neighbor's new boyfriend or someone up to no good, he said.
"If we put two or three additional police officers out there on the street, will that have a significant impact on residential burglaries? My personal answer is no," he said. "A police officer has to cross the path of that individual at the moment (they are committing a crime), then know that they are doing something, whereas a resident can say, 'Hey, I just had somebody knock on my door. It's probably nothing, but he rang my doorbell then walked this way.' We can get a description, broadcast it out on the radio, put patrol cars in that area and look for that person."
Residents often are hesitant to call for fear of bothering the police over nothing.
"If someone knocks on your door, give us a 911 call. We have patrol cars geographically located throughout the community," Ruth said. "They drive a couple of blocks, check the area. It's not a big deal. We encourage people to do that. It's the only way we're going to get a handle on this. Call us, call us, call us."
Ruth also intends to work with the community in setting up neighborhood watch groups.
"So many of us don't know our neighbors," Ruth said. "(Neighbors) meet once at someone's house and make a commitment to each other that I'm going to watch out for your house if you watch out for mine."
Then, when there is a burglary in town, police can get information to the block captains all over town who can hand out flyers in their areas.
"This will help us and bring the community and the police department together," Ruth said.
Burglaries probably are not going to stop completely. But there is a new sheriff in town, so to speak. Ruth wants residents to know that he will be visible in the community, accessible to residents and "leading from the front."
"Being a victim of crime is a very traumatic event," he said. "We need to spend time with (the victims), a little more communication, a little more feedback."
He said members of the police department want to take interaction with the community to a higher level. Residents appreciate that, too, he said.
"Taking a proactive role, sharing information—the community wants that," he said.
RELATED ARTICLES SINCE OCT. 5:
- Burglary and Attempted Burglary Reported This Week
- Several Attempted Burglaries Reported Over the Weekend
- Police Say House on Shady Lane was Burglarized While Resident Was at Home
- UPDATE: Police Capture Man They Believe Burglarized South Street Home on Monday
- More Burglaries Reported Despite Recent Arrests
- Police Nab Pair Suspected in Several Elmhurst Burglaries
- Four More Burglaries Reported in Recent Days
- Youngster House-sitting Cats Discovers Burglary
- Elmhurst Residents Lose Thousands of Dollars Worth of Items in Burglaries
- Two Homes Broken Into and a Car Stolen From a Driveway on Thursday
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