Naperville police Chief Robert Marshall is just five months into his revamped downtown enforcement plan and he and city leaders already are calling it a success.
The reassignment of several police officers into the downtown and the "buy-in" and cooperation from bar owners, they say, has all but eliminated the more violent crimes that made headlines last year and raised questions about the safety of downtown on weekend nights.
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"Our bar owners, especially, but all of our downtown merchants have bought into the plan and taking responsibility for the downtown," Marshall said after presenting council members with a memo this week outlining its success. "The bar owners have put their competition aside for the betterment of the downtown and are talking to each other and talking to us regularly about ways to prevent problems they've endured in the past. So it's working."
Beginning in September and running through mid-January, four additional officers were moved downtown between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays to focus on disorderly conduct issues, public intoxication and urination, and underage drinking. According to Marshall's memo, the officers contributed 591 hours of additional police coverage and cost the city nearly $35,000 in overtime costs.
"Last year we had a tragic murder, an armed robbery and two very violent beatings that sent all participants to the hospital," Marshall said. "As far as violent crimes go, that is a very low number, but our goal is zero. And in the five months since we've enacted our plan (in September), that's exactly what we have."
Marshall's plan also has called for increased training for both police and bar employees, more meetings between police and owners, and the use of firefighters during the late hours to check for overcrowding situations.
Jim Bergeron, owner of Jimmy's Grill and a member of the Naperville Restaurant Association, said downtown establishment owners constantly have been trying to improve communication among themselves and the city. But by and large, he believes safety concerns in the downtown to be a "nonissue exasperated by the media."
"Have we had a couple of violent, tragic incidents? Yes. Have we learned from them? Absolutely. Could any of them been handled any better? I'm not so sure," Bergeron said. "You've got to understand that every owner down here is extremely vested in their businesses and works very hard to maintain a safe and fun environment. I think we've been tremendously successful in doing that."
Mayor George Pradel also praised Marshall and the business community for working to change what he called a negative perception.
"There is a perception that it's not safe to come downtown after 10 p.m.," Pradel said. "Our police are doing their part and we've told the business community they are also responsible to make that perception go away."
So far, Pradel says the joint effort has been a success.
"It's going to be hard to change overnight the perception that we have. And it's going to be hard to change the attitude of our merchants, but everyone is doing a great job," he said.
Pradel even held up BlackFinn American Saloon, an establishment he punished with early closure for a week in November, as being a leader in the movement. A BlackFinn owner recently demonstrated the bar's new electronic ID scanner at a meeting for other downtown owners.
"That is someone who got the message and is making the most of their second chance," Pradel said. "They're now leading the way."
Marshall called the electronic ID scanner technology a great tool in reducing the number of underage drinkers in the establishments.
"Underage drinkers in your establishment is a problem waiting to happen and you need to eliminate that from any equation," Marshall said. "There's nothing more to say about that."
While Marshall has high hopes for the future of downtown and has received high praise for his plan, he acknowledges the spring and summer drinking season, and the crowds that come with it, have not yet been tested.
"St. Patrick's Day isn't a huge thing downtown but it's fair to say that's usually when the spring and outdoor elements come more into play," Marshall said. "My staff is currently developing our enforcement plan for St. Patrick's Day and beyond."
Marshall will report back to the city council in May regarding his summer enforcement plan. He said he needs to find a way to replace all of the school resource officers that get pulled from downtown and placed in local schools in mid-August.
"Regardless the time of year, our mission is simple. We will ensure public safety in downtown so that everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience," Marshall said. "Those who choose to violate our codes and laws will be held accountable."