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updated: 7/7/2014 1:32 PM

Naperville keeping crime-free housing program voluntary

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Naperville is not among a growing number of communities requiring landlords to participate in a police-led program to decrease crime at rental properties.

That's not to say there is no crime in apartment complexes in Naperville. Batteries, thefts, burglaries and domestic problems are reported at apartments across the city just like they would be anywhere else, Brian Cunningham, deputy chief of investigations, said.

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But Naperville police think they can better reduce crime in such complexes by using a voluntary version of the crime-free housing program with landlords who actually want to clean up their communities, rather than by forcing all of them to join a program and go through the motions.

"Then you know you have some motivated people, if it's voluntary," Cunningham said.

The "motivated people" he speaks of are more likely to run background checks on prospective tenants, provide adequate lighting and make sure people aren't using common areas for illegal purposes, all of which help curtail crime in apartment complexes.

Police say they are hoping more property managers will join the voluntary crime-free housing program they have been running for almost a dozen years as the region continues the fight against the drug trade and heroin abuse.

The first step, Crime Prevention Specialist Julie Smith says, is "getting the police more involved in your community."

Smith said she talks to many people in apartment complexes that have not joined Naperville's voluntary crime-free housing program. "They talk about residents seeming scared or not wanting to go out in common areas," she said.

More than a dozen apartment complexes in Naperville have taken the program's first step, and 11 have completed the other two phases necessary to become certified as a crime-free housing participant, Smith said.

The first step in the program involves a two-hour seminar run by police about tenant screening procedures and crime prevention strategies. The next seminar is at 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 6, at Naperville police headquarters, 1350 Aurora Ave., and registration is required at naperville.il.us/cfmhpseminar.aspx.

Smith said seminars teach how to be good property managers, how to conduct background checks and how to prevent crime with steps as simple as reminding residents they can call police without having to give their name.

Managers of complexes as well as owners who rent single-family homes or townhouses can attend the seminars, but only those who oversee more than one property can continue to the second phase, Smith said.

In this phase, Smith visits the property and evaluates whether environmental changes could decrease the likelihood of crime.

"I go out and talk about landscaping and lighting and anything else that would make their property safer," Smith said.

Adding more light to parking areas and properly maintaining pools and tennis courts can help ensure they function only as parking areas, pools and tennis courts -- not corners for drug deals.

"If something is not being used for its intended purpose, it could invite criminal behavior," Smith said.

Property managers might have to pay to make the changes Smith outlines in her environmental safety visit. But some fixes can be as simple as trimming bushes away from windows.

For changes with higher price tags, Smith said she allows property managers to devise a one-year or three-year plan for when upgrades fit into their budget.

The final step toward crime-free housing certification is hosting what Smith called a "safety social," an optional resident meeting about crime prevention. Many communities like to combine this meeting with a celebration of National Night Out, which this year takes place on Tuesday, Aug. 5.

Cunningham said police are hearing something of a push to make the crime-free housing program mandatory, but the plan for now is to encourage as much voluntary participation as possible by promoting the benefits of developing a relationship with police.

The 11 properties whose managers have reached full certification receive monthly reports about all calls for police service to their location, and Smith said they're welcome to follow up with her to find out more about what happened.

"They're able to get a better picture of what's going on at their property and if there are problems," Smith said. "They're able to make good decisions on their tenants."

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