Spike in downtown violence grabs Naperville’s atttention

Naperville sees spike in violence

In the wake of two violent fights and a recent armed robbery, Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall says he has a plan for making downtown safer.

He just needs time to see it through.

Marshall told city council members Tuesday his staff has been tracking data related to some disturbing trends in downtown.

“We’ve had a trend of relatively serious crimes since our school resource officers (left downtown patrols and) went back into the schools in the middle of August,” Marshall said. “We’ve had two violent fights and an armed robbery. So we’ve changed our focus to be more proactive in downtown.”

Marshall said the department’s liquor liaison officer, once charged with administrative duties, is now on the streets with patrol officers during busy bar times. Four additional officers, on overtime, have been added to increase police presence on weekends. And the city’s liquor attorney and prosecutor, Jill Wilger, has begun training officers to make them more aware of the city’s liquor laws.

Marshall also plans on asking the council to approve plans for five cameras in addition to the five already positioned in downtown.

“We’ve got the downtown covered pretty well but there are some areas where visibility isn’t the greatest,” he said. “We need to have our parking garages fully covered, especially as we’ve learned of the tailgating atmosphere that has gained in popularity there. We’re seeing more and more people drinking and doing illegal narcotics in or around their cars in the garages before they even enter any of our establishments.”

City council members briefly debated the merits of several additional measures, including pushing up closing times one hour each night of the week and taking steps against specific business owners found to be in violation of the city’s liquor laws, including overserving patrons.

Ultimately they decided to allow Marshall time for his plan to produce results. But some council members made it clear there was one part of Marshall’s approach they oppose.

Marshall said he believes violence often can be attributed to overcrowding in bars. An accidental bump can lead to a shove, he said. So he asked the fire department to partner with police to enforce capacity limits in downtown establishments.

“Sometimes these establishments get rather crowded between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., so we’ve asked the fire department to partner with us and assist us with capacity checks as well as fire code violations,” Marshall said. “We don’t want them to get involved in any enforcement objectives because that’s not their responsibility. They provide us with additional presence while also checking capacities.”

Several council members, however, surprised Marshall and Deputy Fire Chief Rick Sander with their vocal disapproval.

Councilman Doug Krause doesn’t want firefighters in the bars late at night.

“Someone who’s having a fight or whatever may look at the uniform and question the authority. I’m concerned about the liability that the police department is exposing the fire department to for a workman’s comp claim,” Krause said. “All you need is one injury that can be life-threatening to a firefighter. Their job is not to be out there breaking up fights and my concern is that’s what it’s being used for.”

Councilman Grant Wehrli said he also “balks” at having uniformed firefighters in bars to give the illusion of increased police presence. Councilman Paul Hinterlong agreed, saying he is concerned for the well-being of the firefighters.

“I don’t want (firefighters) being in the wrong place at the wrong time and have something happen that shouldn’t happen,” he said. “Then we have the argument about should they have been there or shouldn’t they.”

Marshall said Wednesday he was surprised by the negative reaction.

“(Fire) Chief (Mark) Puknaitis and I thought we had a really good plan here and I still do,” Marshall said. “(Tuesday) night was the first I’ve heard of any concerns for the firefighters’ safety so I’ll meet with Chief Puknaitis and make sure none of his firefighters believe they are being placed in harm’s way.”

Puknaitis is away, attending a conference, but Sander said Wednesday the concern is much ado about nothing.

“At no time did our members feel like they were in danger,” Sander said. ”We are strictly checking occupancy limits and hazards like blocked exits. We are not there to assist police in any police matters.”

Marshall said he will meet with Puknaitis when he returns. He also is scheduled to discuss his enforcement plan with the city’s liquor commission.

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