Mundelein police effort: Just chat with residents

 
 
Updated 3/31/2017 7:05 PM
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  • Mundelein Public Safety Director Eric Guenther is promoting a departmental program that requires officers to informally chat with civilians at least three times every week.

    Mundelein Public Safety Director Eric Guenther is promoting a departmental program that requires officers to informally chat with civilians at least three times every week.

Knowing many people feel anxious when dealing with police officers, Mundelein police are trying to boost awareness of a departmental program designed to build community relationships and ease that tension.

Under the effort, every Mundelein police officer is required to chat face to face with residents at least three times a week. The conversations cannot be responses to calls to the department, and they can't be related to an officer's enforcement duties.

Officers simply need to get out of their squad cars, talk with people they encounter and briefly document the conversations afterward.

"If we want people to view us differently, then we have to start acting differently," Public Safety Director Eric Guenther said.

Guenther launched the initiative in April 2015, but it's been pretty low-key so far. He wants to build public awareness of the effort now because President Trump's anti-immigration and deportation policies have made some people extra leery of police.

Guenther has been critical of those policies, saying his officers won't help deport immigrants who haven't committed violent crimes or other felonies. He hopes the contact program helps build trust between immigrants and police.

Guenther also thinks the program can ease the minds of people who distrust police because of violent, headline-grabbing confrontations with officers in Chicago and elsewhere.

"It has never been more important than now," he said. "While we have an obligation to enforce the law, we also have an obligation to be the guardians of our community and our residents."

The program is a throwback to a time when police had neighborhood foot patrols that allowed them to chat with the people they encountered. That changed once officers began patrolling in cars and focusing on traffic enforcement.

"I would much rather see an officer get out of his or her car and have a meaningful conversation with someone," Guenther said. "In the end, that is far more likely to have a positive result."

Since the program launched, officers have reported 3,933 citizen contacts. The department has learned valuable information through the conversations, Guenther said, and not just about criminal activity.

"People want a new stop sign, a streetlight repaired, or neighbor to quiet a barking dog," Guenther said. "These are the quality-of-life issues that people really want handled, and the things we are likely never to know about unless we ask."

Terri Miller is among the people who've been approached for a chat. She said she initially was scared when an officer knocked on her front door in January, but she relaxed when he told her about the outreach effort.

They primarily talked about Mundelein's neighborhood watch program.

"It's kind of cool the way they get to know us and the way we get to know them," Miller said.

Guenther admitted officers initially were slow to embrace the project, but he believes they've come around.

"I think our citizens want and deserve friendly, compassionate, and professional police officers that are here to look out for their best interests," he said.

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