ROCKFORD – The sight of Officer Jeff Oberts striding down Broadway might be enough to instill fear in the heart of any criminal.
But for J&L Penny Market owner Luis Garcia, the sight of the police officer’s unmistakable bald head, friendly smile and 6-foot, 7-inch frame on foot patrol instills something else entirely: a sense of safety and ease.
“It’s pretty helpful because we can get comfortable in our businesses,” Garcia said, noting that while police are around, the groups of people who often loiter on Broadway and drive away business disappear.
Garcia just wishes the police patrols could be around more often.
In a measure that will remain a year-round fixture barring bad weather, Chief Chet Epperson has reintroduced Rockford to foot patrols that harken back to another era.
Epperson said foot patrols were used temporarily last year and often are viewed as an old-fashioned approach to police work. Anecdotally, they have for three decades been thought to improve relationships between police, residents and business owners.
It’s also becoming viewed as a tool of law enforcement in a modern urban area – especially in select high crime areas or in places that experience a sudden spike in crime. Evidence is mounting that not only do foot patrols build better relationships between police, merchants and residents, they also fight crime.
An academic study published last year, “The Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment,” teamed Temple University researchers with more than 200 Philadelphia police officers walking beats in high-crime areas. It found that foot patrols drove violent crime down by 23 percent in high-crime areas during the three-month study.
Epperson ordered foot patrols last month along the Broadway business district during the day, along East State Street downtown at night and in select areas on an as-needed basis.
“We have had very good feedback from business owners and tenants on Broadway and in the Seventh Street area,” he said. “We have come across intoxicated people, people living in places where they aren’t supposed to be. When people see that officer patrolling, that fear of crime in a particular area goes away.”
On his Broadway patrol recently, Oberts said he and other officers periodically are assigned to self-directed foot patrols in two-hour shifts.
Business owners and residents have been very supportive and, if anything, would like the officers to be around more often. Oberts has been pleasantly surprised by the power of getting out of the squad car.
“It gets us in touch with the community on a level that I have never experienced,” the Rockford native said.