Belleville residents discuss whether they feel safe in the city
Alicia Bradley, who lives on South 27th Street, said she feels safe in her Belleville home and is happy with the police presence she sees.
But Liz Hoffman says she doesn’t consider her East D Street home safe and keeps a loaded handgun for protection.
The opposing viewpoints of Bradley and Hoffman reflect the views of the candidates they support in the April 4 mayoral election. Bradley backs Mayor Mark Eckert, who considers his Blair Avenue home safe. Hoffman will cast a mayoral vote for City Clerk Dallas Cook, who says he does not feel safe in his Lucinda Avenue home.
Cook raised the issue during a candidate forum last month when he said: “I don’t feel safe in my home. Not one bit.”
We have a loaded gun in a gun safe, and if I have to use it, I have to use it. I am scared; I really am. I feel nervous coming home. It kind of scares me coming home that late at night being home by myself.
Belleville resident Liz Hoffman
Bradley attended that forum, and when it was her turn to ask a question, she noted that she was from Chicago and that she felt safe in Belleville.
“We’ve been here now 16 years, and I can say that I feel safe with our public safety, their response time,” Bradley said in an interview. “As far as crime, threatening ... my home, that has not been the case.”
“When he said that, I empathize with him, but I couldn’t imagine him growing up here and wanting to run for office and literally standing there and saying that. That’s just my personal preference because if that’s the case, then I’m taking my family and I’m running for the hills.
“But I feel safe.”
Bradley, whose husband, Michael Bradley, is a firefighter for the city, said she and her neighbors are in constant contact with each other. “Neighbor communication is our first line of defense,” she said.
Hoffman described a different scenario in her neighborhood.
Three people have been arrested in her neighborhood just in the past two weeks, Hoffman said.
“We have a loaded gun in a gun safe, and if I have to use it, I have to use it,” Hoffman said. “I am scared; I really am. I feel nervous coming home. It kind of scares me coming home that late at night being home by myself.”
We’ve been here now 16 years, and I can say that I feel safe with our public safety, their response time. As far as crime, threatening ... my home, that has not been the case.
Belleville resident Alicia Bradley
Hoffman and her husband, Charles Hoffman, have security cameras monitoring their home. Liz Hoffman said she locks all the doors even when she is at home because “I don’t feel safe anymore. I feel that crime is getting worse in Belleville, not better.”
When officers were making one of the recent arrests in her neighborhood, Hoffman said she watched the scene unfold.
“I thought I was watching ‘CSI.’”
Along with talking to Hoffman and Bradley about public safety issues, the BND interviewed Cook and Eckert about what steps they would take to fight crime, the direction of the police department and whether more officers can be hired. Eckert and Cook offered differing views on how to handle public safety.
Here’s a closer look on where they stand:
Public safety in Belleville
Cook, 31, said that since the candidate forum last month, there was a series of car break-ins in his neighborhood.
“It makes you wonder who is walking within steps of your home,” Cook said. “OK, maybe some people left their car unlocked and somebody broke into a car. You think, ‘Well at least they didn’t break into my home.’
“Well no, that’s a criminal that is right at your doorstep. That concerns me. I have young children. I’m afraid to go out of town and leave Erica and our children at home. That’s a problem for me.”
In response to Cook’s view, Eckert, 61, said he feels “very safe in Belleville.”
“But more importantly, I feel very, extremely safe in my own home,” he said. “I thought it was pretty tragic to hear that he didn’t feel safe and he was fearful in his home. It’s his own perspective. Unfortunately, I think this year’s campaign and probably the last one I went through was tried to be driven by fear by some of the candidates, and I don’t think using fear helps grow our city.
“I know that every city has crime,” Eckert said. “I was a policeman. My father was a policeman for 25 years here in Belleville. I’m not naive, but I do not feel unsafe in this community.”
Eckert said he served as a sheriff’s deputy for one year, and his father served in the city from the 1950s to the ’70s.
Belleville had 471 burglaries reported to the police last year. That was the same number as in 2002. Since 2000, the number of burglaries in town ranged between 321 and 500.
Overall, the city had 1,921 major crimes reported in 2016, which was up slightly from the previous year, but the number of these crimes has been trending downward since 2007, when 2,492 major crimes were reported.
Belleville’s proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year that starts on May 1 includes $9.95 million for the police department, which would be 35.53 percent of the city’s general fund used for day-to-day operations. The police department’s budget is by far the largest one in the general fund. Aldermen will consider this budget in April.
What would you tell a Belleville resident who does not feel safe?
Eckert: “If they do say that, I think what we have to do is we need to listen with them. We will send out one of our people from the police department to come and sit down with them. Maybe they have a drug house in their neighborhood we didn’t know about.”
“Sometimes one property can bring fear into a whole square block, so we need to know. We need to hear from the folks, and then we’ll sit down and we’ll listen with them, and sometimes we can resolve some very serious concerns and fears with some understanding better of what they’re facing.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of a good, old-fashioned knock-and-talk and letting them know that we’re not going to tolerate some of those kinds of behaviors, the negative behaviors.”
Belleville’s proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year that starts on May 1 includes $9.95 million for the police department, which would be 35.53 percent of the city’s general fund used for day-to-day operations.
Cook: “I’m going to tell them that I’m really sorry. I’m sorry that you have to feel that way. I’m sorry that you are paying sky-high property taxes and that you’re not protected. Your most basic need is not being taken care of, that you don’t feel safe.
“I feel that it is a shame. I feel that it is really sad that we have to watch our property values decline due to crime, and we still yet have to pay higher property taxes. I feel really sorry about that. However, that’s why I’m running for mayor, and I plan to do something about that.”
Plans for police department
When Cook announced last year that he was running for mayor, he said if he was elected, he would appoint a new police chief.
Police Chief Bill Clay was appointed by Eckert in 2007.
Cook, who has been city clerk since 2013, said if elected mayor he would appoint someone currently on the police department’s staff, but he said he could not release this person’s name, and he has not yet interviewed this person.
“I plan to change the leadership at the police department not because I think the current police chief is a bad guy. I don’t have anything against him whatsoever,” Cook said. “I just think it’s time for a change. I think we need new ideas, a new direction, new ways to work with the current funding that we have to make policing more effective.”
Cook added, “The Belleville Police Department is extremely top heavy. There are way too many detectives and individuals that are sitting behind a desk, or for lack of a better way of saying it, walking around with a coffee cup around the police department. I want to see them in their cars, I want to see them out in the streets. I want to see more patrols, more cops on the street at night.”
Eckert, who has been mayor since 2004, praised the city’s police force.
“We’ve got to keep working and quit spreading the doom and gloom,” Eckert said. “Spreading fear, it only scares people.
“We have a great police department,” Eckert said. “I’m very proud of them.”
The department has 85 “well-trained” officers, Eckert said. The officers moved into a new headquarters at 720 W. Main St. last summer, and they have new computers to help them work more inefficiently, he said.
Eckert said the department will start a Citizen Police Academy in April and also has plans to revive the city’s reserve police force to help officers during events such as Art on the Square, parades and high school football games.
Hiring new officers
Eckert said he would like to see the police department grow with the hiring of additional officers.
“We have to continue to grow,” Eckert said. “We’re going to continue to invite and entice more business to Belleville that will produce sales tax. That’s the way we got to do it.”
“It’s easy to say, ‘We’re going to hire a bunch of new cops.’ But you’ve got to be able to pay for them,” Eckert said. He said the city needs to budget $82,000 to hire one officer for his or her first year on the force. This amount includes the cost of training, salary and other benefits.
It’s easy to say, ‘We’re going to hire a bunch of new cops.’ But you’ve got to be able to pay for them.
Mayor Mark Eckert
Eckert said the city possibly could hire new officers by using tax increment financing, or TIF, funds produced at the Hofbrauhaus development off Illinois 15 because the district abuts communities that are “very vulnerable to crime.”
“We have the ability for the first time to actually use TIF money to hire a couple of cops,” Eckert said. “Now we’re not there yet, but that is something that we’re looking at.”
Construction on the $12 million Hofbräuhaus German restaurant and brewery began in late 2015, but the developers have not announced when it will open. Hotels, restaurants, a conference center, soccer park and convenience store have been proposed for the site off Illinois 15, but none of the businesses have gotten off the ground.
“Sure we need police officers,” Eckert said. “But we also need parks. We need programs, and we need good schools, and we need to have people who volunteer in the community because when you do those things you create an atmosphere where good people want to live and where people who might be borderline to be drawn to some wrongdoing, ... they will tend to be introduced to positive things. It’s not just hiring cops, it’s about having a community, you know, being a community of character, being part of a volunteer spirit.
“We need to be involved and get ourselves involved in our neighborhood watches. We need to talk to each other. Good communications with your neighbor and the police will solve many things,” Eckert said.
Cook said the city can hire more officers by changing where the city spends its money.
I believe with a change in the prioritization of the funds the city currently spends, that absolutely we can hire more officers. We just have to make fighting crime the No. 1 priority.
City Clerk Dallas Cook
“I believe that currently, the city does not have another dime to spend on anything, that the city is strapped,” Cook said.
“I believe with a change in the prioritization of the funds the city currently spends, that absolutely we can hire more officers. We just have to make fighting crime the No. 1 priority. The priority cannot be to give money to private businesses.
“The priority can’t be to take care of friends and family and department heads and overpaid employees who aren’t doing the work. That can’t be the priority. The priority has got to be fighting crime, and fighting crime happens on the streets. It doesn’t happen behind closed and locked doors. It doesn’t happen behind a police department that a regular citizen can’t even get in. That’s not fighting crime; that’s not working with your community.
“We fight crime by getting into our schools right away, talking to young people about the dangers to themselves by committing crimes.”
Cook said the city as whole does not need the number of supervisors currently on staff.
“So massive change needs to take place in the city of Belleville,” he said. “And will some higher-paid employees lose their job? Yeah, it’s possible, but not the union jobs, not the rank and file .... They’re here to stay. However, the top heaviness of the city of Belleville has got to go.”