East Chicago Police Use Feet to Fight Crime
By: Hilary Powell
September 29, 2014 — It is a dangerous year for some Northwest Indiana residents and the people who serve them.
In the past two months, two area police officers have been killed: Gary patrolman Jeffrey Westerfield and Merrillville patrolman Nicklaus Schultz.
But in one Northwest Indiana city, reported crime is at its lowest level in two decades — in part because officers are taking some old school tactics to the streets. They’re not taking public safety threats sitting down.
This week, business owner Ruben Alamillo got a talking to by East Chicago police.
Standing outside his record shop on indianapolis boulevard he says it’s a chat long overdue.
“It’s a good thing, you know,” he says. “I think they need to go in and show a little bit more presence cause that’s why you know a lot of these guys are running around with guns because um, you know I don’t feel that there’s enough police presence you know, as far as uh in the neighborhoods. You know, you see them on the main streets and stuff like that but you know, i don’t feel that um, these guys are not intimidated.”
East Chicago Police and members of the Region STOP Team canvassed several blocks in East Chicago’s business area. It’s a practice that’s been repeated every few weeks this year —and a dialogue meant to be a deterrent to crime.
“We got feedback that they feel a lot more safer,” says sergeant Juan Beltran. “They feel that it’s a good thing that the police are going out there. Sometimes the feedback is that they feel a disconnect with law enforcement and the community like us against them.”
Beltran, a 20-year veteran, says by taking the office outside, he is able to talk about everything from gang violence to garbage pickup. Beltran says it’s a chance to take the pulse of the community.
“You get to know the demographics of the community economic wise, transient wise,” he says. “Where before it used to be a lot of homes, now they’re converting them into apartments. It’s trying to build a relationship with someone that’s an out of towner.”
He says meeting residents on their own territory makes it a conversation not a confrontation.
Here, the law enforcers do most of the listening.
“I called a few times you know what I’m saying just to go ahead and be like hey man these guys are up to no good,” Alamillo says.
An August 2014 FBI report shows violent crime in East Chicago rose in the first six months of the year to 109 incidents. In a city blog post, Chief Mark Becker says the city has experienced fewer property crimes in that same time, down from 775 to less than 600.
Though the city recorded its lowest crime totals in over 18 years in a 2013 FBI report, Alamillo and STOP Team detective will askew both agree their home city was once safer.
“It wasn’t nearly as much violence at all, you know, you could leave your bikes out all day,” East Chicago police detective Will Askew says. “You could leave your car doors unlocked.”
Askew says he knows how to talk to residents who have been victims of violent crime because he was once one of them.
“What really pushed me to be a police officer because, my mom was murdered in 1995 in Gary, Ind. and when that happened it kind of changed me a lot,” he says.
“By me being out here in the streets all day, you know 8 hours 16 hours a day, it seems like I am helping present, uh prevent those things from happening. It was almost like therapy for me, uh being a police officer.”
East Chicago Police also say residents don’t have to wait to be contacted by authorities. They remind people there’s also an anonymous tip line at 219-391-8500.