Roll Call: Do you feel safe? Many Americans are asking that very question

This is the first of two columns in which Tom Weitzel examines threats to safety in our communities.

Are we still safe? I believe that most Americans feel they are not safe. With the onslaught of carjackings, home invasions, violent sex crimes, assaults, burglaries and other violent crimes happening throughout Chicago and many nearby suburbs, I am moved to write this column. This will be a two-part column with today’s topic being “Do you feel safe?”

Webster’s dictionary defines crime as “an illegal act for which the government can punish someone; a grave offense especially against morality; something reprehensible, foolish or disgraceful.” On the other hand, safety is defined as “the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss.”

Whether you feel safe in America is a question that many of you ask yourself daily. One indication is whether you feel safe when you go out in your daily travels, commute to and from work and step out on weekends for dinner, a show or an amusement or festival. If you are refraining from attending these public events, it is likely due to not feeling safe in public areas and having some fear of being a victim of a violent crime.

One significant factor affecting whether you feel safe is your perception of crime. An October 2021 Gallup poll showed 51% of Americans felt local crime had worsened, up from 38% in 2020. In Chicago, it is reported that 64% of respondents to a recent poll said they felt unsafe. The only state reporting a higher rate of perception of worsening crime was New York at 70%. While crime, whether through direct or indirect experience, impacts everyone differently, the perception of growing corruption and criminal activity plays a critical role in individual decisions made every day.

Each of us makes daily decisions on our travel to and from work — in what direction we are going, which path we take, where we park and how far it is to the building in which we may work. There is no doubt that fewer and fewer commuters are traveling from the suburbans to the city of Chicago to work and some of that reduced travel is based on the fear of becoming victims of crime. This fear is not imagined. It is real as violent crime in the Chicago area has increased exponentially in some cases. There is genuine lawlessness on our streets – in Chicago and throughout the U.S. How did we get here?

This pervasive perception of lawlessness reflects citizens’ fear that illegal activity has no consequence. I have been on the record numerous times over the past several years stating that the Cook County State Attorney’s Office certainly practices selective prosecution and has tipped the scales for offenders and not victims. The court system in Cook County is in turmoil. Bond court has become nothing more than a turnstile, which has only been heightened since the SAFE-T-Act was fully enacted in September. The data numbers are still out on the impact of the SAFE-T-Act on your daily lives. Still, I do believe that when the data is released, we will see that repeat criminal offenders are released back to the streets over and over again, only to commit crimes against citizens over and over again. I can’t understand how this law was passed and supported by a majority of Illinoisans.

No doubt you have read recent stories in newspapers or seen reports on TV about more violent crime happening in suburban communities within the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Violent crimes have been reported in places where you would never imagine they would occur.

Recently, the Naperville Police Department made an arrest at the Topgolf Entertainment Center. They charged an individual from out of state who was carrying an automatic weapon in his vehicle, which was parked in the Topgolf parking lot. And more and more violent crimes have been reported in rural areas, including farming communities.

And the number of police officers shot in the line of duty also is on the uptick. So far this year, more than 290 police officers have been shot, not killed, but shot in the line of duty. In some instances, multiple officers were shot at a single event. Over a period of 12 days in San Antonio, six police officers were shot by repeat offenders who should never have been on the streets in the first place. If an offender can injure or shoot a police officer, fully uniformed in a fully marked squad car, there is no wonder the public’s fear of crime has exploded.

We are witnessing nightly takeovers of streets in Chicago by unruly individuals who close down intersections and drag race their cars around our city unchecked, sometimes firing fireworks and on some occasions shooting weapons into the air. Street robberies are happening in downtown Chicago and individuals are being robbed outside their homes while unloading their groceries.

In a recent case, an individual was shot after attending a wedding reception while exiting the hotel venue to walk to his car in a parking garage. In some instances, arrests are made. In others, the cases are still open, escalating the fear of lawlessness in America. This sounds grim, and in some cases, well, let me say that in most cases, it is.

My next Roll Call column will address what we as residents of our community can do to stem the growing trend of violent crime in America. There is hope, but it is up to us – individuals and organizations – to work together in reducing the fear of crime and lawlessness on the streets of America.

• Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.