During the past decade, crime has decreased in urban areas, but, subsequently, some rural communities have experienced an increase because offenders have been forced away from large cities. (1) This trend threatens the quality of life in many suburban and rural areas. Therefore, a growing number of townships are taking a proactive posture against this movement by focusing on community-based crime prevention programs, which unite communities in the fight to thwart the spread of crime.
McDonough County, Illinois, is in the western part of the state with a population of approximately 40,000 and includes Macomb, a university town of 20,000 residents plus 12,000 college students. Although Macomb offers a family friendly atmosphere with a low crime rate, harbingers of gang and drug activities surfaced, perhaps from an influx of individuals seeking a haven from the increased law enforcement efforts in larger cities. Drug arrests began to occur and evidence of graffiti appeared. Therefore, citizens of Macomb decided to handle these problems by drawing from their community-based, crime prevention program experiences. Macomb's results may serve as a model for other cities confronting similar trends.
Many of today's crime prevention approaches are based on an experiment conducted in a New Jersey community years ago, which spotlighted the importance of maintaining neighborhoods to keep communities relatively crime free. (2) The broken windows theory holds that such issues as street maintenance and lighting, limits on the number of families living in a single dwelling, and control of absentee landlord rentals reduce crime. Additionally, attention to minor infractions that erode well-kept, safe environments, such as loud music, abandoned cars, and graffiti, can prevent the spread of gang violence, drug abuse, and other criminal conduct. Macomb applied the broken windows concept in a rural environment by forming community partnerships that result in a continuous focus on quality-of-life issues.
In early 1994, Macomb formed a Crime and Quality of Life Advisory Committee, changing the name in 1996 to Community Quality of Life Committee and expanding the purview to include all of McDonough County. The committee seeks "to support efforts that contribute to the excellence of our community and to monitor and give advice regarding maintaining and enhancing community quality of life, including the prevention and reduction of crimes that adversely impact our neighborhoods." (3)
The committee recruited concerned citizens who have a responsibility for quality of life and criminal justice academicians from the local university, as well as other community leaders. Several committee members, such as the fire chief, sheriff, mayor, school superintendent, executive director of the housing authority, and the local state senator, were selected because their positions have the responsibility and authority to provide a prospering neighborhood.
The major responsibility of the advisory committee involves developing a method for measuring the quality of life in the community, setting a baseline, and monitoring its status. To complete this task, a criminal justice research specialist (a member of the committee) and graduate assistants from the local university's department of law enforcement and justice administration analyzed 26 years of crime trends in Macomb and McDonough County, comparing them with eight contiguous counties and totals for the state of Illinois. They selected "community wellness" indicators (e.g., poverty and welfare rates, per capita income, single parent families, births by mothers under 18 years of age, truancy violations, and emergency room admissions) from their research.
The committee meets at least four times a year, and members review these indicators. Then, they publish a community "report card" or "wellness report." Any indication that the community is adversely affected requires recommendations for combating the negative factors before they become substantial problems.
As a result of the crime trend analysis, committee members noted early signs of substance abuse and gang involvement in the crime trends. As a result, the committee formed a youth task force that meets monthly. The task force determines the extent of the problem, confirms what is being done about the issue, recognizes any unnecessary duplication of services, decides the need for additional action and what it should be, and recommends steps that advisory committee members should take.
The school superintendent and a local religious leader oversee the youth task force. Several of the advisory committee members, such as the police chief and director of the housing authority, serve on the task force as well. Additionally, persons who deal daily with youth problems comprise part of the task force, along with an individual from the university who is an expert in substance abuse problems.
Task force members have made several recommendations, such as school dress codes, truancy enforcement, a youth teen center, and ordinances to restrict alcohol and tobacco use by minors to combat the growing crime trend. At the youth center, teens socialize in a nonalcoholic environment and participate in an annual film festival. Also, the task force uses the local cable television channel and area newspapers to alert parents about gangs and substance abuse among teens.
Task force members collected information about nearly 100 community activities available to youths and conveyed it to parents and teens through the local media and a Web site. They also made the information available to practitioners who deal with young people in trouble. Members encouraged police officers to divert underage offenders to these community activities, rather than counseling and releasing them.
Additionally, when rental property inhabited by students around the local university began to deteriorate, the task force recommended an adopt-a-street program, which made various university student organizations responsible for preserving quality of life in their own neighborhoods. This program, implemented throughout the police department, has proven successful.
The advisory committee recommended spotlighting people who and activities that enhance well-maintained communities. This evolved into a yearly event held each September and includes exhibits and demonstrations by most county public safety agencies. Local schools bring students to the event where thousands of community members meet police, fire, emergency, and rescue officers. Community members have the opportunity to thank these public employees and have their pictures taken with them, pet the police dogs, climb the fire equipment, sound the police siren, and perform other such activities. The celebration includes a supplement in the local newspaper that commends and provides photographs of members of the county public safety agencies. The committee gives awards to individual agencies, as well as to citizens who contribute to a safe community. This yearly event fosters communication and trust between the public safety agencies and the community and promotes awareness of the relationship between public safety and community quality of life. During the past 10 years, nearly 100 citizens and organizations have been honored for their contributions to local quality of life.
As crime, particularly drug use and gang violence, seeps into smaller communities, some townships are implementing procedures to deter its spreading. The crime prevention and quality-of-life effort in McDonough County, Illinois, seeks to prevent this ever-increasing threat. An advisory committee oversees the program and promotes cooperation and coordination among the various entities that have a responsibility for ensuring a flourishing community.
The committee established and continually monitors community wellness indicators. When these indicators disclose the beginning signs of activities that adversely will impact quality of life, committee members create task forces to recommend remedies. Then, these solutions are implemented through the committee and aim to prevent community infections before they become serious.
When this project began in the early 1990s, crime had begun its downward trend across the country. (4) However, in Macomb, Illinois, as in many smaller communities, crime was on the rise. After the implementation of this program, crime has decreased and quality of life has become a hallmark of the community.
Anyone involved in resolving social problems realizes that no perfect solutions exist. However, insightful, preventative activities can inhibit and even preclude many adverse conditions that result in the deterioration of community quality of life and the increase of crime. The approach taken by McDonough County may serve as a useful model to other localities working to prevent crime and preserve a nurturing community.
(1) Dr. Michael Hazlett, Western Illinois University, Department of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration, "Community Quality of Life 1993-1994," Community Wellness Factor Report.
(2) For more information on this topic, see Frank Perry, "Repairing Broken Windows: Preventing Corruption Within Our Ranks," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2001, 23-26; and J.Q. Wilson and G. Kelling, "The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows," The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982, 29-38.
(3) The mission statement is restated in the minutes of the first Crime and Quality of Life Advisory Committee (CQLAC) meeting each year. These minutes are kept by the current CQLAC chair, Mr. Bill Jacob, Executive Director, McDonough County Housing Authority, 322 West Piper Street, Macomb, Illionois 61455.
(4) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 1992 (Washington, DC, 1993).
RELATED ARTICLE: Community Wellness Indicators
* Population size, density, age, ethnicity, and education
* Single parent families
* Births by mothers under 18 years of age
* Poverty, welfare, unemployment, and rental and unoccupied property rates
* Per capita income
* Retail and wholesale sales
* Property tax assessment
* Tax revenues
* Ratio of police officers and firefighters per 1,000 residents
* Index crimes
* Arrest index
* Traffic accidents
* Emergency room admissions
* Calls for emergency services
* Reports of school confrontation and truancy
By Clyde L. Cronkhite, D.P.A.
Dr. Cronkhite, a former police practitioner, is a law enforcement and justice administration professor, commentator, and consultant at Western Illinois University in Macomb.…