Last year was an unusual year for any number of reasons, from the pandemic to mass demonstrations and civil unrest to a two-month long challenge of a presidential election.

It was also an unusual year for crime in the village of Riverside, where the number of serious violent and property crimes rose after seeing decreases during the six prior years. 

At the village board’s March 4 meeting, Police Chief Thomas Weitzel announced an 18-percent increase in the number of crimes that are tracked annually for what’s known as the Uniform Crime Report, submitted annually to the Illinois State Police by all law enforcement agencies in the state.

 The data is used by the FBI to compile a nationwide report on the kinds of violent and property crimes the federal agency deems the most serious: murder, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault/battery, burglary, theft, vehicle theft and arson.

Many crimes are not included in the Uniform Crime Report, including drug offenses, impaired driving and many other misdemeanor crimes.

Riverside logged 117 crimes in its 2020 Uniform Crime Report, up from 99 in 2019. While that represents an 18-percent overall increase, it also represents just 18 more crimes – identical to the increased number of theft complaints in 2020 compared to the prior year.

“This is a very unusual year because of the pandemic, to say the least,” Weitzel told trustees at last week’s meeting. “But even overall our crime is very low. Small communities like Riverside with a small population and small, reduced crime, any fluctuation in those numbers, those percentages are going to look more alarming than they actually are.

“I would caution everyone that this is an extremely safe community. Statistically it will say 18 percent, but overall our crime is very low.”

As has been the case for the past two decades, there were no murders reported in Riverside in 2020 and reports of criminal sexual assault were also down. Aggravated assault/battery, where there have been five or fewer incidents reported during the past three years was up by one in 2020, to three.

Riverside did report its highest number of robberies in 2020 in at least 17 years. In a year that saw robberies spike area wide with a rash of carjacking incidents in Chicago and the west suburbs, Riverside was not immune.

There were eight robberies reported in Riverside last year, five more than in 2019 and the most since 2009, when there were six. In the past three years, there have been 15 robberies in Riverside following three years in which there were none at all.

In terms of property crime, there were 15 burglaries in Riverside in 2020, four fewer than occurred the prior year. Where the village saw the largest single jump in incidents was in the category of theft. There were 88 thefts reported in 2020, the largest total in four years and a 25-percent jump over the 70 thefts reported in 2019.

“Historically, Riverside’s number one crime index column is always property crime, whether that be burglary or theft,” Weitzel said. “Almost 40 percent of those thefts were from motor vehicles, and those motor vehicles were not locked. In the entire year we only had four cars that were physically broken into.”

Patrol activity down across the board

The pandemic had a tremendous impact on patrol activities, with calls for service, crash reports, arrests, traffic and parking tickets down across the board.

Part of the decline can be attributed to the early months of the pandemic when the state was operating under a general stay-at-home order, with most businesses closed and motor traffic greatly diminished.

There were 119 fewer traffic crashes reported in Riverside in 2020 compared to the previous year, a 36-percent decline while total arrests were down 38 percent from 303 in 2019 to 188 in 2020.

In an effort to limit police officers’ exposure to COVID-19, Weitzel also issued several directives that affected patrol activities, including pausing grant-funded traffic enforcement efforts.

Those directives were essential, Weitzel said, to prevent what could have been a debilitating virus outbreak among police officers.

“When the pandemic hit, we made the conscious decision to limit officers’ contact with the public to any extent we could,” Weitzel said. “For a small agency like Riverside, if we had a large outbreak of COVID-19 in our department it would have been devastating.”

One particular aspect of local enforcement that fell off the charts in 2020 was in the total number of citations – parking, equipment violations and traffic tickets – written by police officers and community service officers.

Traffic tickets were down 65 percent and parking tickets were down by almost 56 percent compared to 2019. In all, police wrote 2,250 citations last year — nearly 4,000 fewer than the 6,021 written by Riverside police in 2019.

Weitzel told trustees that now that nearly every police department employee has been vaccinated against COVID-19, he has already begun rescinding some of those pandemic-related directives, including restarting the special traffic enforcement patrols and resuming routine traffic enforcement.