Southeast Urbana crime raises concerns
URBANA — Crime in southeast Urbana is "like a wave coming in," resident Pat Johnson says.
He moved to the area in the mid-1990s to raise his children, and just 15 years ago or so, he did not worry about break-ins or beatings.
"I never locked my doors. I never locked my car," Johnson said. "You didn't have to. There was no crime in southeast Urbana."
Ed Bruner has lived there for much longer: since 1962. Most of his years were spent in peace, he said. But now, he and his wife worry if they have to park out too far in the County Market lot on Philo Road.
"I had hoped to live my remaining years in Urbana in my home in peace and security, and I don't have that," Bruner said.
Crime data would not suggest that southeast Urbana — "beat 65," as the police call it — experiences significantly higher crime rates than any other city police beat. In fact, it consistently ranks among the middle of the pack in both calls for service and reports of crime.
City officials say it is a few hot spots — and one apartment manager in particular — causing problems for police and residents.
One specific area — just west of Philo Road and south of Florida Avenue — generates the majority of calls for police. Through April of this year, police had been called 1,351 times to addresses in "beat 65." More than half of those calls, 876 of them, went to the small area just west of Philo Road.
That number of calls for service in the Philo Road district is 43 percent higher than during the same period in 2010. The number of crimes reported — 182 between January and April — is 43 percent higher, too.
Kevin Farrell and Abby Heras live in the heart of that hot spot. Their Silver Street home was broken into about a month ago, and they are still cleaning up.
"They ransacked the house completely," Farrell said.
The burglars got away with thousands of dollars' worth of property, and they still have not been found.
Farrell and some of his neighbors went to the Urbana City Council last week to ask that something be done. The residents say they are scared, and they have become more vocal about it in recent weeks, especially as the city considers whether to let vacant positions in the police department go unfilled.
"There is regular crime going on down there," Farrell said.
Mayor Laurel Prussing said last week that she is now looking at filling two vacant positions. But to pay for it, the city will have to approve budget cuts to tourism or increased rates at some parking meters.
Even if they were hired today, it would take months to train those officers and get them on the street.
Police have been running special details in the beat 65 area, Police Chief Patrick Connolly said, and the department is trying to create an atmosphere where it seems that there is an "omnipresence" of officers.
But Prussing has said the police presence is not the long-term solution. The city cannot just keep throwing officers at the crime problem, she says.
"It's more than a police issue," Prussing said. "It's a management issue of the apartments down there."
The city is using a relatively new ordinance to get the apartment manager — BZ Management — to "shape up," Prussing said. The manager will be required to compose a "security plan" with city officials to address the consistent crime issues that originate from those properties.
The apartment manager will be forced to stick to that plan — fines are attached to violations to entice compliance — or Prussing has said she would take the same steps that have forced out managers with problem properties in the past.
The manager, Paul Zerrouki, said he should not be held responsible for what residents perceive to be a crime issue. He thinks the issues are no different than they were in the past, before he took over management of the complexes, and city officials should not focus their efforts on him.
City officials "should probably try to find a solution, not finger point at the guilty person because there is no guilty person here," Zerrouki said.
He said the business climate is contributing much to the perceived crime in southeast Urbana — "economy is the key" to solving some of the issues.
"The buildings are not the problem," Zerrouki said. "It's the people living inside."
He said he and police have taken steps to address what residents say are problems with his properties, but "I cannot be there every second of every hour of every day.
"I don't want to be held responsible because a boyfriend and girlfriend are fighting two or three times," Zerrouki said. "I am not their Dr. Phil."
He said the community, police and city officials need to work together to solve the problems in the neighborhood, and he cannot do it alone.
"I don't have a magic bullet to fix the problem," Zerrouki said.
Zerrouki estimated that as many as half of the police calls in the area came from his staff — they want to feel safe, too.
The management company missed its first appointment with the city, Prussing said, but it had a second appointment on Friday.
"I can't give you a definite" timeline, Prussing said. "They'll come up with a plan, and it will have a timeline for getting things done."
But Zerrouki said he thinks most people in the neighborhood do not feel scared.
"I believe some people, they just panic for nothing," Zerrouki said.
Meanwhile, residents wait for the police and city efforts to alleviate what they perceive to be a crime wave overcoming their neighborhoods.
Some are calling the area "Cabrini Green South," Bruner said.
"All the good work that the mayor and the city council have done to improve the Philo business district is in jeopardy," Bruner said. "I can't think of a more important issue for city government."
A person who answered a BZ Management phone and quoted in a Sunday story about crime in southeast Urbana apparently gave a false name. According to Paul Zerrouki, owner of BZ Management, no one by the name of “Bob Kissenger” works for his company. Further, “Bob Kissenger” is not listed on rental registration documents filed with the city of Urbana. Zerrouki did say, however, that statements attributed to “Bob Kissenger” were accurate. The News-Gazette regrets the error.