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After 8 months, DeKalb resident officer settling in to multiple roles

DeKALB – It's only happened a handful of times, but Jared Burke is used to having people knock on his door at 3 a.m.

As the sole participant in the DeKalb police's new resident officer program, officer Burke has become the go-to person for both police and residents in the Pleasant Street neighborhood he moved into in October. The city spent about $135,000 in special economic development funds from a tax increment financing district to buy the house and renovate it from a duplex to a single-family house.

If a crime occurs in the neighborhood, Burke learns about it and follows up if necessary. When neighbors have an issue, they will go to Burke's home at 624 N. 11th St. so they can be heard.

The resident officer program aims to bridge the gap between residents and police by placing an officer in a community. This cooperation is designed to improve the quality of life in the area, but Burke said there's no guidebook on how to do that.

"It might be successful in this community; it may not be successful in another community," Burke said. "Maybe one officer has better success than the other. But the program itself has many hats to it.

"You might be mentoring one day at the school, the other day you might be at the Hispanic center digging a garden."

The success of the program will be hard to measure. Police Chief Gene Lowery said police will compare the crime rate in the area to the previous year without Burke, although the key benefits of the program are intangible.

"Despite the reality of crime, the most significant thing a citizen can experience is their perception of safety, so perception is huge," Lowery said.

Burke expressed similar sentiments.

"There's no criteria that says you're successful," Burke said. "You can't say when crime rates drop you've been successful. ... You can't put numbers on something like this ... to gauge success and failure. The goal is to leave it better than you found it."

DeKalb police met with their counterparts from Elgin, who have operated a resident officer program since 1991. Like Burke, Elgin resident officer Eric Echevarria said he takes on different roles in his neighborhood.

"It's one of those positions where you have to wear different hats because you have to engage your community in many different areas," Echevarria said. "You have to be able to know how to deal with all of those things, and where you need to call."

Echevarria has been a resident officer for nine years and in three different communities. He acknowledged that patrol officers make up the backbone of police work, but as a resident officer, he is able to tackle problems at the source.

"A resident officer removes that Band-Aid, and we do the surgical work," Echevarria said, describing how he has worked with landlords to remove problem tenants or advised public works officials on where to install better lighting.

For Echevarria, success is measured by community awareness.

"A resident officer should be known to the majority of his community," he said. "The kids should know who you are."

The area of Burke's specialized beat in DeKalb is bounded by the train tracks to the south, Sycamore Road to the north, Fourth Street to the west and 14th Street to the east. So far, Burke said he has visited nearby schools and helped establish a neighborhood watch group between Fourth and Seventh streets.

Burke's wife, Kara, also plays a role. When Burke is away from the house, Kara Burke will take calls or house visits from local residents.

"I don't mind doing that at all," she said. "That's part of his job ... He has said that he wants the neighborhood to be a great place to raise kids."

Despite his presence, crimes still occur. In June, Dianatha Hardesty, 50, of the 900 block of North 14th Street, was placed on probation after accepting a plea agreement for her role in what police said was a crack cocaine ring operating in DeKalb County.

Lowery said it's not the proximity of the crime to the officer that counts, but the relationship between the officer and the neighborhood.

"Everywhere we live, there's going to be people doing things they shouldn't," Lowery said. "... By opening lines of communication and establishing relationships, we will get the information we need to target residences and individuals who are committing criminal activity."

Burke said naturally he is bothered when crime occurs in his neighborhood.

"I will take it personally, a little bit," Burke said. "This is my neighborhood. I patrol it, I should be familiar with it. If there's no resolution to it, yeah, that would be something I would take personally."

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