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New NIU police chief eyes police partnerships

DeKALB – Local police aren't happy that two female Northern Illinois University students were robbed at gunpoint as they walked home about 10 p.m. Thursday.

They are pleased, though, with the interaction between the Northern Illinois University and DeKalb police who responded.

The emergency cell phone call went to DeKalb dispatchers, but both NIU and DeKalb officers immediately headed to the 900 block of Crane Drive to search for the offender and help the women, whose purses were stolen.

The women weren't physically injured, but they gave police a description of the man and which way he went. By Friday afternoon, one of the women was working with a sketch artist to try to develop an image of the offender.

"We have a plan every night," said Bill Nicklas, NIU’s vice president for public safety and community relations. "We know what we can know about people who might be operating in the area and we do our very best to prevent any of that. ... It's just a stain on the community whenever this happens, and we don't like it."

Leaders with both police departments want to strengthen their partnership, especially in the area near this incident where so many students live. Their joint efforts have been building since late 2011, but both sides want to do more together once NIU's new Police Chief Thomas Phillips starts Sept. 16.

The University of Chicago's police department, where Phillips has worked since 2012, is a role model within the law enforcement community for how it collaborates with the Chicago Police Department, DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery said. Lowery is eager to learn how Phillips' experience in Chicago's racially and economically diverse Hyde Park neighborhood can be applied in and around DeKalb.

For his part, Phillips wants to build stronger relationships with area police departments; it was a topic that repeatedly came up as he met with community and university representatives during his job interviews.

"To bring that to the next level, we need to continue to do those things and look at different models of where we can improve," Phillips said. "I think having an open environment for other agencies to work collaboratively with is very important, and I think listening and hearing what the community needs will provide us the answers."

He's also ready to lead the department beyond the controversies that surfaced early this year. Former Chief Donald Grady was fired Feb. 19 for mismanaging an investigation into an NIU police officer allegedly raping an NIU student off duty and off campus. In March, the FBI and other agencies searched the NIU police department without publicly disclosing the targets of their investigation, which remains ongoing.

Area leaders, students and other groups did not discuss those issues as they interviewed Phillips during the search process, Phillips said.

"As long as it's still covered in the paper, people will be aware of that," Phillips said. "... But we can't overlook the great things that happen on campus. Every day, there's education going on here. It's a very positive and vibrant community to be in. I want to focus on those kinds of things."

Meanwhile, Lowery said some new initiatives have been placed on hold while NIU leaders searched for their new police chief, as participants figured the new chief would want to weigh in on the ideas before they were implemented. But, he's encouraged by the new leadership in DeKalb, which has a relatively new mayor and some relatively new City Council members, and NIU, which recently welcomed President Douglas Baker.

"It's the perfect time to do things for the betterment of all," Lowery said.

NIU police sergeants attend DeKalb staff meetings every night, when they discuss the priorities for the evening and divide some tasks, Nicklas said. Officers from both departments automatically respond to calls in the northwest quadrant of the city, which includes Greek Row, Greenbrier Road, and Fotis Avenue.

For about two years, NIU police officers each have carried two radios, one tuned to their department's frequence and another tuned to DeKalb police's. But in about four months, NIU officers will have a new radios that combine both systems while giving priority to NIU transmissions, Nicklas said.

On Friday, as police in both departments investigated Thursday's armed robberies, they said the women responded perfectly to a scary situation.

"You definitely don't want to fight back if someone's got a gun, knife," DeKalb Detective Lt. Bob Redel said. "Give them what they want, get a good description, direction of travel. Be the best witness you can be."

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