All in all, life is pretty normal in Normal. The central Illinois town has seen five homicides in 10 years. And the methamphetamine epidemic hasn't hit the town or its sister city of Bloomington yet. In fact, sales of a handful of rocks of crack cocaine still make newspaper headlines. When Illinois State University is in session, underage drinking and loud party calls are the order of the night, not armed robberies, car jackings, or driveby shootings.
"Overall in Normal, we've been very fortunate. We don't have some of the problems that other communities our size experience," says Assistant Police Chief Rick Bleichner, who oversees operations for the department, which has a service population of 50,000.
"We certainly do have armed robberies and homicides; we just don't have them with the same frequency," Bleichner notes. "It has a lot to do with the makeup of the community, the expectations of the citizens who live here, and the approach of city officials and elected officials. They want a community that is free of major crime, and are aggressive in their approach to that."
The low crime rate is due, in no small part, to the town's economic stability.
The town of Normal and nearby city of Bloomington are built on a solid financial footing, and offer residents a wide variety of white-collar jobs. The two cities are home to the corporate headquarters for State Farm Insurance Companies, as well as Country Insurance and Financial Services. Mitsubishi Motors North America operates a manufacturing plant there, as does Nestlé USA. Hospital and healthcare jobs abound.
Undoubtedly, the most influential employer is Illinois State University. ISU employs hundreds of Normal residents daily and boosts the town's population by 20,000 students when classes are in session.
"The biggest thing affecting us is Illinois State University," says Police Chief Kent D. Crutcher, a 21-year policing veteran. "The majority of our work during the typical school year is centered around student activity."
As a result, the department is an active participant in the Town/Student Liaison Committee. The group comprises representatives from the Normal Police Department, two town-council members and legal staff, and the Illinois State University Student Government Association. It meets monthly to discuss campus safety, parking problems, sports celebration activities, or other issues related to students or student life.
"We sit down and try to problem solve and find creative solutions," says Officer Steve Petrilli, a seven-year veteran of the Normal Police Department.
Sometimes members of the Town/ Student Liaison Committee handle pre-existing problems. At other times, they work proactively to prevent them. Last year, for example, when the Chicago White Sox advanced to the World Series, committee members worked to prevent so-called "celebration riots" from breaking out when the White Sox won the championship.
Worried that boisterous student celebrations might spill out onto city streets-and result in massive vandalism sprees, looting, or worse-ISU officials asked the Normal Police Department for suggestions. With input from police, university administrators decided to host a more controllable celebration event on the campus itself. That didn't mean the event was without controversy, however.
The university removed goal posts at Hancock Stadium to prevent them from being toppled by unruly students; so the vandals simply left campus and returned with goal posts ripped from a nearby high school's football practice field.
Police were called in to quell another group of students who had taken over a concert stage and threatened to damage expensive sound equipment. Still other groups of students stole street signs or damaged mailboxes, but the damage was limited mostly to the university area.
The Town/Student Liaison Committee was born more than a dozen years ago, when the Normal town council "realized a lot of their decisions impacted students, whether you perceived that as negative or positive," says Geoff Fruin, a committee member and assistant to the city manager. With a police administrator on the committee, he says, ISU students gained a "direct portal into the police department."
Crutcher says that the committee "really seemed to bridge a big gap" between townspeople and students, avoiding the adversarial town-gown mentality that can take hold of communities that host large college campuses.
While officers at the Normal Police Department have frequent interactions with ISU students, they also attempt to engage residents of all ages. During the winter holidays, officers participate in the popular "Shop with a Cop" charity effort. During the summer, the department hosts a Normal Police Youth Program for kids between the ages of nine and 13. NPD also hosts Citizens Police Academies for adults who wish to learn more about law enforcement and specific policing policies and practices.
The department reaches out to elderly, disabled, or low-income citizens in a variety of ways, including a co-sponsoring program to provide door viewers to those who might otherwise be unable to afford them.
NPD also makes sure to take care of its own by offering officers a variety of educational and training opportunities. One such example is a weeklong Administrative Work Program, in which officers trade in their uniforms for civilian clothes and watch administrative officers at work, gaining insight into how and why administrators make the decisions that they do.
NPD officers can become eligible for a variety of special-duty assignments, including bike patrols, range officers, crime prevention officers, school resource officers, domestic violence investigations, gang task force, and an all-hazards emergency response unit. The department also offers a K-9 patrol, with dogs trained in bite work, drug detection, tracking, and article and building searches.
"The key is to keep the officers interested in their jobs, and keep making new opportunities for them," Crutcher says. "Some officers can come in and do their job for 20 years and be fine with that. But we recognize that other officers desire a change every now and then. That change can be as simple as changing shifts or maybe to another job in the department."
Bryn Bailer is a former newspaper reporter who specializes in writing about public safety issues. By night, she is a member of the Tucson Police Department Communications Division.