By Scott Jonlich
Up until this past holiday shopping season, most of us took law and order in DuPage County for granted. News about violent crime was focused more in Chicago and Cook County, only about 20 miles east. There were a couple of local incidents of “smash and run”, but then on the early evening of December 23, shots rang out at Oakbrook Center, and several people were shot, and some were injured, in running for safety. Almost immediately, hundreds of police officers from all over DuPage County converged on the scene, and a mass evacuation of over 15,000 took place over several hours with no further injuries. Importantly, the shooters were apprehended and are facing serious charges for violent crime.
Why and how did all this reaction to violent crime happen? For answers, we turned to Robert B. Berlin, DuPage County State’s Attorney. As his title indicates, he is charged with representing and protecting all the residents of DuPage County in courts of law. In his job, he interacts with other State attorneys and federal law officers, works with all the police and Sheriff departments in the county, and sees how cases are handled in the DuPage County court system. He gets to see how public defenders perform. He also sees, and in some cases; gets to foster, measures being taken to prevent crime, in the first place. In a wide-ranging interview, Hinsdale Magazine came to appreciate not only his office; but all the moving parts that go into maintaining law and order in DuPage, especially in these times. Here are key questions and his answers, abbreviated and edited for clarity and length.
To begin with, we asked him, “Why are communities like Oak Brook, and shopping malls like Oakbrook Center, being attacked like we have not seen before?
Berlin replied, “Obviously, we all watch the news, we read the newspapers, we see what’s happening in Chicago, which has had an impact on crime here. I will say that about fifty percent of our felonies now are committed by people that don’t live in this county. Offenders are coming from other counties, many coming from Cook County into DuPage.” “Violent crimes have a huge impact on the entire community. It’s not just the victims themselves who are victimized; the whole community is victimized when something like this happens, especially at a shopping center like Oakbrook Center. The message is that we don’t tolerate it in this county, and there will be a prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, with an appropriate punishment that sends the message that we don’t tolerate violent crime and that anyone who commits a crime like that in our county is going to pay a severe price.” “Look, I live in the county and raised my family here. People have to feel safe. You cannot go to bed at night afraid. If people are afraid, it’s a horrible existence and, we need to do everything we can to make sure that people have that sense of safety.” “You know, years ago, when we lived in Clarendon Hills, and a little girl was murdered. My daughter was a classmate of hers.” “The following year, at the parent/teacher conferences, we were told that not only did my daughter’s test scores go down, but the whole grade, their test scores went down. So that is the type of impact that you see from a violent crime. You can’t put a dollar value on what a crime like that does to an entire community and that’s why I remind our prosecutors all the time, it’s the people of the state of Illinois versus the defendant. We represent the people of the state of Illinois, not just the victim in the case. The whole community is victimized, and the community has a stake in the outcome of these cases.”
In listening to Mr. Berlin, we observed that it takes a lot of communication and a lot of leadership.
“I speak to the state’s attorneys and their staffs all the time. Jim Glasgow, the Will County States Attorney, and I probably talk every day about different issues. Jamie Mosser, now out in Kane County, and Kim Foxx’s staff in Cook County. States attorneys meet twice a year at a conference. When it comes to what we do, there’s no politics involved. We’re all on the same side here.” “We didn’t contact Foxx on the Oakbrook Center situation; however, there was communication with the Chicago Police Department, as well as the Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Some of his officers were at Oak Brook, and I think it was their officer that found one of the offender’s vehicles parked in the parking lot.” He said “The system didn’t just happen by itself. It’s not a coincidence that it’s this way; it’s from years and years of people before me. Joe Birkett and Jim Ryan were my state’s attorney predecessors. They had the same philosophy, and it’s from a lot of the judges who are former prosecutors or former public defenders. We have an experienced judiciary. Yes, it comes from leadership. It comes from people who truly care about public safety. I can tell you, I meet with my police chiefs all the time and we discuss issues. We’re all on the same page and it’s not just a job for all of us; it isn’t. We take it personally and we care.” “When all of those stakeholders are doing their jobs, the system works extremely well, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
“Violent crimes have a huge impact on the entire community. It’s not just the victims themselves who are victimized; the whole community is victimized when something like this happens, especially at a shopping center like Oak brook Center. The message is that we don’t tolerate it in this county, and there will be a prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”
We know, when we charge a case, when we go to trial, we want the best defense attorneys to be defending, the defendants. We’re confident in our evidence, we’re confident in our ability, but, when we have the best defense attorneys and when we have qualified judges who oversee these cases, we’re pretty confident if there’s a conviction, that it’s not going to come back for a retrial, that errors are not going to be made.” “It’s not just the judges, it’s the police officers, it’s our public defender’s office. We’ve got great public defenders who hold us to our burden of proof. By doing that, we know what the bar is, what amount of evidence we need to charge a case.” “What I can tell you is this: we have a track record, and we have a reputation of being tough but fair on crime. That hasn’t changed. I believe that it has improved over the past few years. I firmly believe that with violent criminals, you send them away, and you do two things: one: you incapacitate them so they can’t commit other crimes, and secondly, it is a deterrent to other people not to commit those crimes in the county. It is effective and there’s research to back that up. That has always been my approach, and I’ve been doing this for thirty-four years. I’ve been a prosecutor my entire professional career, and it works.” “Violence has to be prosecuted, and people who commit these crimes have to be punished. That’s the only way, in my opinion, that we maintain an orderly society, a community that people want to live in and feel safe in.” “Unfortunately, it has taken an increase in crime to see more people paying attention to what we’re doing. I believe public safety has become one of the number one issues, and people are paying attention, which I think is good.”
We were impressed with how quickly and how many police responded to the Oak Brook situation. How did that happen?
Berlin said, “In 2019 we formed what’s called MERIT, which stands for Metropolitan Emergency Response Investigative Team. We used to have a major crimes task force, and then we had a separate task force. We combined all those into one entity, and we truly have the best of the best that respond to major incidents. We have all police departments working together under a single command staff. Anytime there’s a call out, we are going to get dozens of the best police officers to respond. In a case like what happened at Oakbrook Center Mall, the response was countywide, from our sheriff’s office, from all the various police departments, who came out, to assist and help, and they have, one of the advantages of having a task force like that is they train together and so they are prepared for an incident such as Oakbrook Center.” “In less than seven hours going store-to-store with SWAT teams is remarkable, and no one got injured in the course of the evacuation. There were injuries when the shooting happened and there were injuries when people were running from the scene, but once the police were there, it’s a testament, to our law enforcement in this county, that they got that many people out safely. MERIT was the result of Sheriff Mendrick, who was a big proponent of that, as was I. We got all of our police chiefs on board, and they have been called out over 500 times since the formation in the summer of 2019.” “The command structure to MERIT depends on what type of incident. If it’s major traffic or major crime, different commanding officers who are in charge set up a command post, a staging area, so when the call goes out officers will know, here’s where we’re meeting, here’s the staging area, before the orders are given as to who’s going to do what. It is, I have to say, a model, for other counties to follow, and it has worked extremely well. We’ve had enormous success.”
We were also impressed with how quickly charges were brought. How did that happen?
Berlin replied, “When charging felonies, we need to have sufficient evidence to prove the case in court. When the police make an arrest, we usually have to make a charging decision within 48 hours. Oftentimes, we need the crime lab to analyze evidence quickly. To that end, years ago, I and others insisted that DuPage County keep its own crime lab. (The crime lab was in existence before I became State’s Attorney, but there was talk of disbanding the lab due to budgetary issues.) As a result of having a crime lab here in DuPage County, and not having to send evidence to outside labs, we can collect and process evidence and bring appropriate charges without delay. In the case of Oakbrook Center, crime lab technicians worked over the Christmas holiday so charges could be brought as quickly as possible. That enabled us to get a bond set for the two suspects at $1 million each.”
We asked Mr. Berlin to elaborate on how bail is set.
“Bail is set by a judge. It’s our job as a prosecutor to provide as much information as possible about the actual offense and about the offender. We have a detailed narrative-the facts of the case that we’ve prepared before a bond court, and we get as much background on the criminal history of every offender that goes in front of a judge in court, so we can present those facts and we make a recommendation on bail.” “The purpose of bail is two-fold. Number one: to assure a defendant’s appearance in court, but secondly and equally as important, is to protect the community. So, our recommendations on bail reflect those two goals. Obviously, the more serious the crime or the more dangerous we believe a defendant may be, we’re going to ask for a higher bond. In certain circumstances, where the law allows for it, we’ll file a petition asking for no bond.
I respect completely that any defendant is presumed innocent and has a right to a fair trial, but the community also has a right to feel safe, as do victims of crime. And, this office has always been a vocal proponent of victims’ rights, and that is one of our overarching goals, is to protect the rights of victims.” “In some cases, when warranted, judges set no cash bail, which means that suspects are released while awaiting trial because the judge involved feels that there is likely to be no danger to the community and they will show up for trial. This too; sends a message to the community about fairness.” “There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the elimination of cash bail, which is coming next January. If you look at what has happened in New Jersey, to me, that is the model that Illinois should follow, because all of the stakeholders in New Jersey, including the prosecutors and the police, actually believe their system is working very well.
New Jersey gives authority for judges to hold, anyone charged with a felony without bond, as long as certain circumstances are there. And, to me, I don’t believe that you can categorize offenses and say ‘well, certain offenses will be eligible for bail and others won’t be, because every scenario is different. You may have a minor crime, but somebody who’s really a danger to the community.’ If the law works the way it’s supposed to, one of the advantages of no cash bail is, take these two offenders in the Oak Brook case. Those are cases that we would argue for no bond, and that would deny someone with a million-dollar bond the opportunity to get out by posting a hundred thousand dollars. Judges, right now, will set very high bonds, I believe, with these cases, with the understanding that there’s probably no way the defendant could post, but, sometimes, we see they have been able to post.”
We asked Mr. Berlin if he is happy with the laws on the books.
“We state’s attorneys have seen an erosion with many of these laws, especially when it comes to sentencing. Ten years ago, we abolished the death penalty in this state. We just passed an enormous criminal justice reform bill. There are some parts of that bill I think are great like body cameras and so far, they’ve been a huge asset for us in some of our cases. We’re getting better cases, but there’s a cost that comes with that. I think, across the country, we have seen legislatures in various states are reducing penalties. We’ve seen prosecutors in some of the big cities who get into office and say they’re not going to prosecute certain crimes, and I just, I see that as a real challenge, a real problem. A prosecutor needs to enforce the law, and if there are laws that need to be changed, it’s our job to lead the charge and go to the General Assembly to try to get them changed.”
What efforts are in place that should give residents further confidence in how law and order work in DuPage County?
‘Second Chance Probation’, where judges and prosecutors (You need the approval of both to get into the program.) consider that the person charged just used bad judgment, made a mistake, and deserves a second chance. Another effort is our Public Integrity Unit where we investigate and prosecute police who break the law. People appreciate the fairness of such programs.”
Speaking of residents, we asked what role can they play?
“For the police to be effective, they need the support of the community. People have to believe in and trust their police. Otherwise, the police can’t solve the crime. We need witnesses to come forward, we need cooperation, people to offer up their Ring doorbell camera videos, things like that. That takes a lot of work and a lot of effort. Obviously, the county has changed as has our society. The demographics have changed, and chiefs of police have a diversity outreach committee, of which I am a part of. And we make it a point to go to different parts of the communities and meet with different groups to assure them that we’re here to protect them, that we follow the law, and we want their cooperation and we want them to know that they’re going to be treated the same as anybody else and, that is an ongoing effort, I think we have made tremendous strides, and we still have a lot more work to do with that, but, by doing that, that’s why I believe we have such a great track record. When a crime, like a case in Oak Brook, happens, we have people who are calling the police, people who are emailing the police, people who, if they have stuff on videos, share those with the police. Of course, we also encourage residents to be vigilant about their surroundings and people around them; and to keep vehicles and homes securely locked.” “Here’s another message. The community needs to pay attention when they go to vote, who they’re voting for. Take the time to research who the candidates are so that you’re voting for the best person. I think that by and large, the DuPage County people do that, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so fortunate to have a great team in place.”
We asked, what other areas of concern are there for law and order in DuPage County?
Mr. Berlin responded, “Drug and opioid addiction. Drugs and opioids are a serious problem in DuPage County just like they are, around the country. Drugs are not only a serious health problem, but they invariably lead to more crime as people, young and old, use illegal means to get money to satisfy their drug habits. One ‘front end preventive’ program we have is called F.O.C.U.S., which stands for First Offender Call United for Success, for first-time drug offenders. This has been a nationally recognized program that provides non-violent first offenders the necessary treatment, counseling, education, and support to help them on their road to recovery. Since it started in 2019, the F.O.C.U.S. courtroom now has more than 1,100 individuals getting treatment for addiction to opioids and other illegal drugs.” “Another area of concern is dealing with young people who may be going down wrong paths as they are growing up. We have two other ‘front-end preventive’ programs. One is called the ‘School Safety Task Force’, where police and school authorities work to identify young people who may be at risk, so they can be helped. I am also on the executive board of the organization ‘Fight Crime Invest in Kids’. I support this because they advocate for funding for after-school programs and high quality pre-schools. There is plenty of evidence that after-school hours are a prime time for juvenile crime, and quality after-school programs have been proven to reduce juvenile crime. I work with village governments and police departments around the county to help implement ‘Fight Crime Invest in Kids’”.
We asked about the morale and performance of the men and women in law enforcement in DuPage County these days.
Mr. Berlin’s comment: “We have outstanding people in our police departments; some of the best in the state. They are well trained. Most of them are well equipped with body cameras which protect the person being investigated and the police, as well, because there is a record of the interaction between police and suspects. Police see how my office and judges enforce the law. They have the trust of the community. As a result, overall, their morale is great. (Some police departments are actually having a hard time recruiting new officers. A number of departments; however, have hired officers who have decided to leave the Chicago Police Department.) For all those reasons, I believe we have the ‘best of the best’”. Mr. Berlin summed everything we talked about this way. “As was said at the outset, there are a lot of moving parts that go into maintaining law and order in DuPage County. It is a constant effort of communication and cooperation, following the law, putting criminals on notice that crime, especially violent crime, will not be tolerated, assuring that our police, prosecution, judiciary are all doing their jobs. It also takes residents who are alert and aware and willing to help. We want strong cases that lead to fair convictions, and no cases coming back on appeal. Above all, we want our residents to feel safe and be safe.”
*Photos by Marcello Rodarte