Peoria Police Chief John W. Stenson began his career in law enforcement as an officer with the Peoria Police Department in 1966 and rose through the ranks to his appointment to superintendent of police on October 16, 1997.
He commanded all divisions of the police department throughout his tenure. From 1983 to 1997 he was the police captain responsible for command of the following units: administrative, community services, Crime Stoppers, criminal intelligence, DARE, detective/juvenile, K-9, patrol, traffic, and vice/narcotics. Beginning in March 1997 he was assistant police chief responsible for command of the administrative, detective/juvenile, and vice/narcotics units.
In his current position, Stenson is responsible for the management of a department of 296 full-time employees who provide police services for a city of 111,500 spread over a 44-square-mile area.
Stenson is a graduate of the FBI Academy and Northwestern Police Institute. He holds a bachelor's degree from Bradley University in police administration and is working on his master's degree at Sangamon State University in the administration of justice.
His present community service includes organizations such as the American Red Cross, Carver Community Center, Crittenton Care and Counseling Center, the Cultural Diversity Committee, the Heart of Illinois United Way board, Peoria Alternative Charter School board, Peoria Area Community Events board, and the Peoria Empowerment Committee.
Professional affiliations include the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Police Executive Research Forum and the FBI Alumni Association.
Are you a Peoria native? What childhood memory had the most impact on your adult life?
I was born in Peoria but my parents are both from the state of Tennessee.
I attended Peoria public schools and graduated in 1963. It was a time when we were involved in the Vietnam war, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. On the national level, there was the impact of television with the Kennedys, Dr. Martin Luther King, and all the other civil rights icons.
On the local scene, John Gwynn and other civic leaders-black and white-were speaking openly about civil rights and equal rights for all citizens. I think I am a product of that time. I served in Vietnam and attended Illinois Central College and Bradley University while employed at the police department.
Who, or what, influenced you to enter the police force?
At the time I joined the police department, it was viewed as being either part of the problem or part of the solution-there was no in-between. Police officers who served their community at that time either had a very positive image or a very negative image.
The officers who demonstrated a positive image were good citizens both on and off duty, and were able to make a difference-officers such as William Helm, Herman Cornish, George Shadid, Sal Pisano and John Timmes.
Everyone in the community knew them as officers and as community leaders. They exemplified the policing concepts we are trying to implement today through community policing, because they were involved, accountable and accessible.
As the city's first black police chief, what programs, policies, procedures, etc. are you developing or implementing to improve relationships between police officers and the black community?
I would like to say that any programs, policies and procedures that we developed and implemented under my administration are universal in our desire to improve communications between all members of the community-young and old, male and female, black and white, religious and nonreligious.
I would like to think that race or sex of the chief is not as important as his or her commitment to serve and protect and to provide justice for all.
The department has committed to being accessible and accountable to the issues the total community faces, to review and evaluate the actions, and change things that need to be changed, but it has to be understood that policing is something to do with the community and not to the community.
In 1998 the department will hire approximately 30 new officers. This selection, training and assimilating into the department will be the most crucial activity the department performs, because these officers represent 15 percent of the work force. Recent changes in administrative and supervisory positions make training, educating and preparing these future leaders of the department equally as important as the selection of new personnel.
Law enforcement is more visible today than at any other time in its history because of the media, public events and public demands. And the demand to maintain reporting mechanisms and processes where citizens can access information or review police actions is paramount.
Recently national news reports said that the DARE (Drug Awareness Resistance Education) program in the schools is not effective. Do you agree? The Peoria Police Department has a lot of officers in DARE positions. Do you believe DARE is effective in Peoria and surrounding communities?
The DARE program nationally has served a very important role in the area of drug awareness resistance education, but it has influence in areas other than the ones for which the national survey was conducted. It reintroduced law enforcement officers into the lives of school students in ways similar to what programs such as Officer Friendly had done decades before.
I cannot speak for what DARE has done in some of the other communities, but I have to speak about what is done locally and in the state of Illinois. The Peoria Police Department dedicates a large amount of its resources to DARE related programs.
Traditionally, DARE is a program for fifth grade students only. In Peoria we have programs that come in contact with the students in the third, fifth, seventh and ninth grades, and because of these contacts, we believe that our programs are more positive and effective than those viewed in the national survey.
When you look at the violence that has appeared in the schools around the country and the state, I think one would have to say with some certainty that we have been pretty successful in the last few years in our school district. That is not to say there have not been problems, but the magnitude has not reached that of some of the communities in the state of Illinois.
In addition, we have not had to close our schools because of violence in any of the recent years, and that was not always the case in Peoria. Our schools have not been the victims of some of the vandalism and property damage that have also been prevalent in other school districts in the state. I think the programs such as DARE, our liaison program, and our partnership with District 150 security, are all part of the reason for our positive experiences. When there have been problems, these partnerships have been able to deliver quick, effective remedies and proactive responses.
In what ways is the community helpful to the department? How could the business community and residents be of help to the Peoria Police Department?
The community-both residents and businesses-have forged partnerships that ensure we have the resources and support to deliver the services and programs necessary to improve the quality of life in the city of Peoria.
A more recent example would be that the city-in almost every precinct-passed the quarter-of-a-cent public safety tax, and that was because citizens and businesses supported it. Their long-term commitment will have a positive result on the juvenile justice system, as well as the entire criminal justice system.
When you see the Family Violence Coordinating Counsel, and you see the county board hiring a forensic pathologist, and you see the circuit court implementing a drug court, and the community supporting the charter school and alternative high schools, the philosophy of the entire community regarding domestic violence-these are the things that make partnerships between the community and the police effective and working.
What is community based policing? Is it more than just a theory? How is it working?
Community based policing is a policing philosophy where the police and the community agree as to what the problem is and how the problem can be resolved, and accept responsibility for it.
It is more than a theory or a concept and how it works may depend on the demographics of the community in which it is implemented and the time of day, time of year, and problem being addressed.
It is working in many neighborhoods-in some better than others-but it works best in those neighborhoods where the citizens take more proactive roles and do not wait for someone else to act on their behalf.
Since assuming the duties as chief of police, what specifically have you done to implement community based policing in Peoria? Do you feel this is an appeasement program for certain district and council leaders?
The police department's most important task when it comes to community policing in 1998 is to continue to forge partnerships with other city departments, other government agencies, and community groups so that ownership of the problem-real or perceived-is one of community ownership and not that of a particular department or neighborhood.
In recent months this community has progressed in this area. The most visible example is the involvement of the Neighborhood Commission, the involvement of United Way, and many of the other commissions and boards that serve the community. The Community Leadership School and the Neighborhood College are just some of the examples of empowerment programs where community leadership is taking the lead and making a difference.
I don't think community policing is an appeasement program for district or council leaders, but I do think it is a response to the demands they face. Community policing is a result of a change of time and attitudes, and it's a part of the local government's commitment to revitalize and resurrect the city from the years when the economy did not allow for the neighborhood programs necessary to maintain growth and stability.
How are police officers disciplined internally? What clarifies or determines what goes before internal affairs versus the Police and Fire Commission?
We have a collective bargaining agreement, city of Peoria personnel rules, a police manual of rules, and state and federal laws that we must follow. Police personnel are not above the law, and because of the responsibility and authority we have, the public probably takes a more critical approach to any violations than they do with most other agencies.
An officer by contract can choose to go before the Fire and Police Commissioners or file a grievance, as outlined in the PPBA (Peoria Police Benevolent Association) contract.
How is one appointed to the Police and Fire Commission? Do you feel the commission still fulfills its intended role?
Commissioners are appointed by the mayor. I believe the commission fulfills its intended role. It's a check and balance the public needs because it is independent of the department. There can be no issue of patronage or favoritism.
Law enforcement agencies such as the Peoria Park District, Bradley University, District 150, Peoria County and the Peoria Police Department seem to be somewhat territorial. Do you agree? How well do they work together?
No, I don't agree that they are territorial. Our partnership with local law enforcement departments in the criminal justice system is second to none in the United States.
Each department locally exists for a purpose, and its function is necessary when you look at the total community policing effort.
The community enjoys a benefit from all the existing agencies, because of their open communication and their commitment to the various mutual aid agreements to respond in times of emergency when one department could not handle an incident alone.
Statistics across the country indicate that the juvenile crime rate is down. Is that true in Peoria? Are you finding younger people more prone to committing violent crime?
I think violent crime is down on a national level for many reasons, but juvenile petitions in Peoria County are at the level already this year that they were for all of 1997. This is because of several factors: the commitment of the juvenile justice system to process offenders who have demonstrated a history of violations, changes in state laws that require action, etc.
Peoria juveniles fill most of the 20-bed Gift Avenue facility. Peoria County is building a 70-bed facility. Do you feel this county facility will be large enough to meet the city's needs?
Our community should benefit from an expanded juvenile detention facility that is being built, and from some of the new programs being implemented by the juvenile court service, the school district, and the intervention programs funded by United Way.
All of these programs and facilities can never replace a responsible family setting or a committed community dedicated to social and criminal justice.
How has the department prepared for incidences such as the recent Oregon shooting by a teenager?
In recent months the department has responded to several critical incidents and a review of those responses has been positive.
The coordination of department resources with other law enforcement resources has aided in the successful resolution.
There is always a need to review, critique and modify emergency response protocol.
Before the next school year it is my intention to meet with other agencies such as District 150 to discuss this issue, and to send personnel to various seminars and programs that are discussing it, and formulate plans, and use funding resources available to government agencies.
Are the courts too lenient on juvenile offenders?
I don't think the courts have been too lenient on juveniles. I think our courts have dealt with the resources that were available to them.
Up until recently the Juvenile Court Act had not been reviewed for decades. Now it is undergoing a complete review and the new requirements in law enforcement and other parts of the criminal justice system will change the way business will be conducted.
One of the major changes is that all juvenile records and contacts will be maintained at a level unprecedented in this state.
How would you prioritize Peoria's issues of public safety? How would the community at large prioritize the issues?
There is no scientific way to prioritize public safety issues. All that we look to are our crime statistics, our response times, and state and national crime trends, as well as issues such as intersection accidents, calls for services, etc. I believe that the community at large expects a professional contact and investigation of its complaints.
It doesn't always mean we will solve the crime, but it does mean we are going to commit an effort that, when reviewed, will show that we took all available information into account when deciding whether to investigate or suspend the investigation.
The community expects us to utilize our resources efficiently and effectively, and continuously monitor the results.
Several officers sued the city of Peoria over the sergeants placement promotional tests. Now that you are chief of police, what can you do in conjunction with the Police and Fire Commission to avoid such a recurrence?
In the most recent sergeant and lieutenant promotional exams, the only legal issues were related to use of veteran's points.
This is because all content and promotional issues related to the test were discussed and negotiated with the affected parties before the test was administered. This was done in conjunction with the Human Resources Department, the Fire and Police Commission, and the police administration.
This is an example of how important the Fire and Police Commission can be to a community and the value of its role. But more importantly, it is the role a police administration should play on the front end versus trying to close the door after it has been left open.
You have been described as a work-a-holic by some. Are you ever able to "leave your job" while in town and relax? What do you enjoy in your leisure time?
I enjoy family gatherings. Due to my age I realize the value of the older members of the family and cherish the opportunity to be with them.
In addition, I enjoy movies, working in the yard, and long walks in the park.
If you could change one thing about Peoria, what would it be?
If I could change one thing about Peoria, it would be the same thing I would change about the state, which would be how we fund our schools. What we expect our schools to produce in the area of academics and citizenship is too monumental with our present funding sources. IBI