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Stupid Case File for February 28, 2005

Stupid Criminals: Stay Away from Small Towns

Handful of Illinois towns routinely report no major crimes

CLAYTON, Ill. (AP) -- Police officer Bill Peterson says he finds the streets "scary" in this farming village of about 890 residents. Not because of all the crime, but because there really isn't any.
In Lyndon, Chief Ike Isaacson says all he does as the town's lone police officer is control traffic and talk to town residents.
Although 2004 crime figures for Illinois won't be available for months, it is not unusual for a small group of towns to report no major crime during an entire year. In 2003, Clayton and 18 other Illinois towns reported zero major crimes.
No major crimes mean no murders, rapes, arsons, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, thefts or automobile thefts.
The towns that claim to be crime-free are usually located in rural areas, hundreds of miles from any major city, and have populations under 1,100. They also have few businesses and fewer police officers.
"Sometimes it's so dead, it's scary," Peterson said recently as he patrolled Clayton, 260 miles southwest of Chicago, aiming his car's spotlight on boarded up windows and abandoned buildings. "They tell me they've got a juvenile problem here. Vandalism. But I haven't seen one kid out here yet."
Isaacson, a former detective in the Whiteside County sheriff's department, is the lone police officer in Lyndon, a town of 558 northeast of Moline. During a recent shift, he helped capture a loose dog and handed out a speeding ticket.
"We just don't have that much (crime). They only have one tavern, one convenience store. We just don't have that many people that we would get into any kind of situation," said Isaacson, who works part time. "Mostly all I do is a little traffic control. I go around and talk to people and they talk to me."
With a crime tally of zero for the past five years, residents of Scales Mound have to make do without a police officer on the town's payroll. Nosy neighbors are the first line of defense against crime in the town two miles south of the Illinois-Wisconsin state line.
"It's one of the biggest things small towns have going" for them, Mayor Jim Davis said. "Everybody knows what's going on. In the big cities, you have, what, a neighborhood watch? Well, our whole town is a neighborhood watch."
The residents of Clayton also help keep their crime down, according to Peterson. Fights between neighbors are settled over coffee or fence posts, and "No trespassing" signs stand in for alarm systems.
Some say a major reason crime is rare in small towns is the fishbowl theory: Criminals have no place to hide.
"They'll keep their nose clean because they don't want to be known as riffraff," Peterson said. "If you're riffraff, you're done."
It is a theory given credence by experts like Alfred Blumstein of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University. He calls it "social control." Small-town residents know each other and care what other people think of them.
"So, that social control ... keeps them from doing things that others would view negatively," he said. "Bigger cities have much more flow in and flow out. There's much more anonymity, and less of that social control."
Peterson points out that because his work is in a small town, it can have a big impact. He once caught a teen out riding a mini-bike past curfew. He says he followed the kid home and had a talk with his mother.
"Yeah, I guess that is one of the benefits of working here. You can take the time to actually talk to people," he said.


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