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Who Keeps the L-W Forest Preserves and Trails Safe?

The recent assault of a woman in the Hickory Creek Preserve has residents concerned over safety in county nature areas. Find out what agencies are responsible for patrolling these locations and what they're doing to protect visitors.

As spring weather finally takes hold, the area's parks and trails start to lure residents interested in soaking up nature or getting a bit of exercise.

But was a reminder that these locations can attract individuals with more unsavory intentions than simply enjoying the outdoors.

Officials from the agencies that patrol these forest preserves and trails say incidents like this happen infrequently, but that doesn't mean personal safety is a secondary concern for them.

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The , the governmental authority that manages county nature areas like and Old Plank Road Trail, employs its own police force to oversee the more than 70 county preserves under its purview, said Bruce Hodgdon, the district's public information officer. These officers not only handle public safety issues—such as the Hickory Creek Preserve assault—but they also deal with conservation law matters, such as poaching and fishing, Hodgdon added.

Preserve district officers have daily assignments but don't have a regular routines and routes that potential offenders could monitor and evade, Hodgdon said. These officers travel from preserve to preserve, and during the warmer months, some of them go on bike patrols, which allow them to patrol parts of the preserves that they can't get to in cars, he added.

Another safety net of sorts that the district employs are the Trail Sentinels, 36 volunteers who assist visitors on the trails. These are people who regularly use the trail on their own time, always carry cellphones and wear T-shirts identifying who they are, Hodgdon said, adding that the volunteers all go through a background check and a training program. Although they're not law enforcement officers, the Trail Sentinels are there to help in case of emergencies and to contact the proper authorities when needed, Hodgdon said.

Watching Over Old Plank Road Trail

When it comes to trails in the Lincoln-Way area, the Old Plank Road Trail is probably the most popular. Because it cuts through multiple communities across the region, the trail is managed by a special commission made up of five governmental bodies, including the forest preserve district and the . In Will County, the district police maintain the trail from Joliet to Frankfort, although it has a special cooperative agreement with the that lets it share duties and help out from time to time, Hodgdon said.

The handles law enforcement on the trail from 116th Avenue to Harlem Avenue, said Frankfort Police Cmdr. Kevin Keegan, adding that officers will use bikes, utility vehicles and the department's ATV to patrol the trail throughout the day.

"To tell you truth, we haven't had a whole lot of issues," Keegan said about crime on the trail. "We've had fire-related calls. People on bikes or roller blades, falling down. Mostly, it's been graffiti."

For a trail like Old Plank Road, popularity is probably the biggest deterrent against attacks and other incidents. That, combined with open, airy spaces that don't afford many hiding spots, contributes to the trails' and preserves' safety, Hodgdon said.

"Because of the traffic on the trails, we don't nave a lot of crimes against people," he said.

But if an emergency does occur—whether it's an assault or an injury—the most important thing for visitors to remember is call 9-1-1, Hodgdon said.

"If there's an incident that requires police assistance, 9-1-1 is the route you go," he said. "Communication has never been better thanks to cellphones. That would be the first line of action. ... Police are there to serve in all capacities. Nine-one-one is always your first option, no matter what happens."

Safety Tips

Patch asked Bruce Hodgdon of the Forest Preserve District of Will County and Cmdr. Kevin Keegan of the Frankfort Police Department for their advice when it comes to staying safe on the trails and in the forest preserves.

  • Be aware and monitor your surroundings. "We recommend when you're out hiking a trail alone, always have your wits about you," Hodgdon said. "In the more isolated preserves that aren't running through densely populated areas like Frankfort ... that's particularly when you want to be aware of surroundings."
  • Don't let your iPod be too much of a distraction. "When running or riding with an iPod, that's always going to limit what you're aware of," Hodgdon said.
  • Make eye contact with people you see on the trail, taking a mental note of their characteristics, Keegan said.
  • When possible, travel the trails or visit the preserves with another person. "It's always a good idea to be in pairs," Keegan said. "It could be that you fall down and injure yourself and you can't help yourself."
  • If you can't bring a person, then bring a dog, Hodgdon said, adding that canines are acceptable on most trails as long as they're leashed.

 

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Metro April 30, 2012 at 02:19 PM
A couple of years ago I was walking the Hickory Creek path and came across two older gentlemen. One of the men was down and unconscious. The ambulance tried to gain access through the LaPorte road entrance but could not because of a locked post. Because of this, alot of valuable time was wasted. The ambulance also would not fit over the bridge. Entering through the route 30 entrance would have been the better option at the time but hindsight is 20/20. I was wondering if emergency vehicles have better access now. This trail is frequently traveled so it is diffcult to commit a crime without witnessess. What I worry about are people having heart attacks or strokes on the trail and the ability to get medical attention to them in a timely manner.
jm April 30, 2012 at 03:43 PM
Not only can they not protect you... they are not "legally" obligated to protect you.
Sue N. April 30, 2012 at 04:34 PM
@Joe & JM - Having a relative on one of these police departments, I've gotten to know several police officers on all 3 area PDs. So I can confidently say that all of them take their jobs to "Serve and Protect" to heart and very seriously. There is not one police officer who is not personally affected every time there is a violent crime, or any crime for that matter. Plus all LW's PDs work together, a lot more than an of us will every know, because they personally want to protect all of us from as much crime as they can...violent or non-violent. The PDs can only do so much, residents have to use some common sense too. It would be nice to live in a crime free area and be able to ride our bikes or run on these paths being completely care free. But sadly, its just not possible any more. So with these are great tips, and the help of PD bike and ATV patrols, hopefully no one else has to be a victim
jmj April 30, 2012 at 06:05 PM
There's no one bashing the police for crimes they cannot prevent or the courts that rule they are not legally obligated to protect. Its a common misconception that most people need to be made aware of.
Suzanne May 01, 2012 at 04:58 PM
@karen - You should do some research on the salaries of the Forest Preserve Officers. They are one of the lowest paid departments in Will County, and yes very understaffed......... @jmj - I agree, the police cannot prevent crimes and it is a HUGE misconception. of the public.

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