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.
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."
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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