It’s a mid-spring morning and Officer Sammi Rodriguez – Badge No. 7458, Fox Valley Park District Police Department – steers her black Ford SUV around a bend on Route 25 in North Aurora. She’s northbound when the Red Oak Nature Center parking lot zooms into view on the left, as do the spinning red strobes atop a fire truck, which is parked and revving in the lot.

There’s a young boy clutching dad’s pinkie nearby.

“Let’s see what this is about,” Rodriguez says. “Hopefully it’s a touch-a-truck or something like that.”

Rodriguez pulls into the lot and gets an immediate thumbs-up from the North Aurora firefighter, a universal sign of “all good.”

“For kids,” says Rodriguez, “it’s all about education. It’s not about spooking and scaring them.”

Take, for instance, a call that Officer Sammi Rodriguez – Badge No. 69, Village of Oswego Police Department – received a week earlier from distraught parents whose 4-year-old popped a kid in the face at pre-school, an offense that carried an out-of-school suspension.

Mom and dad hoped a police officer might scare some sense into the boy.

“I said, ‘We can talk about consequences, but he needs to understand what he did was bad first,’ so I took him on a walk and made sure he and I were cool,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t want him to be scared of me when he needs help later on and can’t call me because I came and told him he was a terrible person when he was 4.”

Officer Sammi Rodriquez pulls double duty. The 26-year-old works part-time at FVPD, where she got her start in policework 10 years ago. Her goal of six shifts a month complements her full-time duties on Oswego’s police force to which she was sworn-in on May 4, 2021.

‘Opportunities to learn here’

Rodriguez first gravitated toward policework as a junior at Geneva High School where business law and psychology classes touched on law enforcement and case studies that involved criminal history. Here at FVPD she received mentoring from senior officers, participated in ride-alongs, helped the administrative assistant develop a new reporting system, and was offered a job as Park Service Officer, or PSO, before joining Oswego, attending the Academy, and getting sworn-in as a full-time officer with the village.

Rodriguez studied law enforcement and justice administration at Western Illinois University before transferring back home and earning her Liberal Arts degree from Aurora University. During her time at AU, Rodriguez held three part-time jobs – at FVPD, a private security firm, and security at a local hospital. She paid her education tab in full.

“I would do 6 a.m. to almost midnight at all times,” says Rodriguez, noting AU’s class schedule allowed her to shoehorn work shifts into the day. “I can see now that working as a teenager really helped me develop the work ethic I have now.

“There’s so much room to grow and opportunities to learn here. I would’ve started younger if I could have, and I made a lot of connections that are helping me today.”

On patrol, 365

At FVPD, Rodriguez is one of 14 part-time patrol officers who monitors facilities and community centers, along with dozens of mainstream parks and a 48-mile regional trail network. Currently, the District employs six full-time officers and 14 PSOs – civilian officers who play key roles in assisting sworn officers with traffic control, enforcing parking violations, managing tournament crowds at Stuart Sports Complex, and conducting foot patrols in facilities and at the two outdoor aquatic centers.

Many part-time officers, like Rodriguez, serve full-time in other police departments, including the Kendall County Sherriff’s Office, Lewis University Police, and Montgomery Police. Other District officers are retirees of other departments with decades of experience, making FVPD either a springboard for aspiring officers or a landing zone for those passionate about public safety.

FVPD police are on patrol from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the year; an ATV unit is added to the patrol fleet during the summer months to monitor trail activity.

“We’re definitely a non-traditional police department, but we have the same ability and authority to enforce the laws as any other police department across the country,” says Larry Lapp, FVPD chief of police. “We spend more time doing preventive patrol work and providing more customer service. We have the luxury of spending more time trying to solve problems than just reacting and rushing to the next call.”

Temps up, activity’s up

Warmer weather and longer days inevitably lead to more activity in the parks – good and bad. Common violations involve consumption of alcohol, illegal dumping, permit issues involving field or shelter rentals, unleashed dogs, altercations at pools, and unruly spectators at youth tournaments.

Activity spikes over the weekends, especially in parks, where Lapp quips, “back in the day I heard people say the ‘Squirrel Police’ when they were talking about us.” But the chief also notes that parks “are a common spot for drug deals” and FVPD cops regularly assist their municipal partners in blue.

“We bring a little expertise,” Chief Lapp says, “because we know a lot of the players in the parks who are causing the problems.”

Speaking of parks, the FVPD owns, maintains and protects 170 within its boundaries. And there’s a good chance you’ll see an FVPD police cruiser roll through this summer when “I like to focus on the smaller parks,” says Officer Sammi Rodriguez, the possessor of two badges. “Those are the ones that go unnoticed, and also the ones where you get the local neighborhood kids playing.

“So, I like to get out and say, hi.”