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Another record year for Champaign shootings warrants debate over causes, solutions

D.J. Roach / For CU-CitizenAccess

In July, Kieshaun Thatch, 17, was killed and four others were wounded in a shooting at the American Legion in Champaign, where mourners were gathered for a funeral. 

Thatch’s uncle, David Dalton, 32, was shot and killed just 11 days earlier, and police estimated more than 90 rounds of gunfire was exchanged between both shootings.

These shootings were just two out of about 250 in a year that has already seen its highest number of shooting deaths ever recorded in the city, at 16 so far. The previous high of 9 occurred just last year, and even all the numbers that measure gun violence in Urbana have tripled in the past five years.

Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman said the rise in shooting incidents and homicides this year can be attributed to retaliation in a lot of cases.

“The thing we’re seeing is, that it’s not just one instance that happens, there’s a lot of retaliation that happens back and forth,” Heuerman said. “Which just really keeps the cycle going.”

That cycle played out again in mid-November when a 40-year-old woman was shot outside of a memorial service for her nephew, who was shot and killed just two weeks earlier on Halloween night.

While retaliation may be to blame for a lot of the shootings, law enforcement officials and community leaders said it is not the only cause.

For example, in October, 24-year-old Liam Gasser, a recent University of Illinois graduate, was paralyzed from the neck down after an incident that police describe as road rage taken to the extreme, while his mother described it as a random act of “extreme, ruthless violence by people who don’t regard human life.” When Gasser was cut off by another vehicle while driving on North Prospect avenue in Champaign, he honked his horn.

A passenger riding in the car that cut him off responded by shooting Gasser in the head.

“Stop calling it road rage,” his mother said in a News-Gazette article. “That means there is an extended interaction, aggression, provocation. There was none of that here.”

Indeed, the reasons for the rise in gun violence are many and debated by both law enforcement and the community.

Some point to a lack of youth programs and the ability to engage young adults, while others say social media may be partially to blame. Staffing shortages in the Champaign Police Department — which has been down by about 25 officers out of a force of about 125 — is seen by some as a factor. Others point to a lack of resources and investments in the poorer neighborhoods as contributing to the rise in gun violence.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in Champaign is now at 25%, meaning one in four people in the city live in poverty. Illinois as a whole has a poverty rate of 11.5%.

Record highs for the second straight year

Shootings in Champaign, defined as anytime police find evidence shots were fired, and not necessarily that someone was injured, have been occurring under a variety of circumstances and have been spreading to neighborhoods where gun violence had been infrequent. And the violence has sometimes been brazen.

For example, Jonathon McPhearson, a 17-year-old Centennial High School student from Champaign, was killed when he was ambushed by a group of masked gunmen as he sat on the side of a busy road, in broad daylight, just steps away from an elementary school.

Even a Champaign Unit 4 school bus taking students home was struck by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting on September 9. No children were hurt in the incident, but it served as a wake-up call for parents, and the community.

“I am outraged,” Superintendent Shelia Boozer said in a letter to parents following the shooting. “Please know the safety and well-being of all of our students and staff will always remain a top priority for our District.”

Gun violence also occurred when police responded to a report of domestic violence. The first Champaign police officer killed in the line of duty since 1967 occurred on May 19, when Officer Christopher Oberheim and his partner Officer Jeffrey Creel exchanged gunfire with a suspect while on a domestic disturbance call. Oberheim and the gunman were killed, while Creel was shot but would survive his injuries.

Heuerman said online feuds contribute to recent causes of the dramatic increase in gun violence.

“It’s multifaceted, but it’s immaturity in some cases,” Heuerman said at a recent town hall. “We are seeing feuds where somebody sees something on Facebook and then they are upset by that, and instead of having a productive way to get out their aggression, they turn to a violent way.”

New programs to lower gun violence

New programs and policies to deal with gun violence have started both within law enforcement and the greater community.

One such program is CU Fresh Start, a community-led approach that borrows from the “focused deterrence” model to connect with individuals who have been involved in gun violence, and offers them resources and support to choose a different path.

“It is a partnership of law enforcement, social service providers and community organizations”, said Mary Catherine Roberson, who serves as Community Relations Specialist with the city’s Office of Equity, Community, and Human Rights. “And for it to be successful, it requires equal buy in on all parts.”

Other new programs and policies included permanent metal detectors installed in the two high schools and a controversial proposal to use Automated License Plate Readers and gunshot detection equipment.

While the license plate readers were voted down in Urbana, Champaign are set to vote on their implementation at next week’s city council meeting on Dec. 21.

Other cities have used the technology and claimed success. Rantoul had the same readers installed in June, and police say they have already contributed to seven arrests. Joliet has used the cameras for over a year and have touted a 30% increase in clearance rates for violent crimes. But not everyone is excited about these new tools.

Alicia Beck, who represents District 2 on the Champaign City Council, says she supports the license plate readers but is against the gunshot detection technology, which police are recommending be put in in the Garden Hills neighborhood.

“I can’t stress enough that the community is begging us to do something to address the gun violence in our community,” Beck said during a recent city study session. “But what I see happening is the building of a fence around our black and brown neighborhoods. I think it begs us to have a public dialogue as we implement it, so that we can build bridges if we are going to institute these sorts of technologies.”

Meanwhile, community groups and local media continue to run town halls and panel discussions with experts digitally and in person, such as WCIA’s Victory Over Violence series. 

“We know that the impacted people living in the communities often have some of the solutions in mind of what they think is best done in their community,” Roberson said. “And they don’t always know where to start, they don’t always know the resources that are already available to them, or the work that’s being done.”

She added, “I think that collaboration is a really huge part. And it really will be a huge piece of solving this issue is everybody across the board working together.”

Karen Crawford Simms, founding director of the CU Trauma and Resilience Initiative, said: “A lot of times people want to blame the conversations around redirecting funding for police on our current escalating rates of gun violence. But there have been no reforms, all the data happened last year, we’re just now looking at reforms. So you can’t blame any major reform on our current state of gun violence. This is the status quo. And so, if the status quo isn’t working to contain things, maybe we should try something different.”

According to GunViolenceArchive, a national nonprofit with a mission to document and verify gun crimes, the majority of gun violence in this community is happening with young people. Half of the 16 homicides this year have been people under 20 years old. The same is true for gunshot injuries in 2021, as nearly half of those also were from this same age group, the youngest victim being just 3 years old.

“Community violence is a symptom of a community’s disease, it is not the cause of a community’s disease, it is a symptom,” Simms said. “Having talked to young people and their partners, their girlfriends, their parents, many have been under-supported and in need for a long time. When there’s a lack of resources and opportunities and access to guns…You have sort of a toxic mix.”

A nationwide epidemic

The rise in gun violence is a national crisis. Cities across the country are struggling to come up with effective ways to combat it. 

Much like on the local level, the number of shooting victims and homicides nationwide were at an all-time high in 2020, and it will most likely be even worse in 2021. Gun-related homicides nationwide are up 65% this year from what they were in 2014.

In 2020, the United States experienced its largest one-year increase in homicides on record, according to figures released by the FBI. About 77% of those were committed with a firearm, the highest share ever reported. 

In addition, gun purchases appear to be at an all-time high. While the government doesn’t track the number of guns sold in the United States, a good indicator is the number of firearm background checks done. 

In March of 2020, federal background checks reached one million in a week for the first time since the government began tracking them in 1998. Since then, there have been six other weeks that have topped that number.

According to FBI statistics, 7 of the 10 highest days for federal background checks occurred in 2021. It is a troubling statistic for some gun control advocates, who point out that even some guns bought legally make it into illegal markets every year. 

In November, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker declared gun violence a public health crisis and pledged $250 million to the hardest hit cities to support high-risk youth intervention programs, violence prevention services and trauma recovery services.

“Every neighborhood and every home deserves to be free from violence, and the State of Illinois is making an unprecedented statewide investment in the pursuit of violence reduction through the Reimagine Public Safety Act,” said Pritzker in the press release announcing his executive order.

Because Champaign-Urbana falls into that category, discussions could begin as to how some of that money can be spent.

D.J. Roach / For CU-CitizenAccess

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