Peoria mayor credits program for reducing gun violence

Peoria mayor credits program for reducing gun violence

For more witnesses to start coming forward in high-profile gun cases, the entire community's view of violence must change, local officials say.

That's what many of them learned in researching the "Don't Shoot" program, based on a popular book by New York criminologist David Kennedy. It calls for a coordinated effort to curb gun violence — with community members playing as integral a role as law enforcement — and targets the groups of people responsible for the majority of the gun violence.

The community aspect focuses on getting those people around the worst offenders to say "enough is enough." Show the shooters that the gun violence is hurting real people by having them talk to the families of victims, pastors, neighbors and members of the community who are scared for their lives.

"People begin to normalize these shootings. We need to show them they're not normal," said Tracy Parsons, facilitator of the Champaign Community Coalition. "We need to talk about and share what is acceptable and what we want. That should be the code of what we follow, not the anti-snitching."

Once that message gets out, police and prosecutors need to do their part, said Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, who credits "Don't Shoot" for reducing gun violence in his city.

"The education piece is the carrot and the law enforcement piece is the stick," Ardis said. "After you go out and educate people, you have to make sure that when they do use a gun, you're coming down hard."

In Peoria, the prosecutors are 53-for-53 in prosecuting people who committed crimes after being initially targeted by "Don't Shoot," Ardis said.

"Still, we'd much rather help folks on the other end," Ardis said.

The other end, as laid out in Kennedy's book, calls for getting the offenders help through social services and education.

It could mean help getting a GED, dealing with a substance-abuse issue or training them for a job they weren't qualified for at the time.

"We're providing them alternatives to gang life and living in that culture," Ardis said.

In Peoria, most of the help has come at no cost, with the only significant expense incurred by the city being the hiring of a coordinator for the Peoria Community Against Violence group.

The city's police department restructured without adding any additional officers. Everything on the community side was donated.

"We're really not doing a whole lot that requires a great amount of money," Ardis said.

Author: C-U a fit

In a memo to the city council in November, Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb projected that the program would incur $66,720 in one-time costs in fiscal year 2015-16 and $31,401 in recurring costs beginning the following year.

The one-time costs are made up of improvements caused by the formation of a new unit focused on gun violence and include expenses such as two new police cars and workstation improvements. Two Champaign patrol officers will also likely be transferred to the unit and receive a pay bump that will cost the city $7,746. The recurring costs also include the upkeep of the cars and equipment and an annual $5,000 to be spent on training.

Kennedy, who's spoken to local officials about his program, says "from everything I know, Champaign-Urbana is" the type of community that could benefit from "Don't Shoot."

"They are clearly very good people with a high level of commitment," Kennedy said.

Plus, C-U already has in place the Community Coalition, made up of key stakeholders, focused on improving the lives of youth and their families and headed up by Parsons, whom the city of Champaign signed to on a one-year contract to serve as its community relations manager who helps run the coalition.

Parsons said the city is still exploring "Don't Shoot" and has not formally committed enacting it here. He was among about 20 community leaders who went to a statewide conference on the program in November. Since then, the group has met once and is now deciding how to proceed, he said.

"The community side is really the key component to a model like this," Parsons said. "If it's only law enforcement-driven and law enforcement-heavy, I don't think it can work."

Parsons said the coalition will take the lead on the plan, but conversations on what the program would include are still ongoing.

Figuring out the needs of the offenders the group targets remains a big unknown, Parsons said.

In talking with her counterparts in Peoria, Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen said the services can range from buying diapers for a baby to helping offenders get past long wait lists for mental health services.

Timetable: TBA

Ardis said the biggest hurdle in making "Don't Shoot" work is communicating what you are hoping to accomplish.

Once that happens, social services are usually the first ones to jump on board. "That's not a group you have a hard time engaging," he said.

Feinen said she hopes to involve as many people as possible, including victims of violence and their families, pastors and neighbors.

Lekevie Johnson, pastor of Jericho Missionary Baptist Church, believes local clergy will do what they can to pitch in.

"As an individual church, we're limited in what we can accomplish," Johnson said. "It's larger now. You can do more things. You can touch more people."

Johnson said Cobb has already improved police relationships with the community, and he thinks a program like "Don't Shoot" would only help.

"There are people who have been involved in gun violence who are members of the church, and they engage and trust you," Johnson said. "I think that's imperative. When you trust people on the front lines, that's why a collaborative effort would work."

When that will happen remains unknown. Both Feinen and Parsons said there's no start date on when the program might be implemented.

"We have been, and still are, in a crisis when it comes to the level of violence in our community," Parsons said. "It helps create some urgency, but I still don't have a timeframe."

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Similar program, positive results in Stockton

Among the places where anti-gun violence programs modeled after "Don't Shoot" have been enacted: Stockton (pop. 300,000), in north-central California, which in 2012 became the largest American city to declare bankruptcy (since passed by Detroit) and was a regular on most-dangerous-places lists.

Lately, though, Stockton has had news to cheer over: a 43 percent decrease in gun homicides since re-launching a program it calls "Ceasefire," which the city had success with in the late 1990s before disbanding it.

Stockton's police chief, ERIC JONES, lists 3 things C-U residents ought to know before embarking on something similar:

1. I was a skeptic early. "I frankly wasn't certain it would significantly help with our serious gang and gun violence. However, the more I learned about Ceasefire, the more it just made sense to focus on those most at-risk — of both shooting someone and/or being a victim of a shooting. It is more person-based than place-based. I have learned that it is not only data-driven and intelligence-led to get enforcement focused on the right individuals and groups, but it is also something that the community and police can get behind together and therefore bind police-community relations"

2. Don't count on a quick fix. "The thing about such violence-reduction efforts is that there are no immediate results, but rather it takes time and a lot of roll-up-the-sleeves staff work to get gradual reductions. Since our 2011 and 2012 violence peaks, we've seen gradual reductions from those highs. There is no doubt, however, that there is still a lot of work to do in Stockton."

3. People really do change for the better. "We have some young men who have taken the message to heart, left the lifestyle of violence, and have not only bettered their lives but are now helping us spread the Ceasefire message themselves to others, giving credibility to the program. We also have some people who have heard about the enforcement piece of the Ceasefire message and have not committed gun violence just because of the fear of local, state and federal law enforcement all working together."

JEFF D'ALESSIO

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