Champaign police chief on recent violence: 'We believe this is retaliation'

Champaign police chief on recent violence: 'We believe this is retaliation'

CHAMPAIGN — A "significant rise in gang-related gun violence" in recent weeks had Champaign's police chief issuing a desperate plea for help from the public Wednesday.

"None of this is random," Anthony Cobb said the day after shots were fired at the Oakwood Trace Townhomes in the 1000 block of North Third Street around 9:30 p.m., leading to the arrests of William Laws, 19, of Champaign and James Borden, 30, of Urbana. It was at least the third shooting incident in Champaign-Urbana in three days.

"We believe this is retaliation," Cobb went on to say. "We believe this increase may also be connected to recent releases from the Illinois Department of Corrections. We know it's expanded, and innocent people are going to be hurt bad. So if you're part of the family of one of these people, you're at risk yourself, and everyone else is also at risk."

Cobb spoke to local leaders at Wednesday's meeting of the Champaign Community Coalition. The regular agenda for the monthly gathering was scrapped in favor of a two-hour discussion devoted entirely to gangs and gun violence — and what to do about it.

Champaign police believe the recent rash of incidents is connected to a rivalry between two groups.

The incidents include two on Sunday evening — one that left a man with a gunshot wound in the arm; another a drive-by shooting that left a family of six, ranging in age from 1 to 71, caught in the middle at their home on West Eads Street in Urbana. No one was hit, despite police finding 40 shell casings in the area.

Cobb said police have increased patrols in areas where the shootings have occurred. But, he was quick to add Wednesday, a beefed-up police presence may not be enough of a deterrent.

"Last night, we had an incident where we had officers around and (gang members) knew we were there but still acted," Cobb said. "So they want to take chances and risks knowing the police are nearby."

Many in attendance Wednesday, including Cobb himself, believe the best solution for reducing gun violence will come outside of law enforcement — through direct contact with perpetrators, without the police around.

For that to happen, local Pastor Willie Comer said, community members can't be afraid of such a meeting.

"I've been a part of multiple times in Chicago where we've had to call a truce between two groups. But it's not called because the two groups want the truce. It's because the community wanted the truce," said Comer, executive director of the East Central Illinois Youth for Christ.

"So we need to call out the leaders and have a meeting and sit down to have that discussion. It has to be personal. One-on-one. And it may not last six months, but it'll stop shootings today."

That may well be the next level of action, but Champaign Community Relations Manager Tracy Parsons expressed concern over meeting directly with members of the rival groups.

"I'm afraid to be talking about going to some of these folks and going in their spaces because if you're not prepared and you're not equipped to go in, it could end badly," he said. "We need a new level of understanding about the ruthlessness and the lack of concern these people have."

Cobb said he'd be happy to see the violence stop, one way or another.

"If one of you is able to love on them and get them to put down their guns, I'll be happy," Cobb said. "If you have a way to relate to someone and make a change, please help us.

"But also recognize that I have a job to do in holding people accountable."

Attendees also heard from Champaign resident Maurice Hayes, who served 17 years in prison on a murder charge and said he has over the past seven years worked to keep young people out of jail.

When dealing with gang members, Hayes advised coalition members: "Don't judge them" without knowing the circumstances of what led them astray. "Who are you to judge what they do?

"Instead, have compassion and lend yourself to them. Lend yourself to help."

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