In June, when we wrote about the worsening epidemic of gun violence our community, there had been 115 shooting incidents in Champaign. At the time of publishing this article there have been at least 175. Urbana has had 67 shooting incidents as of August 12th. Some have been fatal. Nearly every day there is another report of a shooting, often involving teens and young adults.
They are happening in broad daylight and in the middle of the night. They are happening in public areas and neighborhoods. Numerous people have been traumatized by surviving a shooting or witnessing one. Many of us feel helpless. It’s an overwhelming and complicated problem in a time when our collective fortitude is worn thin.
Earlier in the summer, we spoke with leaders of local organizations who are trying to make a difference in the neighborhoods most affected by community violence, and heard their thoughts on solutions to this complicated problem. The News-Gazette shared their opinions on what they think needs to be done. Local news comment sections are filled with unhelpful takes. We wanted to hear from our local elected officials, and we thought you might, too. We reached out to the mayors and city council members in Champaign and Urbana to hear their thoughts on what needs to be done. Here are their responses.
How can you, as part of our local governing body, help solve this problem? What plans do you have for addressing this vital issue?
City of Champaign
Mayor Deb Feinen*
I share your concern regarding the violence that is happening in our community. Champaign police are actively working many cases involving shots fired and shooters. They have had several arrests and they have also gotten several guns off the streets. I also understand that the pace gun violence has increased in Champaign is a significant and very real issue. We need to continue our multi-pronged approach to this issue including providing economic opportunities, workforce development, and support for children and families. Programs such LIFT Champaign and Goal Getters in partnership with Unit 4 aim to provide that support. We also need to examine, improve, and grow our anti-violence initiatives such as those detailed here and work with researchers at the University of Illinois to identify the most impactful ways to address the root causes of violence. City staff continues to research and explore additional anti violence programs that are working well in other cities and I anticipate as we discuss the spending of the ARP money this fall that Council will allocate funds toward new and existing anti-violence initiatives. In addition to working toward positive social change for the future, we must also take proactive steps today to hold those responsible for gun crimes accountable and to get illegal guns off the streets. This includes utilizing technology such as cameras and license plate readers to support the work of our law enforcement officers. Finally, it is important to acknowledge that we need additional officers. From January 2019 through this summer, 32 officers separated from employment while only 17 officers were hired. As of July 2021 we had 21 officer vacancies. These past two years it was especially hard to recruit new officers. However, we have added new officers in the last few months and we have held a study session on hiring process changes directed at hiring officers. We can acknowledge a need for reform in policing and still understand that we need additional officers in our community. Our officers are being asked to work multiple shifts, respond regularly to gun violence and they deserve the opportunity to be mentally and physically refreshed. We must provide them with working conditions which allow for them to be at their best while policing and that includes having adequate staffing levels. If you want to be an active part of the solution in Champaign County, I invite you to join the Community Coalition and join those of us working to reduce and eliminate gun violence in CU.
*Editor’s note: This statement was updated to include links.
Davion Williams, District 1: Did not respond
Alicia Beck, District 2: Did not respond
Daniel Iniguez, District 3: Did not respond
Michael Foellmer, District 4: Did not respond
Vanna Pianfetti, District 5
Although on its simplest of levels, my role as a council member is to “enact policy and fund solutions”, the truth is, I am more concerned about what the increase of gun violence represents. And I believe people should expect that of me. They should want to know that as an elected official I’ve engaged, I’ve gained perspective, I’ve asked questions in order to better inform my thinking to know what solutions best represent the core of the issue so that anything I support may systemically change the trajectory we are on. Questions like what makes our neighbors feel vulnerable? Beyond lack of funds, what limits access to food sources? What defines a home / family? What kind of education or training would make you employable, so you can pay all of your bills? This summer I spent time engaging with youth, young adults, and senior citizens at the Loving U block parties throughout the city. As I blew bubbles, raced remote control cars, played catch and talked – really talked – I gained perspective and understanding. No matter the age and especially those hardest impacted by gun violence, they didn’t focus on policy or funding. Their focus was on what everyone craves – safety, food, money, health, jobs, and a good environment to live in – and they wanted to trust. So, I believe, that the power I have to impact change truly lies in understanding enough about our entire city to empower the right people and the right ideas such as those that would support our LIFT program, workforce development programs, housing programs that look at development in new, creative ways, and programs and policies that offer new ways to support our police and other frontline workers. In the end, it may always come down to policy and funding, but this issue is so much more.
Will Kyles, At Large: Did not respond
Tom Bruno, At Large: Did not respond
Matthew Gladney, At Large: Did not respond
Mayor Diane Marlin
Let’s begin with the premise that everyone in our community has a basic right to live in peace, to sit on their front porch, barbeque in their driveway, ride their bike, watch TV in their living room and sleep in their own bed without getting shot. As SP editors noted, gun violence has intensified in our community over the past few years, which means there are a lot of people who are not living in peace. The City of Urbana averaged approximately 26 shootings per year between 2010-2019. In 2020, police responded to 53 shootings, and, as of August 12, there have been 67 shootings so far in 2021. Long term, addressing community violence is tied to addressing poverty, trauma, housing insecurity, racial equity, education, gun regulation, job training, and family support. Short term, we must use every tool at our disposal to disrupt the escalating pattern of retaliatory shootings in C-U that began about seven years ago. In addition to the overall increase in shootings, we are facing a couple of alarming trends: 1) People are converting pistols into machine guns that can fire dozens of bullets in a few seconds. In a recent 2-week period, Urbana police recovered about a dozen guns, three of which had been converted into machine guns. 2) Some people are willing to shoot into houses, cars, and public gatherings without caring who they injure or kill. Recently, shots fired toward a house on Church St. left one woman dead and a pregnant woman paralyzed inside a bedroom of their home. Local governments cannot address this crisis alone; we need assistance from state and federal officials. Federal and state authorities must redouble efforts to stop illegal gun sales, gun trafficking, gun thefts, sale of parts that are used to convert pistols into machine guns and sale of kits that can be assembled into “ghost guns.” Locally, we need to strategically deploy technology such as license plate readers and cameras to help identify shooters. We need to support patrol officers and detectives by ensuring they have the resources they need. We need to prioritize staffing of the local interagency Street Crimes Task Force. Finally, in the coming months, local governments will decide how to allocate the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funding. This one-time infusion of federal dollars to our area could help support educational, training, and economic opportunities for young people so that they, and their partners and families, have viable alternatives to the activities that fuel gun violence.
Maryalice Wu, Ward 1: Did not respond
Christopher Evans, Ward 2
Government is going to do what it always has done for decades. To quote the Champaign County State’s Attorney: “Police and prosecutors can and must act when individuals choose to endanger our community and violate the law. We must investigate the crimes, identify the suspects, gather the evidence and make our case to hold the offenders responsible for their actions.” So that is going to happen regardless of what new initiatives we take. The usual responses we have to this are already paid for. All the laws have been written; all the jails and prisons have been built; all the police, prosecutors, and correctional officers have been hired. Mass incarceration has been tried for decades and still here we are. As for my plans to address this issue, I have none. In my entire life, I have never seen a human point a gun at another human. I don’t believe I’ve ever even talked to a person who had a pistol on them. I have no understanding of this shooting-other-people-because-I’m-mad business. A brilliant poet tried to explain it years ago. I can only hope Jesus finds these shooters before the cops do. As for earthly solutions, I would have to rely on experts with experience in this area. Organizations like First Followers and HV Neighborhood Transformations are groups I’m listening to. Former “gang” members, and formerly incarcerated people are ones to listen to. The black community is who I would like to hear from. Smile Politely should interview them. I am open to trying new things and making positive investments into the community. Stuff like housing vouchers, education scholarships, workforce training, paid apprenticeships, drug rehabilitation, mental health treatment, small business loans, more after-school mentoring, peer counseling, and church involvement might be worthwhile investments. But I would need to hear from people who know what would be the best use of tax money. Champaign, Urbana, and the County have about $78 extra million dollars to spend thanks to President Biden and the Democrats. Now is the time for people to step up and tell us what to do with it.
Sirese Hursey, Ward 3: Did not respond
Jaya Kolisetty, Ward 4
Like so many residents, I am deeply concerned about the gun violence in our community. Although we are hearing about increased rates of violence, this is a matter that the city should have always been paying attention to. In June, Council Member Bishop and I proposed an over $180K allocation for an evaluation of public safety needs with a focus on racial justice for our community and the Council unanimously voted to include this recommendation in the budget that was passed for this fiscal year. While this evaluation should provide guidance for our future efforts, we must also be prepared and ready to take more immediate action. I am inspired by the organizing taking place in our community and the innovative programs that have been implemented across the country. A recent article in the Illinois Municipal Review highlighted the following research-based, key components of successful public safety reform and I believe they provide a solid foundation for change in Urbana:
1. Listening to and Uplifting the Voices of Residents
2. Focusing on Violence Prevention
3. Ensuring Accountability and Review of Policing
4. Developing Health-Driven Missions
(Illinois Municipal Review, August 2021, p. 10)
There is research that shows that there are effective ways of addressing this crisis and I am dedicated to working with our community to ensure a safer community for all of Urbana.
Chaundra Bishop, Ward 5
First and foremost, collaboration between community members, police, courts, religious institutions and other nonprofits, local government, and social service providers is necessary for successful gun violence reduction. All their involvement is necessary because community violence is often a symptom of deeper economic and social challenges with oftentimes being a result of disinvestment in communities of color.
Often, the people at the highest risk of engaging in violence, are also at great risk for being victimized by violence. Gun violence prevention should work to address economic and social challenges facing people at high risk of committing violence and being victimized by violence, as well as those transitioning back into the community from incarceration. I see the most effective violence prevention programs are those that rely primarily on mobilizing the community to send the message that violence is not socially acceptable and will not be tolerated. I’d support funding initiatives that include conflict resolution skills, violence interrupters and mediators who would be on the ground to discourage retaliation and mediates disputes implemented and delivered by those who have “lived that life” and are from the very areas that need the most resources; ensuring that community members can participate fully in violence prevention efforts.
Grace Wilken, Ward 6
The city of Urbana has allocated money (around $180,000) this year for a study to assess community violence/safety. This is intended to give us a direction on how to effectively increase community safety. Additionally, we will be taking proposals soon (through Regional Planning Commission) for access to ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. We still need to set council priorities for spending this money, but I expect that community violence/safety will be important. I am attending a presentation from First Followers (and others) on their proposal for ARPA funds for wrap-around services to address community gun violence. We have also heard a presentation about the possible use of cameras or gunshot detection systems. I am open to hearing other ideas on how to address this issue, and encourage qualified groups to apply for ARPA funding.
James Quisenberry, Ward 7: Did not respond.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.