In the past eight years, Champaign and Urbana witnessed a steep hike in gun violence and then a swift decline after 2021 — but the shootings still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.
The biggest increase in shootings occurred from 2019 through 2021 when there were a total of 749. Since then, there have been just 245 shootings through mid-July this year. The numbers were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the cities’ police departments.
Regarding the spike in 2021, both Champaign Police Department representatives and Urbana Mayor Diane W. Marlin said it mirrored a nationwide trend. Champaign police also noted Johns Hopkins University had declared gun violence in 2021 a public health emergency.
“2021 was a nightmare, a terrible anomaly,” Marlin said in an interview last month. “What scares me is the trend in the last 10 years, is people under the age of 20, younger and younger, with weapons involved in shootings and murders, unfortunately. It’s why we focus our government efforts on families with young kids.”
Overall, from January 2015 to mid-July this year, there were 379 reports of shooting incidents in Urbana and 1,025 in Champaign. Totaling 1,404, that means just over half of the shootings in the cities happened in just a three-year span.
Deaths from gun violence have gone up over the years, with 82 deaths across both cities since 2015. Since mid-July, news reports indicate Champaign has had one more deadly shooting, bringing the total up to 83.
Pre-pandemic, from 2015 to 2019, shootings in Champaign had increased from as low as 61 in 2017 to 100 in 2019. Shootings in Urbana during this time didn’t change from around 30 per year, except for 2017 where there were only 16.
Despite the decrease, the number of shootings last year did not return to pre-pandemic levels. This year, as of mid-July, Champaign has reported 48 shootings and Urbana reported 24. To return to previous levels, based on the number alone, Champaign needs to report 100 or less and Urbana needs to report 33 or less.
Champaign took program-based approach to curb shootings
Since January 2019, Champaign had a total of 725 shooting incidents:
- 211 had no injuries reported
- 311 had only property damage reported
- 166 had a victim struck but they recovered
- 37 were homicides
The Champaign City Council approved a gun violence prevention plan called the Community Gun Violence Reduction Blueprint on February 15, 2022. Jeff Hamilton, the Champaign communications manager, said recently the city will be reviewing the blueprint “to see what has worked and what has not worked.”
He said that a comprehensive report is not yet ready, but evidence shows the plan has contributed to the fall in gun violence. In 2021 alone, Champaign reported a peak of 259 shootings but last year it saw a 50% decrease to 129.
Clusters of shootings were located by CU-CitizenAccess using data provided by the police department:
- Northeast of University Avenue and Prospect Avenue
- Northwest neighborhoods like Garden Hills and between Bradley Avenue and I-74
- In west Champaign, near several apartments on Springfield Avenue and near the Ridgewood and Holiday Park neighborhoods
- South of Kaufman Park, near Centennial High School and surrounding neighborhoods
In northeast Champaign, the streets between Wesley Park and Douglass Park have witnessed six homicides in the last three years.
Southern Champaign saw the least amount of shootings, along with areas near Parkland’s campus. Areas on and near the University of Illinois campus have seen shootings since 2015, the bulk of which occurred in the area known as Frat Park.
Champaign police provided a statement about the causes of the unprecedented increase and what successfully mitigated it.
“Along with some incidents that can be tied to retaliatory shootings, the root causes of community gun violence were widespread, and reflected social and emotional issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Champaign police officials said in an email. “However, in the face of this rise in violence, the City of Champaign and our community took specific steps to not allow this violence to be normalized or to allow it to go unaddressed.”
“Through community policing, strong partnerships with the community and area organizations, and a new approach to addressing the root causes of the violence under the Community Gun Violence Reduction Blueprint, Champaign has been able to see a marked reduction in gun violence,” officials said.
They said there was a 50.2% reduction from 2021 to 2022 and a further reduction of 42.5% has been seen in January through July of this year when compared with the same time in 2022. “That would reflect a 70.5% reduction in incidents of gun violence when you compare January 1 to July 31, 2023, to the same period in 2021,” officials said.
Champaign police officials said the department practices routine, data-driven policing, and distributes patrols and innovative technology to historically underserved parts of the city, given that socioeconomic factors contribute to increases in crime.
“Through these efforts, multiple local agencies are able to provide mutual aid and back one another up, devote staffing to the joint Street Crimes Task Force, and promote safety across our community through unified training.”
City officials pointed to the gun violence reduction blueprint as an agent of change and gave credit to Champaign’s new Equity and Engagement Department.
Urbana used funding to address root issues causing violence
Since 2019, Urbana has had a total of 269 shooting incidents:
- 102 had no injuries reported
- 105 reported only property damage
- 44 had a victim struck but they recovered
- 18 were homicides
In 2021 alone, Urbana reported a peak of 115 shootings but last year it saw a 62% decrease to 44.
Mayor Marlin discussed Urbana’s approach: “While we didn’t label anything a gun violence prevention initiative, there were a number of contributing factors to the decrease. First off, COVID was easing off. Second off, we had great detective work. Number three, we allocated $10 million from our American Rescue Plan Act funds toward fixing root causes in the community, such as housing security, food security, job training, health wellness and youth programming.”
Michael Cervantes, criminal investigations division commander for Urbana police, said in an email that the department played a pivotal role in the decline through its cooperation with local agencies and “good old-fashioned investigative prowess.”
“By being dogged in their investigative efforts and securing arrests/prosecutable cases for those responsible for gun crimes, the officers of Urbana, along with the assistance of other local entities, remove the threats of violence one offender at a time,” Cervantes said in an email. “Our efforts and successful convictions also serve as a deterrent for those who would choose to prey upon others and give confidence to those brave community members who are willing to cooperate with the police during these serious and dangerous incidents.”
Clusters of shootings were located by CU-CitizenAccess using data provided by the police department:
- Northwest Urbana in the neighborhood north of OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center, next to MLK Jr. Elementary School and King Park
- Southeast Urbana near the intersection of Vawter Street and Silver Street
- A high volume of shootings occurred in the surrounding area of Carle Hospital
- The area around the Lierman Neighborhood Community Garden
Near Prairie Elementary School, there have been three homicides by firearms in the last three years.
It appears west Urbana saw the lowest number of shootings, being closer to the University of Illinois, although reported incidents have occurred there as well.
“We do our best to focus on areas where crime is committed and to prevent crimes when possible by increased patrols and surgical concentration on key actors when warranted,” Cervantes said. “We also try to make as many connections as we can with local residents and businesses as they are the true key to providing leads in any case. Personally owned video surveillance has become common and we often have to rely on those residents in the areas most affected by gun violence to cooperate with police and provide statements/videos.”
He said having patrol officers build trust at community events and interaction outside of enforcement is a “pivotal” strategy to establish relationships for when the department needs to call on members of the public for help.
Police officials said the efforts of the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office contributed to the “significant reduction” in gun violence since 2021.
Cervantes said COVID-19, disrupted schedules and public sentiment about police were a few key factors that contributed to the rise in crime in the first place, which started in 2020 and peaked in 2021 for gun violence. He said police became “more reactive in their approach to policing, which in turn contributed to the uptick in violence,” as opposed to proactive policing.
“There were many unknowns during COVID… Police rely heavily on the public for cooperation and this lack of contact, by becoming more reactive, did not do us any favors,” Cervantes said. “Once officers were infected, we were at limited staffing levels and had to take precautions to make sure we had officers on standby in the event multiple officers were infected/exposed at once.”
He said disruption of structured activities, such as remote work and school accommodations, provided more time and opportunities for criminal activity.
But Cervantes said public sentiment towards police, or at least officers’ perception of it, made it more difficult for police to “do their jobs in more traditionally proactive ways with the same level of confidence and vigor.”
“Some officers, myself included, felt unsupported at times by the media, some politicians and many of the most vocal members of the public. Some officers felt as though if they made a questionable choice in the performance of their duties and they might not have the support needed to weather the storm, whether or not their motivations were lawful and pure, because of unfair external pressure,” he said. “Despite this, most officers kept showing up and kept going to calls because they made a commitment to this honorable profession and the citizens they serve.”
“Officers, by and large, are good people and work very hard to protect others while putting themselves in harm’s way. These officers have a good moral compass and do this job for the right reasons, but are not infallible. They are people too, they have families and friends who care for and rely on them,” Cervantes said.
Gun violence is “always a topic of concern” for the department and a priority over other non-violent crimes.
“We have begun using additional gun tracing techniques in an attempt to better equip us to find the source of guns that we recover,” he said. “We have also begun to use more comprehensive data tracking of where gun violence occurs and are really looking at a variety of factors in those areas that the police can identify and work cooperatively with members of the community to address these quality-of-life issues such as lighting conditions, living conditions, etc.”
Advancements in technology, including surveillance systems, cell phone data, automated license plate readers and forensic DNA testing have all assisted detectives in Urbana. However, the police department does not operate any license plate readers of its own. Instead, it relies on the surrounding agencies that do for assistance with serious crimes.
“The ability to extract data from a device and/or review video footage, something that is impartial, is a game changer,” Cervantes said. “We are often able to collect data/evidence that may not have been available because of lack of witnesses and/or cooperation.”
While the department doesn’t know if gun violence will fall or rise, Cervantes said the positive strides it’s making will better prepare it to investigate and protect the citizens if violence does rise.
About 73% of shooting incidents occurred between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m. The most active hour was 1 a.m. between 2015 and 2023. The least active hours were between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m.