ROCKFORD, ill. – The teens were arrested so many times Deputy Chief Kurt Whisenand knew them by name. Accused of shootings, carjackings and armed robberies, they had become one of the most violent young delinquents in Rockford, Illinois, a town that has no shortage of them.
But it was a report from a few years earlier that most marked Whisenand.
Police believed most of the five – then aged 13 or 14 – had been sexually assaulted by the same man one of the boys had met on social media. The man bought them gifts, took them alone and mistreated them. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
Reading that report was “kind of a light bulb moment” – the kind of discovery that didn’t surprise the longtime investigator, exactly, but made Whisenand rethink the way he and others members of law enforcement had addressed violent crimes.
A few months of careful research later, Whisenand had data to support his hunch: Among offenders aged 17 and under involved in violent crime between 2016 and 2019 in the northern Illinois city, about 70% had been exposed. domestic or sexual violence. For some, the abuse started before the age of 1 and continued for years.
It’s the short version of how, after a pandemic year when the violent crime rate in Illinois’ fifth largest city skyrocketed along with much of the rest of the country, Rockford decided to spend a part of a federal windfall of around $ 54 million to revise its approach to juvenile delinquency. That means hiring a data analyst and improving the way the entire city – from the police to schools and social service agencies – interacts with young people. Perhaps dealing with these younger victims early on, they say, would prevent crimes from happening years later.
The roughly $ 2 million the city is investing comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $ 1.9 trillion program that funneled billions of dollars in economic stimulus directly to local governments. This is a “once-in-a-lifetime amount of money,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic left finances in tatters for many communities.
The money is so substantial and leaves such wiggle room over spending that communities across the United States are trying new, longer-term ways to fix what’s broken in their cities. For some, that means tackling increasing homelessness, replacing the lead pipes that make children sick, or finding other ways to tackle high crime.
There is no guarantee that any of the experiments will work. And in Rockford’s case, it will be years before anyone can say for sure. But after a year in which homicides and the number of people injured in shootings have doubled, city leaders are taking a calculated risk.
“Overall, for the past 30 years we’ve been fighting crime the same way,” McNamara said. “We know we can’t keep doing things the same way.”
Approved by Democrats in March over GOP objections that it was overspending and on projects unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic, the US bailout was one of President Joe Biden’s first legislative achievements. The massive plan included money for COVID-19 vaccinations, $ 1,400 checks to individuals, expanded unemployment benefits and a tax credit that is expected to reduce child poverty. It also provides $ 350 billion to state, local and tribal governments.
With violent crime on the rise this summer, Biden encouraged local officials to use part of their allowance to tackle shootings and homicides. For some local governments, this meant hiring more police or giving bonuses. Others have turned to non-police initiatives like summer jobs and mentorship programs.
In Rockford, a town of about 150,000 people just south of the Wisconsin border, the mayor and city council didn’t need to be pushed by the president.
Crime has been an ongoing challenge for the old manufacturing hub, once known as the “Screw Capital of the World” for the millions of fasteners it produced. The city lost jobs when factories closed across the Rust Belt and then with the pandemic. Rockford now has the highest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in Illinois, leading to foreclosures, deteriorating housing and nearly a quarter of residents living in poverty. Its violent crime rate in 2019 was more than three times the national rate for cities of similar size, according to FBI statistics. Not all police forces report crime data to the FBI.
McNamara, whose father was mayor of Rockford in the 1980s, studied criminology and sociology at university. Shortly after he himself became mayor in 2017, his office began analyzing crime data. Among the findings: About 40% of the city’s violent crimes were domestic violence.
McNamara formed a special office which helped establish the Family Peace Center in downtown Rockford. There, victims of domestic violence can obtain an emergency protection order, find counseling, help with food and shelter and other services all under one roof. Rockford Police are also working from the center. It is a multi-agency approach that city authorities now want to use for juvenile delinquency.
Between 2016 and 2019, the number of violent crime in the city declined every year, according to Rockford Police. As of November 2019, the city has gone four straight months murder-free, and McNamara was hopeful that Rockford could see another year-over-year decline in 2020.
“Then the pandemic hit, and it was like all hell had broken loose,” he said.
Most of the shootings over the next year were part of what then police chief Dan O’Shea called a “tit for tat” between the factions of two street gangs. They were largely concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods that are home to more of the city’s black and Hispanic residents. Too many, O’Shea said, involved minors driving around town with guns and “aimlessly detonating.”
Police said part of the problem may have been that children were not attending school and officers were unable to come out into neighborhoods and interact with residents because of COVID-19. A home life where young people may have lacked support before the pandemic, they say, has hardened.
A 37-year-old man has been charged in a bowling alley shootout that left three dead and three injured. And two murders were domestic matters, including the strangulation of a woman who had reported her boyfriend for abuse days earlier.
The eruption of violence among those trapped at home came as no surprise to Delicia Harris, an abuse survivor who has worked with youth programs in Rockford.
“You need to spend more time at home with these fools,” Harris says of the abusers. “You can’t say ‘I’m going to grandma’s’ or ‘I’m going barbecue at my aunt’s’ because we can’t go anywhere.”
This violence often involved young people who had grown up surrounded by violence. Between 2016 and 2020, 79% of homicide victims and 81% of known homicide suspects had been involved in abuse cases reported to police, Whisenand said.
In the city’s study of youth accused of violent crimes, one young guy had experienced a dozen or more incidents of domestic or sexual violence before the age of 18, either as a victim or as a witness. Some have seen parents and siblings shot or attacked with knives. In one case, a girl was the victim or witness of 26 separate assaults between the ages of 9 and 13, including 10 times she was sexually assaulted. When she was 17, she was arrested for assault and battery.
“My thought at the time was, ‘Well, sure it was,’ Whisenand said.
Camp Hope is one of the programs that Rockford already offers not only to child victims, but also to those who are present when abuse occurs.
The bus that carried the first group of 8-11-year-olds to the camp at the end of August was like a spaceship, the children said, nicknamed it “Ship Hope” for its seats and lights. sophisticated. When they got off at Atwood Park, a few hundred acres of woods and trails along the river outside of town, it was the first time some of them had left town.
The group spent three days walking in the woods, trying out archery, and talking about people like them who have lived through adversity. The goal is to help them believe in themselves and learn to cope with their own struggles, said Annie Hobson, head of youth services at the Family Peace Center.
For Hobson, it makes perfect sense that children exposed to violence can become violent themselves.
“That’s what they saw. That’s what they know, ”she said, adding that campers will leave with better coping skills and a mentor to connect with throughout the year.
The Associated Press was unable to interview camp participants due to the city’s policy of keeping the identities of minors confidential. Other pilot programs at Rockford are aimed specifically at girls or teenagers.
In cases of domestic violence, “I don’t know if we could ever adequately describe what it must be like for a child to see something like this happen,” said Jennifer Cacciapaglia, who heads the mayor’s office in charge. prevention of domestic and community violence.
If something isn’t done for these kids, she said, “we’ll pay for it. We will pay it now or later.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.