Area police assemble street crimes task force

CHAMPAIGN – Police agencies in Champaign County are joining up to address the increase in gun violence across the area.

While overall crime in the area is down, gun violence has increased in Champaign-Urbana and its surrounding communities. Law enforcement leaders on Tuesday announced they have assembled a street crimes task force with representation from various agencies to focus on preventing gun violence and reducing the number of illegal guns on the street.

That task force will comprise eight police officers from the Champaign, Urbana and University of Illinois police departments and the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office. The group will utilize intelligence-led policing methods to address known offenders and their associates involved in criminal activity, as well as address hot spots and problem areas identified by the participating agencies.

“The community is calling for us to address this epidemic, and collectively we felt that a team approach would be the best way to address that,” said Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly. “Our hope is that we can strategically focus our undivided attention on this community problem and put a stop to this violence.”

Cooperation is not new to the participating agencies. The departments regularly collaborate on major investigations, special events and other incidents.

“Early in the process, we began to pool our intelligence data, but quickly we saw the shootings continued in Champaign-Urbana and into the county,” Connolly said.

The law enforcement heads made a plea to the community for help, too.

“This has been very challenging, since many of the witnesses and victims have refused to cooperate,” said Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh. “Some out of fear, and some because they intend to seek retribution on their own. Despite this, Champaign detectives developed information on a suspect who they thought might be one of the next victims. They went to him, they warned him, they asked him to cooperate. He refused. He was shot within a few days.”

Some of the task force’s contact with community members will be through traffic stops, which is a valuable law enforcement tool in initiating contact with someone who is suspected to be illegally in possession of a gun or an associate of a known criminal. Walsh said the officers intend to be “surgical” in their approach, stopping primarily those who are known to be involved in illegal activity.

“These shooters are dangerous people, and these will be dangerous encounters to our deputies and our officers,” Walsh said. “They have guns, and some are convicted felons. They shoot at each other and even at each other’s family homes. We believe they may shoot at police if they feel they are facing arrest.”

Officers will be respectful of citizens’ constitutional rights, Walsh said, but they will also be very safety conscious. Tensions will be high, he said, and he make a direct plea to those who are stopped.

“To the shooters: We want to take your guns, and we want to put you in prison if appropriate,” Walsh said. “But we don’t want you or anybody to get hurt in the process.”

U. of I. Police Chief Jeff Christensen reiterated that the community has a role in this, too. Police can’t do it alone, he said.

“Our most important resource is our community,” Christensen said. “Share information, please. Get involved with the Champaign Community Coalition, to neighborhood groups, or whatever. We need a societal, community response to this, not just strictly a law enforcement response. Assist us in solving these problems. The most important thing to us and our most important resource is our community.”