SPD fights gun violence with tough love

 Springfield Police Department Chief Kenny Winslow spoke at the Citizens Club of Springfield’s August policy breakfast, held at Hoogland Center for the Arts on Friday, Aug. 24. His subject was gun violence in Springfield, specifically the SPD’s recent adoption of a “focused deterrence” policy where offenders are identified and offered two options: either go to prison or sit down with professional partners and demonstrate willingness to change. “They won’t listen to cops or parents,” said Winslow. “It just goes in one ear and out the other.” However, when offenders are told that the SPD is working with state and federal prosecutors to build cases for maximum sentencing based on their existing case files, with no option for plea bargains, they tend to sit up and take notice. Those who choose to stick with the program are offered instruction in job skills, anger management, substance abuse and other areas that could assist in becoming productive community members.

Participants attended sessions by “impact speakers,” including representatives of law enforcement, prosecution and the overall community, along with former offenders and families of victims. Community members describe some of the real-life consequences of gun violence but it’s the former offenders who make the greatest impact with their stories. One of these, described by Winslow, had been an honor student who was talked into selling drugs on a part-time basis, eventually becoming hooked  on the money, women and power offered by his status as a dope dealer. This young man eventually had to fend off assassination attempts and watched family and friends killed by competitors, until his life became a lethal cycle of vengeance and violence. Winslow said that these former offenders must be 100 percent on the straight and narrow or risk totally compromising the program.

Winslow said that while the department does a decent job of displacing violent crime with heavy patrolling, such methods are only effective in the short term. In order to find a more permanent solution to the gun violence issue, the department has partnered with Southern Illinois University in Carbondale criminology professor Tammy Kochel, utilizing a grant from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to begin a “focused deterrence” program.

After researching several options, Winslow said the SPD settled on a program based on a focused deterrence initiative used in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 2000s, which resulted in a reduction in gun violence between 20 and 30 percent. Winslow said that between 2014 and 2017, Springfield averaged 800 shots fired calls per year (not all confirmed – many calls claiming shots fired turn out to be fireworks, a car backfiring or even fabricated in order to hurry police response). “What we saw in the stats was that it was a small group of people responsible [for shots fired], between 75 and 100 people,” Winslow said. Based on the operations of other focused deterrent programs, the SPD decided to concentrate on the top 10 or 15 people first, later moving down the list.

Blind case files, with no names or other identifiers, were prepared on approximately 10 of Springfield’s worst offenders, containing the individuals’ criminal histories and other relevant information, and were next presented to a multidisciplinary team, including members of the U.S. attorney’s office, the state’s attorney’s office, the SPD, Department of Corrections, representatives of Public Schools District 186 and community members. This team ultimately selects which offenders should receive focus.

While Winslow cautioned that a minimum of two years of data would be required to draw final conclusions, early results of the program are encouraging. Of the original 10 offenders targeted, five are now incarcerated, with one out on bond. Only one stayed with the program, with the other three promising to stay straight without help. In 2018, shots fired in Springfield were down 22 percent citywide. “That’s encouraging to us,” said Winslow, “But is it sustainable?” Officers this year went door to door in targeted areas and spoke to community members, telling them to expect to see more officers on bike and foot, walking and talking. “Nobody starts as a shooter,” Winslow said. “Most start with petty crimes from a young age and move up from there – it’s important to make contact with kids early and let them see officers as positive role models.”

Scott Faingold can be reached atsfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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