Rising shooting incidents leave C-U residents divided on cause, response

By Faith Allendorf, Interim Summer Editor-in-Chief

Last October, 24-year-old Urbana resident Liam Gasser was excited to make a hyper-realistic costume based on Disney’s “The Mandalorian” for a Halloween party.  

“He was going to go to (JOANN Fabric and Crafts) to get foam and rubber for the costume,” said Terry Von Thaden, Gasser’s mother. “When he left, I said, ‘OK, I’ll see you later and help you finish up your costume.’”

However, Gasser would not get the opportunity to finish his costume.

While driving near the Target store on Prospect Avenue in Champaign, Gasser was cut off by another car. He honked at them.

At the next intersection, the car maneuvered to the side of Gasser’s vehicle, rolled down a window and shot Gasser in the head. The shooter sped away and has yet to be identified.

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According to the Champaign Police Department, shooting crimes in Champaign increased from 76 incidents in 2018 to 259 in 2021 — a 240% increase.

In Urbana, the numbers are just as high. According to the Urbana Police Department, shooting crimes in Urbana increased from 32 incidents in 2018 to 117 in 2021 — a 259% increase.

Although gun-related incidents in both cities are down in the first quarter of 2022, officials and community members say the number of shootings has risen sharply in recent years.

José Atiles Osoria, a professor of criminology at the University, said what is happening in C-U reflects the increase in violence across the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, gun-related violence in the U.S. increased 43% over the last 10 years. 

According to the New York Times, in 2020, more than 45,000 Americans died in gun-related incidents. This is the highest amount of incidents reported since 1994.

Atiles Osoria said the COVID-19 pandemic could have caused the influx of shootings. During the pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs and had a hard time accessing the unemployment system.

“A lot of people who lost their income would resort to other mechanisms to make a living,” he said. “The fact that there were people who didn’t have access to basic income affected their livelihood, and that caused a lot of people to engage in criminal behavior.”

Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Fienen believes the pandemic affected the number of shootings in C-U. The data from the C-U police departments show that between 2020 and 2021, shooting incidents increased 37% in Champaign and 117% in Urbana.

Fienen said mental health worsened during the pandemic, and it was harder for people to seek services. She also said it was more difficult to identify “at-risk” youth since teachers were not in the classroom with their students to intervene.

“When you have kids in a classroom, reaching out to kids in those families is a little bit easier because you’ll have a connection,” Fienen said.

Atiles Osoria hopes that, since the number of COVID-19 cases has been going down, the number of shootings will decline too. So far, his prediction has been right. In the first three months of 2022, there were 49 total incidences in C-U, down from 59 this time in 2021.

However, Atiles Osoria is concerned the number could spike in the approaching warmer months. He said crime is historically higher in the summer because people are outside more. In C-U, shootings that occurred between May and September made up 42% to 56% of the yearly incidents from 2018 to 2021.

“It can get worse, or it can get better,” he said. “There’s no telling.”

Atiles Osoria also said rising economic tension in the U.S. could contribute to the uptick in gun crimes. A study by the Pew Research Center revealed that in 2016, upper-income families had 75 times as much wealth as lower-income families. In 1983, that number was 28.

Atiles Osoria said violence heavily occurs in “racialized, poorer communities.”

In Champaign, the violence is concentrated in predominately Black neighborhoods where the median household income is under $36,311. The average median household income in Champaign is $53,936.

“It has to do with social economics, race and class, and it is oftentimes concentrated in those areas because people have been forced to live in those areas by historic reasons such as redlining,” he said.

To try to combat the rise in gun crimes, the Champaign City Council passed a $3 million plan to combat gun violence called the Blueprint on Feb. 22.

According to Mary Roberson, the community relations specialist for Champaign’s Equity and Engagement Department, the Blueprint is a collaboration between the city government and preexisting community action agencies.

Roberson said Champaign will partner with nine agencies that were already working on curbing gun-related violence through addressing income inequality, preventing reoffending, reaching out to youth and more.

The Blueprint will put more funds into those agencies and create other resources to “fill in the gaps” that Champaign did not already have. Some partners include the Trauma and Resilience Initiative, First Followers and Crime Stoppers. 

“We’ve got agreements with all of these partners as to what programs and services they’re going to provide, what population is going to be impacted and how many they’re going to serve,” Roberson said.

Fienen said she is optimistic about the Blueprint’s impact on Champaign.

“Being able to give people financial opportunities is going to make a difference,” she said.

However, not everyone is as optimistic as Fienen.

John Boch, the executive director of Guns Save Life, said the Blueprint will not do anything.

“Afterschool programs and crap like that are not what the city needs,” Boch said. “What the city needs is to hold the violent accountable and put them away for a long time. That would be productive.”

Boch was specifically critical of the part of the plan that would connect those formally charged with a gun-related crime to services that would help them merge back into society. He said both C-U and Illinois have been “soft on crime.”

“We’re basically releasing bad guys back out into the streets … who go out and hurt more people,” Boch said. 

John Blake, founder of Citizens Against Gun Violence in Urbana, said while he supports the Blueprint’s mission, he does not think it will work the way the city government is expecting. 

“You have to have people willing to show up and complete those programs,” Blake said. “So, I continue to bring up why don’t they put some of that money into a program with a response that sees results now?”

Instead of the Blueprint, Blake praised Champaign for approving the installation of automatic license plate readers across the city in December 2021. This fit into Blake’s idea of a program that would bring results now.

However, Urbana, where Blake lives, did not vote to install the readers. Blake, a victim of an Urbana drive-by shooting in November 2021, was not happy.

“I said, ‘No, this is wrong,’” Blake said. “What you’re trying to do is convince your fellow community members that you represent that it’s okay to let this violence continue.”

Maryalice Wu, an Urbana City Council member, said she was disappointed.

“I voted for it,” she said. “The primary reason they shot it down was that they felt like there wasn’t clear evidence that it would actually address the issue.”

Boch was happy the vote did not pass in Urbana. He said he was uncomfortable with the readers because of privacy risks.

“Anything that we do for the government sooner or later gets abused,” Boch said. “I think that stuff is too easily abused by the agencies that implement them who have rogue employees that tend to abuse the surveillance information.”

Boch suggested that the surge of gun-related violence in C-U was a result of the police being short-staffed. CPD reported that out of the 25 vacancies, 14 are patrol officer jobs.

Boch said that law enforcement needs to be supported, not attacked. He referred to police “defunding” movements.

“Criminals are more inclined to commit crime when we’re attacking, defunding and not supporting our police,” he said.

Fienen had a similar belief. She said that while she understands the need for police reform, having fewer officers does not make the community safer.

“If you talk to (police), there would be some that tell you that it is a stressful job that has become more stressful,” she said. “It’s hard to do that job if you’re not being appreciated.”

Atiles Osoria disagrees with Boch and Fienen. For him, gun crimes “are not just a law enforcement problem — it’s an economic, racial, gender, mental health and law enforcement problem.”

While the rising number of gun crimes in C-U may be influenced by multiple causes, there is one effect: The victims’ lives are forever altered.

Gasser, who just wanted to build his Halloween costume, survived being shot.

Today, Gasser is back in his Urbana home with Von Thaden. He lived despite a traumatic spinal cord injury, and he came home from a Chicago rehab facility on March 16.

However, surviving was only half of the battle. Gasser cannot walk on his own or properly use his arms or hands without support.

Von Thaden, a widow, is his primary caregiver, but she said doing it all on her own is difficult. Gasser needs comprehensive physical therapy, but their health insurance limits their options.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” she said. “We can’t even get him the help he needs now.”

Von Thaden said that dealing with the insurance issues has not been the hardest part of his recovery.

“The hardest part is seeing the excruciating pain Liam is in,” she said. “That’s the most traumatizing for all of us.”

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