As a funeral home owner, Seon Williams has firsthand experience of the carnage gun violence leaves in its wake. As an activist, he knows the roots of the violence run deep.
No place illustrates the link between guns and death more clearly than a funeral parlor. To bring that point home to at-risk teens, Williams took them to "the worst streets of our community. We had guys who had been to prison meet us on that block and they had the hard conversation about what happens in the block," said Williams.
The tour ends with a walk through Williams' funeral home and a discussion on what the families of gun violations go through.
Williams is a member of CU Fresh Start, a coalition of stakeholders who have partnered to address a marked increase in gun-related incidents in Champaign-Urbana. A team of law enforcement, pastors, government officials and representatives of the U.S. attorney’s office for the central district of Illinois oversee the program now in its third year.
The 2009 shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington by a Champaign police officer sparked a dialogue on police-community relations. Williams joined the conversation as a member of the Community Coalition.
"We started a conversation on how we could be proactive in the community. We wanted to bring everyone to the table because we knew we needed all hands on deck," said Williams.
The Fresh Start initiative uses focused deterrence to identify individuals likely to be involved in gun crimes, said U.S. Attorney John Milhiser. Once identified, the potential offenders are invited to a meeting, known as a call-in, with team members.
The Fresh Start message to known gun users is blunt, said Milhiser: "Look, we know who you are, we know you're committing these crimes, you're going to be prosecuted and locked up, or you're going to go this way and you're going to start making the right decisions." The team conducting the attempted intervention includes a relative of a gunshot victim church leaders and a person who served time for a gun crime, said Milhiser.
The biggest challenge now, said the U.S. attorney, "is the age of the offender. They are younger and younger."
Former McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery, who now works as law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office, serves on the Fresh Start team.
The new path offers targeted individuals help with employment, mental health services and housing.
Operation Ceasefire was developed in Boston and serves as the model for Fresh Start and similar programs in 70 other communities across the country, including Peoria's Don't Shoot initiative.
So far, 70 people have met Fresh Start's criteria of being over 18, on parole or probation and having a prior conviction for a violent or gun-related offense. Of the 70, 36 could not participate because of incarceration, work issues or a pending court case. Sixteen of the remaining 34 call-in partcipants accepted the offer for services.
Half of the 16 participants were working or not in the criminal justice system, according to 2018 data. Of the 18 who refused, only three were not in the system; others were on parole or incarcerated and two were dead.
When guns are used to settle a dispute, the ensuing violence often begets more violence, Williams acknowledged. Neighborhoods become war zones of retaliation as innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire between members of gangs, or cliques, as law enforcement refers to offenders without ties to organized gangs.
Team members volunteer to respond to shooting incidents as part of an effort to quell fear and more violence before it starts.
"Their role is to bring calm to the neighborhood," said Williams.
Tracy Parsons, community relations manager for the City of Champaign, said data collection is a key part of Fresh Start's work. Information on every shooting—where, how and who was involved—is reviewed.
"Data helps determine the solution," said Parsons.
Measurement of the program's impact is not limited to a drop in gun-related crimes. In 2018, the two cities saw a total of 8 homicides — all gun-related, up from 5 the previous year. The 182 incidents involving guns did not reach the 2016 level of 193 but the concerning uptick was higher than the 122 reported in 2017.
"It's getting these guys to put their guns down and building a collaboration to address gun violence," said Parsons.
Funding for Fresh Start comes from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and the Champaign County Mental Health Board.
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