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In Bloomington Neighborhoods, Fears Of Gunfire Outpace The Stats

Police cars in a neighborhood
Andy Streenz
2018 was the deadliest year for gun violence in Bloomington-Normal in recent history, with nine people shot and killed. Seven others were wounded by gunfire.

Police say violent crime is down in Bloomington. It doesn’t feel that way to Misty Colwell. 

Colwell rents an apartment in the 800 block of East Washington Street in Bloomington, where shots rang out in broad daylight on a Tuesday last month.

“I was in the shower. And I heard a boom, boom, boom. I’m like, OK, that’s not normal at this time of the afternoon. I look outside my bedroom window and I see a whole bunch of police officers in our courtyard, yelling to people to ‘get down, get down!’” Colwell told GLT. 

"In the years of me living in Bloomington, this is the worst it's ever been."

Colwell said her 12-year-old is scared. They want to move but their lease isn’t up till the fall. 

“It’s very scary. In the years of me living in Bloomington, this is the worst it’s ever been. I’ve not been that close before to an actual shooting,” Colwell said. 

2018 was the deadliest year for gun violence in Bloomington-Normal in recent history, with nine people shot and killed. Seven others were wounded by gunfire.

But gun violence doesn’t just impact those who are hit by the bullets. It’s also the neighbors who call 911 after hearing gunshots. It’s a gas station clerk working the late shift during a robbery. It’s the victim who was robbed at gunpoint at a Clearwater Avenue apartment on the near east side Jan. 28.

It impacts people like Misty Colwell. Police did arrest three men in their early 20s in connection with the Feb. 26 shooting on her street. 

Colwell said she wants to see more of a police presence in her area. 

“I’m just glad my daughter was at school. Because it was a nice day out. She could’ve been outside playing,” Colwell said. “A bullet could’ve accidentally hit her. Because once a bullet leaves a gun, there’s no stopping it until it actually hits something. You don’t know who it’s going to hit.”

Beyond The Numbers

2018 saw a spike in gun homicides but not in overall gunfire incidents, according to Bloomington-Normal police. Bloomington Police say overall violent crime actually fell 1 percent in 2018. There were 15 verified reports of shots fired in Bloomington in 2018, down from 41 in 2016, police said. In Normal, the number of weapon-related offenses fell by 7 percent in 2018, police said. 

There are many reasons for the disconnect between public perception and crime statistics. The same is true nationally. Surveys regularly find that Americans believe violent crime is up nationally, even when the data show it’s fallen sharply over the past quarter century, according to the Pew Research Center

There’s a lag in public perception “because these things are sticky,” said Janet Lauritsen, Curators' Distinguished Professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

“Seeing violent crime go up—especially homicide and gun crime—is something that can stick with you long after the rate has come down a bit,” Lauritsen said. “Imagine if there was a shooting on your street, in your neighborhood. Even if it was a one-time incident, it would stick with you and others for a quite a long time before they thought that risk was gone, even though statistically it might be reduced. And I wouldn’t say that’s unreasonable.” 

Brein Huffman of Bloomington lives just a few blocks away from Colwell and where the Feb. 26 gunfire incident happened. Her daughters attend nearby Washington Elementary School, which was put on lockdown while police investigated. 

Huffman grew up on nearby Grove Street. There are a lot of kids in the area, she said, and she’s used to letting her girls walk down the street and go to the park. 

“It’s never been an issue, but it’s definitely something I think twice about now,” Huffman said. “All of these things are happening, and I feel like they’re getting closer and closer to us.”

Huffman moved back to Illinois about four years ago. Now, partly due to the crime, she’s thinking of leaving again. She also knows that the recent gunfire in Bloomington happened during the winter. Crime often increases in the warmer summer months. 

“What’s gonna happen when we’re all wanting to be outside?” Huffman said. 

Fear and Uncertainty

Gun violence can also have economic implications. 

Karen Kinsella and her husband, Gerard Berthel
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Karen Kinsella and her husband, Gerard Berthel, buy foreclosed residential property in Bloomington, rehab them, and then rent or sell them

Karen Kinsella and her husband, Gerard Berthel, buy foreclosed residential property in Bloomington, rehab them, and then rent or sell them. He’s an electrician. She does the cosmetics and design. 

The money they make is set aside for their retirement. “It’s our 401(k),” Kinsella says. They also take pride knowing that they’re revitalizing a community where Kinsella has deep roots. 

But the recent crime has them spooked. They’ve owned properties near Lee Street and Seminary Avenue, a few blocks west of Illinois Wesleyan University, for several years. But that area has turned into a “powder keg” in the last six months, Kinsella said. Trevonte Kirkwood was shot and killed in the nearby 1300 block of North Oak Street last October; his death remains unsolved. On Jan. 31, shots rang out in the 1400 block of North Lee, striking a residence, police said. 

“We like Bloomington. We believe in Bloomington. Right now we’re in a position to start buying more. But we’re hesitant,” Berthel said. “Do we want to keep investing? How do we want to invest, and where? So those are all question marks.” 

Kinsella said it’s discouraging to get calls from tenants worried about their safety. One tenant—to whom she vouched for the safety of the neighborhood—recently put up Ring security cameras. Berthel and Kinsell say they too no longer feel safe when they’re out working on their properties. 

Kinsella spoke to Bloomington aldermen about gun violence during public comment at a February city council meeting. She wants to see more response from Mayor Tari Renner and aldermen. 

“If the people need more resources, maybe that’s something the city council and city manager could investigate. We need to revisit public safety and make that a priority. I think that’s drifted,” she said.

Bloomington Police Chief Clay Wheeler recently delivered his department’s 2018 crime statistics to the city council, showing a 9 percent overall decline in crime from 2017. The reasons for that decline, he reported, included the use of data-driven responses to high crime areas and repeat call-for-service locations, plus systemic coordination on habitual adult and juvenile offenders. 

That 9 percent decline is in so-called UCR, or Uniform Crime Report, statistics. That’s a broad collection of crimes that range in seriousness from theft to sexual assault and homicide.

Spring Fund Drive
The value of UCR stats is limited because it only tallies crimes that are known to police, said Lauritsen, the University of Missouri-St. Louis expert in crime data and trends. She said criminologists typically don’t look at total crime counts like the 9 percent decline reported by BPD. 

“We’d never use the total count, because it’s vastly dominated by larcenies. The less serious a crime is, the more prevalent it is, typically. So those total counts are dominated by the least serious offenses, and therefore masking important trends that you’d want to look at,” Lauritsen said. 

In his March 11 presentation to aldermen, Wheeler acknowledged the disconnect between long-term crime data trends and the public perception of crime.

“We have suffered great loss in the community due to the number of homicides. Nothing I can say or will say diminishes the loss felt by the family and friends,” he said. “It’s also important for me to acknowledge that any reduction in overall crime numbers does not lessen the impact on individuals who’ve been the victim of crime or felt fearful due to crime occurring in their neighborhoods.” 

Another factor in public perception about crime is the way police departments themselves communicate about that crime. 

Today, the Bloomington Police Department routinely shares reports of shots fired, shootings, or armed robberies on its Facebook page, reaching tens of thousands of residents who may share the post with their own friends. Media outlets like GLT report on those incidents too. That’s a big difference from 15 years ago when it was easier for someone to miss a radio newscast or not read the paper and simply not hear about something, said John Fermon, BPD’s public information officer. 

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. We want to be transparent, but that comes at a cost,” he said. 

INTERACTIVE MAP: Gunfire Incidents in 2019

Chief Wheeler has said he hopes 2018 is an outlier for gun violence. There have been at least seven gunfire incidents so far in 2019, in many different parts of the city and often in broad daylight. (One happened as Chief Wheeler was delivering his crime stats report to the Bloomington City Council.) Also last month, shots were fired around 2:30 p.m. March 16 in the 1900 block of Tracy Drive in south Bloomington, striking an apartment building, police said. Shots were reported around 1:45 p.m. the next day at Jersey Avenue and Kingswood Drive. Police found shell casings in the area. 

Bloomington saw 15 verified shots fired reports in 2018. Will that rise in 2019? 

“Fifteen is an extremely low number. We’ll probably be over that, I’m assuming, especially once the summer comes,” Fermon said. 

BPD’s goals for 2019 include a continued focus on reducing violent street-level gun and gang crimes. To that end, Fermon said they’re in the “grassroots stage” of a new initiative to better inform officers about what social services are available, particular for youths. With around 240 community resources available, that fragmentation can make it hard for police to know who to call, for example, if someone they encounter has transportation needs, or a kid needs a coat, or something more serious. 

“We can’t connect the dots. It’s hard. There are organizations that do their thing, and we may not be communicating with them because we don’t know what they do,” Fermon said. “That’s a huge thing we’ve noticed. We need to work more together.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.