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Gun Violence Plateaus In Bloomington-Normal

Illegal guns seized
Bloomington Police
Gun violence in Bloomington Normal stayed steady in 2020, unlike national data.

McLean County law enforcement agencies reported an average amount of gun violence in 2020. That’s a significant deviation from the national picture and the numbers in some other central Illinois communities.

Bloomington Police said there were 27 shooting incidents last year. The five-year average is 28. The three-year average is 25. Police in Normal recorded 30 gun cases in 2020 compared with 31 in 2019. Shots fired incidents dropped slightly from 14 to nine in Normal. The McLean County Sheriff’s Department reported just one gun case, though such things are typically rare in rural areas of the county, said Sheriff Jon Sandage.

chart of Normal Police Department gun incidents in 2020 and 2019
Credit Normal Police Department
NPD reported no clear trend in gun cases, though Chief Rick Bleichner said the pandemic did slow the pace of cases through the courts, leaving a higher number unresolved than usual.

That contrasts with neighboring communities that saw significant gun violence increases in 2020.

As of last July, Champaign had recorded 95 shootings -- twice the number recorded by mid-year of 2019. Shootings also were up in Peoria -- to 136 in 2020, compared with about 95 the year before. That's a 40% jump. The number of homicides by shooting in Peoria declined from 18 in 2019 to 14 last year.

In Chicago, police reported spiking numbers of shootings and gun homicides. There were more than 4,000 shooting victims in Chicago in 2020 compared with about 2,600 the year before. Chicago had 769 gun-homicides last year, 274 more than the previous year.

Bloomington Police Gun Cases

  • 2014  13
  • 2015  17
  • 2016  47
  • 2017  24
  • 2018  15
  • 2019  33
  • 2020  27

Bloomington Police spokesperson John Fermon cautioned against making too much of trends in other municipalities.
"Bloomington is a unique city, just like Champaign, just like Peoria, just like Decatur. There are different income levels, different businesses, different cultures; it's just hard to compare," said Fermon.

Yet, Bloomington-Normal numbers ran counter to the national trend as well, which saw substantial increases in gun deaths and injuries and the highest level of gun deaths and injuries in 20 years. That does not include suicides in which guns were used.

Law enforcement officials and experts have suggested the national spike in gun violence comes from social and economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 virus, with a historic shortage of jobs and resources in poorer communities as contributing factors.

Teasing out reasons for the discrepancy in Bloomington-Normal is not easy.

"Any time you talk about criminal justice and social science, there are so many different factors that weigh in. I don't know that you can draw a causal connection to any one factor," said McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp.

Twin City police agencies reported no impact from the pandemic. There were drops in gun incidents during the early months of the shutdown, but those are typically months with low gun activity anyway. By summer, shots-fired incidents had increased to regular levels, said BPD’s Fermon, adding enforcement plays a part in keeping numbers stable.

"We could have one person commit 10 or 12 shootings. So, just because the number is there, there could mean five or 10 shooters if they do it multiple times, which most of our shootings occur; it's 15 to 20 people, not just random teenagers or whoever," said Fermon.

Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner agreed.

"Sometimes you will have a lull in a particular situation. You can't underestimate the fact. I know it's not overly popular, but if you have individuals that are the trigger people in these types of cases, it's not uncommon that when you remove them from the streets, your cases go down," said Bleichner, who  cautioned against reliance on changes in any single year.

"Sometimes, that's how it goes. Sometimes, we have more cooperative witnesses. We have more ample evidence and video and such and that leads us to be able to make those arrests," said Bleichner.

The supply of guns also impacts the level of violence.

"I see some incredible work by the Sheriff's Department, by the Normal Police Department's ProActive Unit, by the Street Crimes Unit in the Bloomington Police Department, that they look for opportunities to get illegal guns off the street," said Knapp.

Indeed, Bloomington Police seized 48 guns last year. Fermon said that is an increase from 2019.

Knapp said prevention also plays a big part in reducing gun violence.

“With the help of entities like the Jewel Foundation and Andrew Held at City Life, and Linda Foster at the NAACP, or the Boys and Girls Club. It's to get high-risk youth especially some help to try and turn them on a different track than picking up a gun," said Knapp.

He said his office gets frequent calls from ministers, youth agencies, and the NAACP, asking for interventions with specific young people before crimes get committed. And he said it works the other way, too.

“What can the state's attorney's office do to make sure this kid has every chance, deferred prosecution or knocking down charges. And those are the conversations and the support we have mutually. We talk quite a bit," said Knapp.

The pandemic has put a twist on youth intervention efforts, said Bleichner.

"I know for Juvenile Justice Council and the summer jobs program and Youthbuild, they continued with those programs, but they had to move to virtual components and that made it more difficult than having the true in-person effort," said Bleichner.

Fermon said it’s hard to quantify results from intervention efforts that create an absence of gun violence.

And though the Twin Cities avoided the gun violence increases seen across the nation last year, Bleichner said the pandemic may contribute to future potential increases because youth intervention needs to be ongoing and personal -- not virtual -- to remain effective.

"I don't know that we could do that long term. I think we would start to see repercussions and additional problems, especially with youth," said Bleichner.

Bloomington-Normal does have one thing in common with the rest of the nation: Gun violence disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.