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Transcending borders: Gun violence is a ‘big community issue that we need to rally around’

Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 10:20 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 24, 2020 at 10:50 PM CDT
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(KWQC) - Arrests alone won’t solve gun violence in the Quad-Cities, police said.

“It is a big community issue that we need to rally around,” Maj. Jeff Bladel, assistant police chief of the Davenport Police Department, said.

Data obtained by TV6 Investigates shows police in Davenport, Bettendorf, Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline have responded to more than 250 confirmed gunfire incidents and seized more than 350 firearms since Jan. 1.

“I think what the key factors are that are driving gun violence involve chronic violent offenders that we deal with and felons in possession of firearms,” Rock Island Police Chief Jeff VenHuizen said.

Some police departments said these are significant contributors to the problem of gun violence in the Quad-Cities.

But, with dedicated resources, police are working to take even more guns off the street, hold violent criminals responsible for their actions, and try to prevent crime before it happens.

TV6 Investigates recently sat down with police and prosecutors in Davenport, Rock Island, and Moline about those resources and its impact on gun violence.

“We want to stop crime before it happens,” Moline Police Chief Darren Gault said. “Police departments have become so responsive to that 911 call, and we do those things really well, but we’re really looking at new and innovative ways to try to stop crime before it happens. And really the number one way for that to happens is to have the public be involved and sharing information and intelligence information with us. No piece of information is too small for us to evaluate.”

A long-term ‘game-changer’

In June 2019, the Davenport Police Department installed the Integrated Ballistic Identification System, which creates a 3D image of cartridge cases and cartridges test-fired from seized guns.

The image then is entered into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, a forensic ballistic evidence tracker managed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, to see if it matches cartridges recovered at other crime scenes.

Davenport previously sent cartridge cases to the state’s only crime lab, which entered the evidence into NIBIN.

It could take months before police received the results. With NIBIN, that information comes back much quicker, police said.

Davenport’s system is also available to other police agencies on both sides of the Mississippi River.

“We share leads, we share ideas, we share investigative information and collaborate on that,” Bladel said.

“I think the Quad Cities, we are big we are spread out, but we’re still not, you know, overly big to where we can’t sit down with our neighboring agencies and talk with them and plan with them.”

Moline Police Chief Darren Gault said the department recently was granted a crime analyst.

“We are finding a lot of matches, either from the firearms themselves or shell casings or ballistic evidence that matches to other community’s gun violence,” he said.

Gault said NIBIN would be a long-term game changer for the department.

“The technology is absolutely essential to our police operations going forward,” he said.

Rock Island County State’s Attorney Dora Villarreal agreed.

“That has definitely been a very big help,” she said. “It’s led to other leads to pursue in cases.”

Gun units

Gun units, tasked with investigating gun crimes, play a significant role in the Quad-Cities and help bring cases forward for prosecution.

“In January, we started a gun unit, specifically dedicated to targeting those that are illegally possessing firearms in our community,” Gault said. “And, my direction to that staff was to get those firearms off the streets.”

As of Sept. 9, the department seized 97 firearms this year, compared to 17 in 2019 and 26 in 2018.

Gault said the city had seen some “significant” incidents over the last few years. One of those incidents was the fatal shooting of Corey Harrell Jr. in front of City Hall in October 2018. Police have not made any arrests in his death as of Thursday.

“That took an individual from his family and from our community,” he said. “We need to solve those and, most importantly, prevent those.”

Davenport launched its gun unit in October 2018 to handle gun crimes of all kinds, including homicides, thefts, burglaries, and road rage incidents.

2017 was a particularly violent year with 12 homicides – all due to gun violence.

“We formed that (gun unit) really out of necessity,” Davenport Police Chief Paul Sikorski said. “We needed to concentrate efforts on that specific issue.”

He said the unit is a hybrid of “detective and investigative” work.

“They also do a lot of fieldwork, a lot of surveillance work there,” Sikorski said. "They work hand-in-hand with the county attorney and the U.S. Attorney, and our federal partners as well.

VenHuizen said the department established its gun unit around 2014 after seeing periodical spikes in gun crime.

“We know a lot of these offenders that are involved in these types of violent crimes,” he said. “A lot of times, we don’t have cooperating victims or witnesses, and so we do everything we can to develop cases against these offenders.”

Crime Stoppers, a community program that allows people to provide anonymous tips bout criminal activity, is one tool police utilize as they investigate crimes.

Moline Police Det. Jon Leach, the coordinator for Crime Stoppers of the Quad Cities, said the program averages around 20,000 tips a year through the P3 app, where people can submit tips securely and anonymously.

Last year, Crime Stoppers gave out about $25,000 in tip money, he said.

“We encourage people as soon as you see something to say something,” he said.

Cooperation

Police and prosecutors said the interagency cooperation, both in Rock Island and Scott counties, is exceptional.

“Because it transcends borders cities across the river, and so we have to work very closely because we are all dealing with a lot of the same offenders,” VenHuizen said.

Gault added, “The ability for people to move around the quad cities is very high, and so, yeah, when we see problems in Davenport, we do see those individuals either pass through or interacting in problematic areas in Rock Island and Moline. So, we do share that intelligence.”

In July 2019, the Davenport Police Department announced it was selected to join the National Public Safety Partnership. The partnership between the department and the Department of Justice is a three-year commitment to ensure police have the necessary tools, training, resources, and technical expertise to tackle gun crime.

Marc Krickbaum, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, said the police department, through a grant, gained a research partner at the University of Iowa to analyze gun crimes. Specifically, they are looking at ways to identify people driving the violence in Davenport, the most effective way to target them, and identify those who may not be good candidates for prosecutions.

"That’s an important tool to try to use data and expertise from the university to make sure that we’re using our resources effectively.

Krickbaum said his office also partnered with the police department late last year to hold meetings with people soon-to-be complete work release.

“The first part of the message is to try to connect them with services and opportunities, both with jobs and housing,” he said. “But, the other part of the message is the warning part, which is that if you go back on the path toward crime, to warn them about the consequences of federal prosecution.”

Villarreal said her office has a prosecutor dedicated to street crimes. The office also works to flag habitual weapon and violent offenders early, getting appropriate bonds set and seeking longer sentences for the “these more serious, violent habitual offenders.”

“There’s this big move towards criminal justice reform, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we go easy on all crime,” she said. “We need to prioritize our serious violent crime that is keeping our community scared, and we need to ensure that we’re getting the resources and help for those that are dealing with mental health problems, drug addiction, the less serious crimes.”

Krickbaum said gun crimes are a priority of his office and that “virtually everyone in our office” regularly is prosecuting gun crimes.

A system is in place to vet these cases, he said, and identify the most violent offenders early.

Community-based efforts

Area police departments said they couldn’t fight the problem alone, even with the best technology.

Sikorski, Gault, and VenHuizen all emphasized the need for community-based efforts and the role it plays in preventing crime before it happens and gathering information to find those responsible.

“In the preventative portion of this, that’s where I think as a community we need to come together and get better on,” he said. "There are things that we can do as a community with our social services. We have great partnerships with our social services that are out there. We really need to, as a community need, to invest on the front side of our kids, meaning early on in their lives, we need to take part and really invest in our young youth and families. "

One initiative launched by the city is the Good Neighbor Project, designed to help neighbors connect and form functioning neighborhood groups.

“If we expand that project into more areas of our city to really have our residents learn who each other are and learn to trust each other and then bring resources into them, it really works,” Sikorski said.

Police said they hope to continue improving those relationships within the community.

“Our fear is that people are caught in the crossfire,” Gault said. “We’ve seen that. Anything we can do to make our community safer involves the public and involves the partnerships.”

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