Report  |  Police, Violent Crime

A Survey of Law Enforcement in Central Illinois to Guide Violence Reduction Strategies and Project Safe Neighborhoods

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Introduction

Due to little systematic study of nonfatal shootings, gun homicides and aggravated assaults in Illinois areas outside of Chicago, it is difficult to apply the broader knowledge base surrounding violence reduction strategies in smaller communities, who may face their own unique violent crime challenges. Still, existing knowledge from across the globe on effectively reducing violent crime can be useful if the fundamentals are carefully adapted to local contexts. This fundamental knowledge points to a comprehensive approach for reducing violent crime that spans prevention, intervention, and suppression activities[1] at multiple levels of the social environment.[2] Challenges in applying knowledge about violence reduction in individual communities include a lack of actionable information about the characteristics of violence[3], confusion about key components of promising program models[4], and an absence of context-specific implementation guidance.[5] This research article summarizes a framework that can guide the development of localized models to reduce violent crime. This article also summarizes findings from a report sharing the results of a survey on the prevalence and characteristics of violent crime in Central Illinois, with a focus on offenses related to firearms and gang activity.

Project Safe Neighborhoods

Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) is an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and supports the development of local, tailored initiatives to reduce gun and gang violence. PSN guidelines promote the development of effective violence reduction strategies via data analysis, problem-solving, cross-agency partnerships, and assessment.[6] PSN’s outline for strategy development includes activities that in the past have led to successful violent crime reductions in Boston (Ceasefire)[7] and Chicago (Cure Violence).[8] While such initiatives implemented slightly different strategies, they both incorporated a comprehensive problem-solving process that included local observations about crime characteristics, research evidence, extensive partners/collaborators, a targeted focus, and program assessment.

The Offices of the United States Attorneys are responsible for bringing together stakeholders from law enforcement, government, and the public to build jurisdictional PSN task forces. The PSN task force is responsible for shaping the key components of PSN in its jurisdiction, which include core leadership and partnerships, targeted and prioritized law enforcement, prevention, and accountability.[9] PSN seeks to employ responsive problem-solving through the collection and analysis of data about violent crime, which ultimately guides PSN priorities and activities. Those activities are to result in a sustainable strategic action plan specific to the district, regular reporting about the program’s development and activities, and an evaluation at the end of the project examining whether program implementation reduced the targeted violent crime in the targeted areas.

Study Description

In November 2018, ICJIA conducted an online survey of 68 police and sheriff departments in Illinois’ Central region about violent crime in partnership with Central Illinois PSN’s leadership team. The survey was designed to supplement existing information about the characteristics of violent crime, involvement of guns and gangs in violent crime, and law enforcement efforts to reduce violent crime.

Methodology

Researchers conducted purposeful sampling of 285 police and 46 sheriff departments serving any jurisdiction located in one of 46 Central Illinois counties. In October 2018, the agencies were invited by email to respond to an online survey about violent crime. The survey was open for approximately six weeks from October 2018 to December 2018. Reminder emails were sent out weekly and reminder phone calls were made during the final week of the survey period to bolster responses. The survey was conducted online with Qualtrics survey software. Data was downloaded via Qualtrics’ web interface and descriptive and bivariate analyses were conducted in SPSS, a statistical software.

Survey Measure

Researchers developed the 37 survey questions with the assistance of PSN team members, who reviewed questions and suggested additional topics to explore. Question skip patterns and survey display logic were incorporated for some of the questions on the survey. The survey typically took approximately 20 to 30 minutes to complete in one session, though individuals could save progress on their survey and return to it at any point if time was needed to gather information about the questions asked.

Sample Description

A total of 68 of 331 targeted respondents completed the survey (a 20.5 percent response/completion rate). Most respondents functioned as the head of a municipal police department. Departments typically employed between 1 and 50 sworn officers (84 percent) and were located in both urban and rural areas, though mostly or completely urban areas were most common (61 percent). The 68 survey respondents were located across 30 of 46 total counties in Central Illinois.

Study Limitations

The survey response rate, skipped questions, and non-random sampling may affect the generalizability of this survey. It is possible a department’s top public safety threat was not listed for selection in ranking questions and individual personnel within a department may disagree with the response provided. Answers about the proportion of violent crime in a particular jurisdiction may be missing or reflect approximate estimates. Perceptions about what defines an “official plan” to implement a strategy and what constitutes a full specialized unit for responding to violent crime may, in practice, vary from the definition offered in the survey.

Key Findings

Top Public Safety Threats

Survey participants (N=68) ranked their jurisdiction’s greatest public safety threats from a list of 19 choices. Specifically, they were asked to rank the top three threats in order by placing items separately into one of three boxes labeled as 1st most threatening, 2nd most threatening, and 3rd most threatening. The choices most frequently rated as most threatening included illicit drugs (sale, trafficking, use) (38 percent), domestic violence (22 percent), and burglaries or theft (15 percent). The survey results indicated domestic violence was among the most common violent crime in Central Illinois. Fifty-eight respondents (85 percent) indicated that a crime related to violence was one of the top three threats in their jurisdiction. Among these respondents, domestic violence was included 76 percent of the time, followed by sexual assault/rape (21 percent), firearm offenses (illegal production, sale, possession or use) (19 percent), homicide (7 percent), physical assault (5 percent), child abuse (5 percent) and robbery (3 percent).

Eleven respondents (16 percent) selected firearm offenses (illegal production, sale, possession or use) as one of their jurisdiction’s top three public safety threats. All 11 jurisdictions were self-described as mostly urban or completely urban, with department sizes ranging anywhere from 50 or fewer sworn personnel to over 200. All but one of the departments selecting firearm offenses as a top priority were located within one of the 10 counties that made up 82% of aggravated assaults and batteries in Central Illinois during 2017.[10]

Overall, survey respondents indicated violent crime involving guns and/or gangs made up a smaller portion of violent crime than that related to drugs or domestic situations. In 25 jurisdictions shootings made up at least 1 percent of violent crime. Thirty-one respondents indicated that none of the violent crime in their jurisdiction was related to shootings. Additionally, respondents in 29 departments reported gang-related violent crime in their jurisdictions. Of those respondents, most reported the presence of gun violence as well. The survey results suggest violence involving guns and/or gangs is prevalent in only a small number of jurisdictions. Three respondents reported especially high proportions of violent crime (25 percent or more) related to both shootings and gangs. Up to a quarter of respondents reported that information regarding the proportion of violent crime in each category was not available at the time they answered the survey.

Law Enforcement Responses

Most respondents reported typical law enforcement procedures (not specialized or dedicated response units) were used when responding to violent crime scenes (from 62 percent to 90 percent of respondents depending on the context for the violence). This means fully specialized response units or the use of a few dedicated response personnel are mostly uncommon. Just over half of respondents reported a focused/targeted approach was utilized when implementing a strategy to reduce violent crime. However, hot spots (35 percent) and street stops (34 percent) approaches were used as well. Departments typically conducted one or more initiatives to engage the community (95 percent) and at least “occasionally” reviewed community feedback (60 percent). Most communicated with the public about their crime fighting efforts in person (88 percent) and through social media (77 percent). Ninety-two percent of respondents reported that at least some personnel had received training on sexual assault. Training in street gangs (38 percent), focused deterrence (25 percent), and firearm/bullet tracing (17 percent) was less common or infrequent. Out of 63 respondents, 59 percent reported having no official, public, or written partnership with any outside organization to reduce violent crime. Of those who said they did (n=26), the most common partner was another law enforcement agency (88 percent), followed by a non-profit organization (35 percent), non-law enforcement government agency (31 percent), college or university researcher (15 percent), community group (15 percent), school (8 percent), or other partner (4 percent).

Conclusion

This survey gathered knowledge about violent crime in the Central Illinois region to inform PSN activities. Domestic violence was the most common violent crime reported by surveyed law enforcement personnel in Central Illinois. The survey also revealed gun and gang-related crime was concentrated within a few jurisdictions and, overall, that perpetrators and victims of violent crime are not wildly different in this area than in others – young adults and mostly family or acquaintances with each other. Strategies implemented to reduce violent crime varied among respondents, but focused/targeted, hot spots, or street stops approaches were most familiar to departments. Lastly, the elements needed to implement a problem-focused, data-driven approach to violence reduction exist within many jurisdictions, but enhancements in specialized training and local community and research partnerships may be needed.

More research on violent crime in Central Illinois and ongoing efforts to reduce it is warranted. Future work might address law enforcement knowledge about and openness regarding a problem-oriented policing approach, community perceptions about violent crime, operational difficulties departments face, critical missing training, and characteristics of specific types of gun and gang crime.

Special thanks to Lauren Weisner, Mike Emery, Megan Alderden, Jessica Reichert, and the PSN team for their assistance with survey development and deployment, data analyses, and feedback.


This evaluation was supported by Grant #16-DJ-BX-0083 awarded to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the Authority or the U.S. Department of Justice.


Suggested citation: Escamilla, J. (2019). A survey of law enforcement in Central Illinois to guide violence reduction strategies and Project Safe Neighborhoods. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.


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  7. Braga, A. A., & Weisburd, D. L. (2012). The Effects of Focused Deterrence Strategies on Crime: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Evidence. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 49(3), 323–358. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427811419368 ↩︎

  8. Papachristos, A. V., Meares, T. L., & Fagan, J. (2007). Attention Felons: Evaluating Project Safe Neighborhoods in Chicago. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 4(2), 223–272. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-1461.2007.00096.x
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  9. U.S. Department of Justice. (2018, June 18). The project safe neighborhoods FY 2018 grant announcement. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. ↩︎

  10. Illinois State Police. (2018). Unofficial UCR counts for 2017. Unpublished. ↩︎

A Survey of Law Enforcement in Central Illinois to Guide Violence Reduction Strategies and Project Safe Neighborhoods