DeKalb police are looking into motivations behind recent spate of violent crimes
On one sunny afternoon, kids zip by on their bikes in an apartment complex not far from the Northern Illinois University Campus in DeKalb.
While things appear to have calmed down after a murder in August, a neighbor said she was moving. She lives near the victim and was home when 18-year-old Patrick Ross was killed.
She feels that violent crime has risen.
“It’s gotten worse, DeKalb has really gotten worse,” she said.
Police arrested a suspect, 25-year-old Michael Howard. DeKalb police said Howard lived with the victim with whom he had family ties. Family members told police Howard was on medication related to mental health but was not taking it days before the shooting.
WNIJ wasn't able to contact the family for comment.
The family’s neighbors said she’s lived in the complex for three years and plans to move for the sake of her two elementary-aged kids.
She said, “That's why I’m getting out of here.” “So, I could care less really, but I don’t want my kids involved. So, I’m moving.”
According to DeKalb police data, over the last three years, violent crime has gone up by seven percent.
Police say, thus far in 2022, violent crimes are trending to be the same or slightly higher than last year.
Ross’ murder was the first this year. Last year, there were four.
Several communitywide alerts went out last month. A 13- and 14-year-old were involved in a shooting of an 18-year-old near Founders Elementary School. Also in August, a 17-year-old shot a woman in a parking lot of an apartment complex where they both lived.
DeKalb Police Chief David Byrd ties these incidents to personal matters escalating to violence.
“You have to be able to resolve conflict, and some people aren't adapted to the ways of how to handle conflict,” Byrd said.
Byrd began in his position more than a year ago, and says crime is not solely a law enforcement issue.
He said, “You can't constantly make arrests and think that crime will no longer exist. That's not how it works. The root reason for crime is way more complicated than police arresting people, that's just not how it works.”
Byrd said communication with city officials and the school district, who he meets with monthly, is key to crime prevention and intervention.
He said more police officers would help the department respond faster to calls. The police department is budgeted for 65 but currently has 63 officers.
“So, personally, I like to see the department at approximately 80 uniformed officers, but it's a process,” he said.
Over the past decade, DeKalb’s population has gone down, but police funding has increased. In 2010, the police department made up around 30 percent of the city’s general fund, whereas in 2022, it makes up 38 percent, according to city budget reports.
Byrd says that even with more police there are circumstances difficult for law enforcement to prevent, like the death of Patrick Ross.
“It was something that would have been extremely hard to interdict, because it is a family problem, and it was within the framework of the family,” he said. “And once, you know, families get behind closed doors, you know, law enforcement is not privy to what's going on in those situations.”
The number of domestic-related calls the police respond to have gone up over the years. While gang activity and drug-related crimes have gone down. In 2021, police had 33 gang-related cases, that’s compared to 69 cases in 2020 and 65 in 2019.
“I can look back in the last three or four years and see where domestic related violence is very high,” Byrd said. “So, I think a lot of that, like I said, we spend a lot of times on a lot of police hours and manpower handling domestics.”
Since 2020, police have partnered with the Ben Gordon Center to have social workers help respond to non-criminal, mental health crises-related calls. Byrd says there were three social workers on staff, but now they are down to one.
“I think there is a good start,” he said. “We have to let our statistical data drive whether there's a need for additional social workers. I mean, if we had one on each shift, that would be great.”
During the George Floyd protests, local activists advocated for alternative ways for police to respond to social problems. That included calls for more investment in community services such as mental health care.
From 2019 to 2021, mental health related calls have gone up 140 percent.
Abbie Ascencio is the police department’s sole social worker. In her role, police may request her to come to the scene if it’s deemed safe to provide emergency counseling. She said some of the calls relate to disruptions that are related to the pandemic.
“Typically, it's, ‘I just moved here and I don't know the doctor so, I've been really struggling with getting my medication,” she said. “I don't have transportation. During COVID times, it really exacerbated some of these stressors that people already have it we're barely getting by.”
She said many mental health calls can stem from a family member whose loved one is in crisis and has lost a sense of control over a situation.
“So, you have parents who are calling because they're their children are just, you know, having they're being aggressive or they're throwing things or they're afraid that they're going to hurt each other,” Ascencio said. “You have also adults calling on their partners like I can't, you know, their increase of just substance use and now they're yelling, I can't control them.”
Ascencio may follow up with weekly visits depending on the severity of the issue. It’s designed to be short term. For more support, she helps link them to long term mental health services.
- Maria Gardner Lara is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ.