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DeKalb city leaders react to the summer's rash of violent crimes

A rash of violent crime in August in DeKalb included a shooting involving teens as young as 13-years-old. Another instance resulted in the murder of 18-year-old Patrick Ross. City leaders spoke with WNIJ and shared their perspective on what a solution to the problem may be.

WNIJ previously reported that violent crime increased by seven percent over the last three years, as the number of domestic and mental health related calls have grown rapidly.

Police are investigating another report of shots fired near campus over the weekend.

DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes said his priority is to reduce the use of firearms.

“Shots fired needs to end, I have roughly two and a half years left in this term,” Barnes said. “If I can't make a significant impact on that in two and a half years, and I'm the wrong guy for the job, and someone else needs to come in.”

The majority of violent crime occurs in the Annie Glidden North area near the NIU campus. As the student population has decreased, families have settled in the area attracted to the affordable rent. Mayor Barnes says a key part of reducing violent crimes is ensuring that property owners are vetting applicants.

“What we've seen in some of those properties is, there are people that were living there, committed a violent crime, actually served time, returned to that same residence, and were allowed to continue to live there,” he said.

He’s referring to recidivism, when a person who’s served prison time for a crime and commits another crime after being released. The U.S. has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.

2“Even someone that served time, really wanted to do good going forward, realizes the error of their ways, wants to become a contributing member of society going forward, and you come out and you have no money, no place to live, and no support service for you,” he said. “I could see where it wouldn't take long, we'd have to revert back to old ways, just in order to survive.”

The city requires landlords to inform tenants they could be evicted if they or a guest are involved in any crime activity. But he said initiating an eviction process must be driven by the property owners, not the city.

“I'm gonna make it my mission over the next two and a half years that every landlord understands what their responsibility is to the community and what their responsibility is their fellow tenants,” the mayor said

The conversation around this community isn’t news. Several years ago, the city adapted the Annie Glidden North Revitalization North Plan.

Kurt Thurmaier, the chair of NIU’s Department of Public Administration, sat on the taskforce that developed the strategic plan. According to the report, the area makes up about a quarter of the city’s population.

“That's a lot of people and to have it isolated and have people not wanting to go there because of the crime reputation or something is not healthy,” Thurmaier said. “And, and so it's not just how do we help people in that neighborhood engage and other places of the city. But it's how do we get the city to also reengage with that part of this.”

He said the redevelopment of Welch Park, installation of sidewalks leading to county health services and the merging of the NIU bus system with the city’s helped residents and community connect with each other.

The city also purchased several of the buildings owned by Hunter Properties, considered a major source of violent crime. Plans are in the works to develop the space once occupied by the Hillcrest Shopping Center.

City officials have held several listening sessions to give input from the area about what they would like to see in the former Hillcrest Shopping Area, now known as “the L.”

Carolyn Morris alderwoman for the first district which covers much of Annie Glidden North and former candidate for DeKalb mayor in 2021, said the solution to the violence must be more than a matter of stigmatizing who lives there.

“Yes, we want to make sure that we are not inviting in danger, right,” Morris said. “But everyone has to live somewhere. And so it's the answer isn't gentrification? You know, the answer isn't displacing and removing the people who are the problem, per se. But it is that deeper, larger issue of, you know, trying to fight generational poverty.”

She said homeownership is key to building generational wealth and wants to see some apartments converted to affordable condos.

“We need some lower price condos, we need some like you know $80,000 condo was that people can actually consider purchasing,” she said.

Morris said it would take physical reworking of the apartments to condos such as adjusting the electric system but would provide stability in the area.

“Those are some of the first steps out of poverty, and out of endless crises and endless trauma,” she said.

At Monday night’s city council meeting, the city manager introduced “New Crime Free Initiative”. The plan would strengthen the city’s ability to hold landlords accountable to the Crime Free housing policy established in 2013. This includes increasing fines to landlords for violating the policy.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.