The teenagers were arrested so many times that Deputy Chief Kurt Whisenand knew them by name. Accused of shootings, carjackings and armed robberies, they had become some of the most violent young offenders in Rockford Illinois — a city with no shortage of them.
But it was a report from a few years earlier that gave Whisenand the most pause.
Police believed most of the five — then 13 or 14 years old — had been sexually abused by the same man whom one of the boys had met on social media. The man bought them presents, got them alone and abused them. He eventually was caught and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
Reading that report was “kind of a light bulb moment” — the type of discovery that didn't catch the longtime investigator by surprise, exactly, but did make Whisenand rethink the way he and others in law enforcement had been approaching violent crime.
A few months of painstaking research later, Whisenand had data to back up his hunch: Of the offenders age 17 and under involved in violent crime between 2016 and 2019 in the northern Illinois city, about 70% had been exposed to domestic or sexual abuse. For some, the abuse started before they turned 1 and continued for years.
That is the short version of how, after a pandemic year when the violent crime rate in Illinois’ fifth-largest city soared along with much of the rest of the country, Rockford decided to spend part of a roughly $54 million federal windfall to overhaul its approach to juvenile crime. That means hiring a data analyst and improving the way the whole city — from police to schools and social service agencies — interacts with young people. Maybe looking out for these youngest victims early on, they say, would prevent crimes from happening years down the road.
The roughly $2 million the city is investing comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion package that funneled billions of dollars in economic stimulus directly to local governments. It is a “once-in-a-lifetime sum of money,” says Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara, particularly arriving after the COVID-19 pandemic left finances in tatters for many communities.
The money is so substantial and allows such broad leeway on spending that communities across the U.S. are trying out new, longer-term ways to fix what’s broken in their cities. For some that means addressing rising homelessness, replacing lead pipes that are sickening children or finding alternative ways to fight high crime.
There is no guarantee any of the experiments will work. And in Rockford’s case, it will be years before anyone can say for certain. But after a year when homicides and the number of people injured in shootings doubled, city leaders are taking a calculated risk.
“By and large for 30 years we have been addressing crime in the same way,” McNamara said. “We know we can’t keep doing things the same way.”
Approved by Democrats in March over GOP objections that it spent too much and on projects unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic, the American Rescue Plan was one of President Joe Biden’s earliest legislative accomplishments. The massive plan included money for COVID-19 vaccinations, $1,400 checks to individuals, expanded unemployment benefits and a tax credit expected to slash child poverty. It also provides $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments.
With violent crime on the rise this summer, Biden encouraged local officials to use some of their allotment to address shootings and homicides. For some local governments that meant hiring more police officers or giving out bonuses. Others turned to non-police initiatives like summer jobs and mentoring programs.
In Rockford, a city of about 150,000 just south of the Wisconsin border, the mayor and City Council didn’t need prodding from the president.
Crime has been an ongoing challenge for the former manufacturing hub, once known as the “screw capital of the world” for the millions of fasteners it produced. The city lost jobs as factories closed across the Rust Belt, then with the pandemic. Rockford now has the highest unemployment rate of any metro area in Illinois, leading to foreclosures, deteriorating housing and nearly one-quarter of residents living in poverty. Its violent crime rate in 2019 was more than three times the national rate for similarly sized cities, according to FBI statistics. Not all police forces report crime data to the FBI.
McNamara, whose father served as Rockford mayor in the 1980s, studied criminology and sociology in college. Shortly after he became mayor himself in 2017, his office began analyzing crime data. Among the findings: about 40% of the city’s violent crime was domestic violence.
McNamara formed a special office that helped create the Family Peace Center in downtown Rockford. There, domestic violence victims can get an emergency order of protection, find counseling, help with food and housing and other services under one roof. Rockford police also work out of the center. It’s a multiagency approach that city officials now want to use for juvenile crime.
Between 2016 and 2019 the number of violent crimes in the city fell each year, according to Rockford police. Starting in November 2019 the city went four straight months without a murder, and McNamara was hopeful Rockford might see another year-over-year decrease in 2020.
“Then the pandemic hit, and it was like all hell broke loose,” he said.
Most of the shootings over the next year were part of what then-Police Chief Dan O’Shea called a “tit for tat” between factions of two street gangs. They were largely concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods that are home to more of the city’s Black and Hispanic residents. Too many, O’Shea said, involved juveniles driving around town with guns and “aimlessly blasting away.”
Police said some of the problem may have been kids not being in school and officers not able to get out into neighborhoods and interact with residents because of COVID-19. A home life where young people may have lacked support before the pandemic, they say, got tougher.
A 37-year-old man was charged in a shooting at a bowling alley that left three people dead and three wounded. And two murders were domestic cases, including the strangulation of a woman who had reported her boyfriend for abuse a few days earlier.
The eruption in violence among people stuck at home wasn’t a surprise to Delicia Harris, a survivor of abuse who has worked with youth programs in Rockford.
“You gotta spend more time at home with these fools,” Harris says of the people committing the abuse. “You don’t get to say ‘I’m going to Grandma’s’ or ‘I’m going to the cookout at my Auntie’s’ because we can’t go anywhere."
That violence often involved young people who had grown up surrounded by violence. Between 2016 and 2020, 79% of homicide victims and 81% of known homicide suspects had been involved in abuse cases reported to police, Whisenand said.
In the city’s review of juveniles accused of violent crimes, a typical youth had experienced a dozen or more incidents of domestic or sexual abuse before age 18, either as a victim or witness. Some saw parents and siblings shot or attacked with knives. In one case, a girl was a victim or witness in 26 separate attacks between age 9 and 13 — including 10 times when she was sexually assaulted. At 17, she was arrested for battery.
“My thought at the time was, ‘Well, of course she was,’” Whisenand said.
Camp Hope is one of the programs Rockford already is offering not only for kids who are victims, but those who are present when abuse is occurring.
The motorcoach that carried the first group of 8- to 11-year-olds to the camp in late August was like a spaceship, the kids said, dubbing it “Ship Hope" for its fancy seats and lights. When they got off at Atwood Park, a few hundred acres of woods and trails along the river outside town, it was the first time some of them had left the city.
The group spent three days hiking through the woods, trying archery and talking about people who, like them, had lived through adversity. The aim is to help them believe in themselves and learn how to cope with their own difficulties, said Annie Hobson, the Family Peace Center's youth services manager.
To Hobson, it makes perfect sense that kids exposed to violence might become violent themselves.
“That's what they've seen. That's what they know,” she said, adding that the campers will leave with better coping skills and a mentor they will connect with throughout the year.
The Associated Press was unable to interview camp participants due to city policy of keeping the identity of minors confidential. Other programs being tried in Rockford are aimed specifically at girls or teenagers.
In cases of domestic abuse, “I don’t know if we could adequately ever describe what it must be like for a child to watch something like that happen,” said Jennifer Cacciapaglia, who runs the mayor's office on domestic and community violence prevention.
If something isn't done for those children, she said, “we will pay for it. We’re going to pay for it now or later.”