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Watch now: Police chief, and his community, confront Decatur's rising tide of gun violence

Police chief and community confront Decatur's rising tide of gun violence

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Decatur police Chief Shane Brandel speaks in August 2021 about what's being done to address violence and shootings. 

DECATUR — There are probably few perfect times to take the reins of the Decatur Police Department.

But newly appointed interim Chief Shane Brandel steps into the top job amid public fear and consternation about the rising level of gun violence plaguing the city.

Shots-fired incidents in 2020 jumped 100% over the total for 2019 and city statistics up to June of this year show they are up more than 30% over the same period in 2020.

Deputy Chief Shane G. Brandel mug


Some of the shootings are happening in broad daylight, like the July 31 example of a sport utility vehicle raked with gunfire around 1:20 p.m. at the busy intersection of North Main and East Eldorado streets. And innocents found themselves increasingly at risk in what proved a very violent month: on July 28 an 8-year-old boy was lucky to escape death or serious injury when a bullet zipped through his house and through his ear. And on July 15 an 8-year-old girl was shot in the arm by a stray bullet while riding with her grandmother in a car full of children.

Brandel is well aware the public safety buck stops with the police department and points out his officers are working hard to get shooters and their illegal guns off the street. And yet like America’s war on drugs has shown, the ability of law enforcement to stop the supply of a product people are willing to buy and use, however recklessly, has limits.

Wrong people with the guns 

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In this file photo, Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe listens to police Chief James Getz during a Decatur City Council  meeting.

“I am saddened by how easy it is for the wrong people to gain access to weapons,” said Brandel. “It’s kind of like whenever there is a way to make money from something, somebody is going to be there to provide it.”

He’s also dismayed by what he sees as a criminal justice system that isn’t doing enough to keep gun offenders behind bars once they are apprehended. Brandel applauds recent efforts announced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to expand background checks for gun sales, part of what the chief sees as some of the “filters” in place to try and keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

David Horn


But he says when the filters fail and criminals are arrested for weapons possession and using guns to hurt others, it’s time to get tough on sentencing. “There needs to be very strict punishments and accountability for those offenders,” said Brandel.

“If offenders are only getting minimal sentences, where is the deterrent?”

Brandel has other issues on his plate, too, which he says aren’t helping deal with gun violence or any other aspect of police work. He’s down several officers from full strength and while there are some 15 recruits going through training, it takes a minimum of nine months or so before they’re ready to hit the streets on their own. And there are a bunch of officers, hired in a big recruiting push in the 1990s, who are now closing in on retirement and that represents much useful experience walking out the front doors.

“We’re at 42 people right now who have more than 20 years in,” said Brandel. “So we’re looking ahead and seeing it's hard enough to hire enough police officers anyway, and then we’re going to have to hire even more because of the anticipated retirements.”

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Shemuel Sanders holds up a photo of his daughter, Shemilah, during a vigil at the Garfield bridge in Decatur. Sanders and others spoke about losing children to gun violence.

The chief says all this is happening amid a background of seismic societal shifts that are swirling together to produce crime that is harder to tackle. He notes that when Decatur had a burst of gun crime in the 1990s, it could be laid at the feet of criminal gangs, gangs that had an organization and structure police could target and go after.

Now, Brandel says, there often is no structure to focus on. The connective tissue between perpetrators and crime may be disputes and rivalries fed by social media chatter that flare into grievances settled with gunfire. Toss into the mix people with severe mental health issues frequently left to go their own way through life, rampant drug use, broken families and the other hallmarks of despair, and police officers heading out on patrol have a volatile mixture waiting for them on the increasingly unpredictable streets.

“I don’t want to take away from the police responsibility because absolutely the police have a big role in public safety,” said Brandel. But he points out that cops are not mental health counselors or social workers. And yet they are the last line of defense when society turns a blind eye to the cracks in civilization through which grow the weeds of crime bearing their poisonous fruit.

'Anybody could be hit'

shooting (copy)

Decatur police investigate a drive-by shooting on July 31 at North Main and Eldorado streets. 

Brandel’s sense that gun crime is a symptom of other tectonic shifts in society are reflected by others watching the rising tide of weapons violence with growing dismay.

Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said shootings are far from a uniquely Decatur disease, and said it's obvious the infection of gun violence has spread nationwide. She said it’s producing feelings of vulnerability that should concern everyone.

“I was downtown shopping right after that shooting (Main and Eldorado) happened,” she said. “I think most of us feel Decatur is still a safe community but when you see something like that happening — and two children getting shot recently — you realize anybody could be hit.”

Moore Wolfe said the city council stands ready to help the police in any way it can get a grip on all of this but, like the chief, she is concerned by the kind of societal changes confronting officers.

“Lisa Gregory is just one of the city councilors who have gone on a recent ride along with the police, and she saw first hand the horrible behavior of young children unsupervised at a local venue,” said Moore Wolfe. “And that was followed by their parents who could not have been more disrespectful to our police officers. Instead of children being held accountable by their own parents, those parents are pushing back at police. What’s happening here?”

The mayor said if rising gun violence is a symptom of a more general breakdown in law and order, then Decatur can’t just expect the police to fix everything on their own. But coming up with a solution won’t be easy, and her city is on the hunt for ideas that work.

“We are looking very aggressively at what is working in other communities across the country,” she added. “Decatur already has multiple programs designed to encourage youth to get on the right track, and many of them are doing great work, but we’ve got to find something that can save more kids and more families. We’ve got to fix this.”

So much need, so little time 

fatal shooting investigation

Decatur Police Department detectives investigate the scene of a fatal shooting on Thursday morning in the 1100 block of East Leafland Avenue.

One person already trying to do what he can to fix it is Shemuel Sanders, who lost his 22-year-old daughter Shemilah to gun violence in June of 2020. He has gone on to create a mentoring and activities program for city kids aged from 7 to 18 in the hopes he can at least save some of them from getting trapped in the dark gravitational pull of gun violence.

But there are so many kids and so little time to reach them all before it’s too late. “I had a mom call me the other day really upset and crying because her son was caught with a gun,” said Sanders.

“He’s just 17 and she never thought he was like that. So she wants me to start mentoring him and reach out to him and yet there are just so many of our youths who are lost like that. They don’t have a father, they don’t have a male role model in their lives. We got people who break up with their girlfriends and they don't know how to handle it, stuff like that; a lot of times the shooting and the fighting is going on over issues like a girl or money or whatever; it’s ridiculous and sad.”

Sanders echoed the mayor’s point of view, and said the level of street violence is rising to the point where nobody in society can afford to ignore it, or think it won’t impact them. “It isn’t just one person’s problem, it’s everybody's problem now,” he added. “You all could be just driving down the street and a stray bullet could hit your car.”

In the meantime bereaved Decatur father Antwane McClelland is trying to do something to help his own family after his son, 26-year-old Antwane McClelland Jr., was gunned down and killed July 15. He left behind three kids aged 5, 4 and 3 and their grandfather has created the AKA Foundation, named after their initials, to raise money to help them with basic things like buying school supplies and sports equipment.

And while trying to help take care of them, he’s left to wonder how to care for his hometown. “With this level of violence, I really don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I do think it’s time for this community to step up and start getting involved. We don’t need more young men dead or in jail, we can’t keep doing this, we got to find out what’s going on and fix it.”

The public safety investment 

One man with some ideas on fixing it is Decatur city councilman David Horn, a biology professor by profession who has now found himself having to study the human animal and what’s going wrong with it.

Horn’s ideas haven’t got much support so far, but he keeps pushing them and hoping for the best. He recently suggested taking $1 million-worth of federal money handed to the city and using it, among other things, to hire more cops, buy at least 60 more surveillance cameras for troubled neighborhoods and hire nine mental health professionals who could go out and assist on police calls around the clock.

“According to the Kennedy Forum, which specializes in reducing mental health stigma, 10 percent of the total budget and 21 percent of the staff time of law enforcement agencies is spent responding to persons living with mental illness,” said Horn.

He said hiring those mental health professionals, assuming they cost $75,000 each with salary and benefits, would be a $675,000 a year commitment. But the councilman believes it’s the right thing to do because so many calls now handled by police would be best dealt with by mental health crisis counselors and social workers.

He said this kind of holistic “public safety” approach, along with programs to support neighborhood revitalization efforts, youth employment opportunities and similar outreach will, over time, get at some of the root causes driving crime and gun violence.

Instead, he said, the city is prioritizing issues like extensive sewer repairs and overhauls. Worthy projects, he acknowledges, but not the type of thing that will do much to take a bite out of crime.

Horn said he believes the best bridge to a brighter future for Decatur is making the city more safe, prosperous and welcoming for everyone. “I’m hesitant to talk about an economic perspective when we’re really talking about public safety and health,” he added. “But from that economic perspective, in the long term, putting dollars into public safety right now is a better long term investment for our citizens and government operations than is water.”

Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid


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