Champaign Police: crime is subsiding

By Jennifer Wheeler

Misconceptions are as abundant as campus crime.

An uptick in violent crime citywide has spurred cries of concern, but police say the slight increase may be ending and, contrary to published reports, the incidents do not involve racially motivated "polar bear hunting."

What Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney has confirmed is offenders have mentioned the term "pick them out, knock them out," in reference to attacks in which victims are selected and knocked down in one punch.

He said the offenders would walk in groups of at least two, approach the victim, utter a comment and then beat him or her. These unprovoked attacks were typically instigated by local individuals younger than 22 years old. Some were connected to local gangs.

"The offenders didn't know where they were going to do it," Finney said. "The way they operated was they would walk around campus and then look for some particular victim, probably intoxicated, walking by themselves, and then make an approach."

U of I has responded to these crimes by sending crime alerts to parents and students, telling them the locations and times of the attacks. Most of the alerts offer some description of the offender, but Finney said it is often vague. This may be attributed to victims not being able clearly see their attacker.

The number of crime alerts sent out by U of I has almost tripled in the last year from 11 to 34, according to information gathered by the CampusCrime Team. The majority of crimes occurred in off-campus housing northwest of Green Street and were investigated by city police.

"We had this spike in crime, and every crime that was occurring in the campus area for Champaign was being put out in an e-mail," Finney added. "Because that has never occurred before, it looks like there is this vast amount of crime occurring."

To combat the three-month spike of violent crime, the department tripled the number of officers patrolling, placing 15 to 25 officers on duty for a typical weekend night, Finney said. Officers worked on foot, in unmarked cars, in plain clothes and in buildings looking down with binoculars and cameras. Champaign Police also deployed its Community Action Team, a group of officers sent to patrol a high-crime area, to identify suspects and prevent crime.

He said the amount of violent crime appears to be subsiding now, but the department still has doubled the amount of patrolling officers. The crimes police have solved were typically done with investigators or witnesses near the scene.

This spike has taken a toll on the department, though, and the department is using federal money to pay for the officers' overtime.

"We only have a finite number of officers and when we call officers to one area, we are taking them from another," Finney said. "Our staff is down from what it was last year."

Champaign Police was not able to personally name its efforts at a University Town Hall meeting in November that addressed campus crime. Finney said Champaign Police was not invited to the meeting, despite making 25 arrests in the campus area.

Now, Champaign Police will reevaluate the spike in crimes and compare them to past years. The department will decide in 2011 if it needs to continue to deploy as many officers to the area.