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Crime Some Cities Using Federal COVID Funds to Fight Crime, Address Homelessness

23:25  07 october  2021
23:25  07 october  2021 Source:   newsweek.com

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Cities around the U.S. are using federal COVID-19 relief funding to tackle other issues that the pandemic brought to the forefront of the nation's attention, including crime and homelessness.

Cities around the U.S. are using funds from the American Rescue Plan to combat issues such as crime and homelessness that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. President Joe Biden speaks about the American Rescue Plan and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses in response to coronavirus, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, Feb. 22, 2021. © Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images Cities around the U.S. are using funds from the American Rescue Plan to combat issues such as crime and homelessness that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. President Joe Biden speaks about the American Rescue Plan and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses in response to coronavirus, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, Feb. 22, 2021.

President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan provided funds for COVID-19 vaccinations, stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits and provided $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments. Biden encouraged local officials to use some of the funding to address shootings and homicides, which rose this summer.

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According to Police1, cities invested the funding in a variety of ways. Tucson reported plans to invest in community safety, health and wellness and violence interruption programs. Cincinnati used the funds to increase the policing and emergency services budget.

Rockford, Illinois, welcomed the "once-in-a-lifetime sum of money," Mayor Tom McNamara said, and planned on offering additional support for juveniles with unstable home lives.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

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—a city with no shortage of them.

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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 percent had been exposed to domestic or sexual abuse. For some, the abuse started before they turned 1 and continued for years.

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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 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.

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"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."

The mayor and City Council of Rockford 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 percent 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. The police also work out of the center. It's a multiagency approach that city officials now want to use for juvenile crime.

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Between 2016 and 2019 the number of violent crimes in the city fell each year, according to 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.

Money from the American Rescue Plan means the city can take a new approach to addressing violent crime in a city that has struggled with violence for years, especially during the pandemic. Rockford, Ill., Mayor Tom McNamara poses for a portrait at a ROCKFORD sculpture Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in Rockford, Ill. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo © Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo Money from the American Rescue Plan means the city can take a new approach to addressing violent crime in a city that has struggled with violence for years, especially during the pandemic. Rockford, Ill., Mayor Tom McNamara poses for a portrait at a ROCKFORD sculpture Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in Rockford, Ill. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

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