Toward a Safer Rockford: The Effort to Uproot Crime

In a community where violent crime is stuck at historically high levels and kids find themselves in serious trouble at ever-younger ages, local leaders are finding it’s not enough to simply ‘‘lock up the bad guys.’’ While they try to hold offenders accountable, they’re also employing tactics that divert youth and empower vulnerable families. This is a generational change, and it all starts at home.

By Chris Linden, executive editor | With Steven Bonifazi and Jim Taylor

The streets are calling. But so is Albert “Tank” Weathers.

His hands remember what it was like to grip a tool of destruction. His heart is changed now, but it doesn’t forget the hopelessness that once filled him. Back when he ran with the gangs. Back when he was a lost youth.

Albert “Tank” Weathers

This past summer, the pastor and construction worker trained six at-risk youths in concrete work. Of course, this summer job is about more than concrete. It’s about hope and belonging.

“There’s a destructive mindset (on the street); everybody rides around smoking marijuana, getting high, listening to gangster music – destructive music – and you’re going to respond to that,” he says. “So, now in a construction truck I’m not riding with a gang. My tools are concrete tools, and my gang is now my crew. We’re not going to destroy. We’re going to build something together.”

On one level, Tank’s concrete work – what he calls Destruction to Construction – is just a diversionary tactic: Give a kid someplace else to put his mind, his talents and his future and maybe he’ll avoid trouble. Teach him valuable life skills and watch him flourish.

“I was not only preparing them physically to do a concrete job, but it was also a mental test to deal with going to work,” he says. “What happens when someone gets in your face? What do you do when the pressure’s on you? I put all that pressure on them before they went.”

The pastor of No Cross No Crown Fellowship in Rockford isn’t alone in his efforts to divert at-risk youths. At places like the Boys & Girls Club, the Rockford Park District and local community centers, adults are filling youngsters with fellowship and support that aren’t always easy to find at home.

The unfortunate truth is how many more youths will slip through the cracks in a city where violent crime, domestic and sexual violence, gangs, substance abuse, low educational attainment and poverty prey upon young people at an alarming rate.

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Violent crime and aggravated assaults remain stubbornly high in the Rockford area, even compared with the early 1990s, when crime rates spiked. As of August, crime rates for 2022 showed some improvements despite historically high rates of violence.

Complicating the picture is the stubbornly high rate of crime that’s affected Rockford for a generation. In the past four decades, there’s been an average of nearly 1,700 reported violent crimes each year, according to data from the FBI. From just six homicides in 1985, the city has since averaged 17 homicides a year, with a record-setting 36 murders in 2020 and another 24 last year.

As of late August, the Rockford Police Department had recorded increases in robberies, auto thefts and property crimes year-over-year, though it also noted single-digit decreases in aggravated assaults, shots fired and violent crimes. By early November, the city had recorded 15 murders, many the results of targeted shootings and domestic violence, the latter of which accounted for 35% of all violent crime.

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The homicide rate remains high in Rockford, where an average of 17 people are killed every year.

What the numbers don’t show is a more disturbing statistic: The rising share of children involved in crime.

From her position as the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Domestic and Community Violence Prevention, Jennifer Cacciapaglia knows the mothers who are fighting for their children’s futures. She hears the moms who are fighting to keep their sons from the gangs. She’s met the women who were seduced by human traffickers. And she recognizes the terrifying impact of domestic and sexual violence upon a young person. But the streets are calling.

“They very much want not to engage in criminal activity, but they have a need for community. It is a need for a sense of safety,” she says. “When kids tell us, ‘I want to put my gun down and not live like this,’ they’re also asking, ‘How will you keep me safe? How will you help me find equity? Where can I find opportunity? Where can I find a system that will support me as I try to learn to read, and stay in school and complete high school and go to college? Because if you can show me those things, I will put down my gun. I will stop this, but I don’t know how to be safe.’”

A Holistic Embrace

There’s an old parable that goes something like this: A man is sitting by the river when he sees a baby floating downstream. He rescues the child and brings it to shore. Once the baby is safe, he sees another baby floating downriver. He saves it, too, only to see more babies in the river. Before long, there’s a great gathering of people pulling babies from the water, but they keep coming. Finally, somebody steps from the river and declares, “Forget this. I’m going upriver to see who’s tossing these babies.”

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara

As Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara sees it, crime fighting is like pulling babies from the river.

“Those who are committing violent crimes and running around our community with guns – and doing home invasions, car thefts, things of that nature – have to be arrested immediately and held accountable,” he says. “But also, if we know that the leading indicators of crime include trauma at a very young age, why wouldn’t we get ahead of that problem and put as many resources as we can around them?”

He and Caccipaglia are pushing local service providers to move “upstream” where they can engage families at every possible stage, from early prevention strategies for the youngest children to intervention strategies for troubled families and diversion or crisis interventions when a child has encountered the justice system.

Home is a critical starting point. According to police reports between 2016 and 2021, as many as 70% of juvenile criminals were cross-referenced as victims or witnesses of domestic and sexual violence. Some of those young people are the same ones who show up on Police Chief Carla Redd’s list of 40 young offenders who repeatedly show up at the scene of a crime.

Building Stronger Families

Strong families begin with strong parents, and that includes strong fathers.

But many of the men who show up to Mashaun Alston’s office feel broken – by life, by failed relationships, by “the system,” and by the failings of their own fathers. As program supervisor for Children’s Home & Aid’s Thriving Fathers and Families, Alston and his team help men to regain their confidence and become the co-parent their children and partners need.

“When you have a strong father, what I see with our families is that it boosts the confidence in their children,” says Alston. “The family as a whole can’t begin to thrive until they know how to thrive through hurdles.”

With programs in Rockford, Bloomington and Chicago, Thriving Fathers and Families guides these men through an 8- to 12-week curriculum centered on purpose, forgiveness, compassion and parenting. With the help of a navigator, they cover mental health issues and employment assistance while diving into their pasts and confronting uncomfortable memories. They may start out feeling angry and disconnected.

“Some of these guys come in and they can’t think of even one person they’re connected with positively because they’ve been hurt and traumatized throughout their lives,” says Alston. “It’s hard for them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, so we bring that light to them.”

The results are life-changing. In fact, Alston says it’s not unusual for these men to stay plugged in long after the curriculum is over. Some call each other brothers. Some find an emotional connection that’s been missing in their lives. It’s especially visible in little things, like getting a birthday card from a navigator.

“You have these grown men with a tear in their eye,” says Alston. “It’s like, wow. They say, ‘I didn’t get a birthday card in 20 years,’ or, ‘The last time I got a birthday card I was 13.’”

At the earliest prevention stages, Cacciapaglia and her team have landed funding to teach boys and men about prevention of violence, launch park district programming and teach girls how to recognize human trafficking. At the intervention level, programs like Camp Hope are helping young people to work through their trauma. A new grant is funding a youth-centered version of the Family Peace Center inside the Kilburn Avenue Boys & Girls Club. Meanwhile, for youths already in the criminal justice system, Step Up is rerouting young people and enriching their support network.

Jennifer Cacciapaglia

“If I am a youth and I’ve been involved in trauma, then instead of going into the criminal justice system my family and I – at no cost to us – can be enrolled in a 21-week program that allows for individual and family therapy,” says Cacciapaglia. “The goal is that I will get different tools in my toolbox, so that if I’m faced with the same decision I made that caused me to do these things, I’ll make a different choice and my parents will walk away with some better skills to parent me.”

The officers of Rockford Police Department are also engaging with the community, through community events, youth activities, safe houses in troubled neighborhoods and outreach in the schools. They’re also deploying an extra level of intervention.

“We have reformed gang members coming back and wanting to give back to our kids, to let them know that you don’t have to choose this route,” says Police Chief Redd. “And they can show how much more difficult life was for them because they chose that route. They’re pouring into these kids.”

For Cacciapaglia, now is the time to hit every pocket, and to draw together as many partners as possible.

“We’ve heard it from the community: I would like to put the gun down. I would like to be safe. Can you please help me figure out a way to take care of my family and to stay safe myself if I do these things?” she says. “So, it’s us going to them one by one and saying, ‘Let’s try to figure this out.’ It’s a painstaking effort.”

Tackling Juvenile Crime

Felony offenses are rising in Winnebago County, and State’s Attorney J. Hanley finds his team is prosecuting more this year. The numbers also are rising on juvenile delinquency petitions, the formal way of prosecuting a youth. As of mid-October, Hanley’s office had already filed 300 such petitions – at least 50 more than at this point last year.

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Recent statistics show signs of progress on several metrics, but juvenile crime remains stubbornly high, as reflected in the rapid growth of auto thefts this year.

Those petitions show children causing trouble at ever younger ages – including a 13-year-old accused of murder and an 11-year-old caught with a stolen car.

“The biggest problem we have is kids in stolen cars at times they shouldn’t be there,” says Rob Simmons, supervisor for the office’s juvenile division. “It’s all times of day, but particularly at night. And there are problems that branch out from there. They’re using the cars to commit violent offenses. They’re stealing other vehicles. They’re fleeing from police, and that presents all sorts of concerns for the community.”

According to the Rockford Police Department, auto thefts are up 82% this year, with more than 538 thefts reported through August. For Hanley’s team, the rapid increase means auto thefts are taking higher priority, but it also means higher stakes for offenders.

The state’s attorney has two options for charging a youth: send the kid to court or put them through a deferred prosecution program that may include a probation officer, counseling and restitution. Charges may be dropped if the youth successfully completes his or her probation and the offenses are low-level and nonviolent. Over the past two years, Simmons estimates his team has handled more than 500 of these so-called “brown file” cases and another 550 of the more serious delinquency filings, which typically involve more serious or higher-level offenses, including carjackings.

“We’re making a point of bringing those kids into court now, whereas in the past they may have entered into our diversion program,” says Simmons. “We’re trying to bring every single one into court, for two reasons. One, so they know how serious this is and they can be held accountable. Two, we want to let our partners in the justice system get into the family’s lives and help them where they can. We want to figure out why this kid was in a car with his buddies at 2 a.m. Why wasn’t he at home getting ready to go to school the next day?”

In some cases, getting them off the streets, away from home and into court is the safest option, says Hanley, and it may be an intervention of last resort.

“Oftentimes, we’ll have parents telling the system, ‘I need help,’” Hanley says.

Once they’re in the courtroom, there are three overriding priorities, says Simmons: protect the community, hold minors accountable and rehabilitate them. This is a pivotal moment for the youth’s future.

“The way the juvenile mind works, if we’re trying to get them to understand that what they did was serious and they are going to be held accountable, a temporary detainment is one of the best tools we have in that moment after arrest,” says Simmons. “We’re showing them this is serious; you’re not going home to your parents. You are staying here and going before a judge. This is real now.”

Filling a Gap

It’s early evening and things are getting lively in an old warehouse off South Main Street. Under a barrel-domed roof nearly 30 young people ages 11 to 24 are mingling. There’s a group around the weight equipment, there’s a group practicing martial arts with an instructor, and there are still more hanging out on the couches. Next door, a few are preparing the evening meal.

They’re all here as part of Comprehensive Community Solutions’ (CCS) new Alpha program. Since early this year, CCS, which is best known for its YouthBuild program, has been using its formula of education and mentorship to reach West Side youths who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

As they mingle each weeknight with positive-minded adults, they’re receiving tutoring, sharing with mentors, developing fitness and life skills, learning about nutrition and investing their energies anyplace but the streets. Regardless of what their home life is like, this is a place to feel loved and supported, and then rewarded for making good choices.

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Nearly two-thirds of teens won’t graduate from Rockford Public Schools in four years, according to state data. To help reach these at-risk youths, groups like Rockford Park District and Comprehensive Community Solutions are engaging these young people with tutoring services and other supports to keep them in school, where they may be less likely to engage in criminal activity.

“You have young people who are falling through the cracks and aren’t on track to graduate, and they need somebody to help them,” says William Chatman, executive director of CCS and a graduate of YouthBuild. “They may not be a high school athlete or the sharpest tool in the shed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still pour into them and make them an asset to this community.”

As these young people play board games, watch TV or work out, they’re building relationships with older adults and developing critical life skills that can help them conquer challenges outside these walls.

“If you have a limited amount of information, you can only go so far,” says Chatman. “And we see that in behavior of young people. Take a young person who’s frustrated in the classroom and they don’t know how to positively address that frustration. What do they do? They flip a desk, they get to cussing, they get to yelling because they don’t have that information they need to deal with the situation. So, what a mentor is able to do is give them those tools. They can say, ‘Hey, I see you just yelled at one of your peers. How could we have gone about that better?’”

As they develop those relationships, changes start to form in their young minds – particularly if they’re the type who’s never seen models of discipline, accountability and positive behavior.

“If I don’t have anybody in my social network that I care about letting down, I’m more prone to doing something I’ll regret later,” adds Chatman. “However, if I have people I care about, then I’m thinking, ‘Man, if William found out I was thinking about doing this,’ or, ‘I wouldn’t want to have to look at William and tell him I cussed out my mom this morning.’”

Getting to that point can be tough, Chatman says, particularly because trauma has left many of them with trust issues. But once these mentors get through, something magical happens.

The Alpha program offers West Side youths a positive outlet to engage with adults, receive help with schoolwork and build the tools they need to confront life’s challenges. (CCS photo)

“Being a parent, I know that sometimes your children have to hear the same thing from somebody else,” says Chatman. “I can be doing everything I’m supposed to be doing as a parent, but for whatever reason you’re not listening to me. But to have another adult they have a bond with tell them the same thing, it’s an opportunity for the lightbulb to click.”

Those in the field believe mentorship is a critical tool for rerouting young people’s energy. When they’re equipped with the right life skills, they’re less prone to outbursts of violence, such as the targeted shootings that remain a high concern. These shootings are often an outburst over the usual teenage disagreements – he-said/she-said, personal insults, relationships. Social media is often a common thread, which is why phones aren’t allowed at CCS’ Alpha program.

“We’re talking about people who don’t always have the tools to say, ‘I’m not going to react with violence this time or in this way,’ and then pick up a different tool or a different way to respond,” says Cacciapaglia. “We’re instead seeing a quickness to violence, and sometimes not even a quickness but sometimes they think it’s the only thing that feels right.”

Such outbursts can also coincide with a new trend in late-night trouble: pop-up parties. Where late-night gatherings used to take place at home, a new national trend is to party at the public park. That’s a problem for Rockford Park District Police Chief Theo Glover, who’s still dealing with the aftermath of a double homicide that occurred at Sinnissippi Park this past July.

Since that incident, in which a 27-year-old and a 28-year-old were fatally shot, park district police have spent more than $435,000 to secure the parks at night. This includes gating at 10 p.m. and installing equipment that alerts police to trespassers, who can now be prosecuted for criminal offenses. Glover anticipates hiring additional staff for his team of 13 full-time and 10 part-time officers, who together monitor more than 185 properties across greater Rockford.

Police Chief Carla Redd

Yet another threat for young people is the changing nature of street gangs. Whereas gangs in the 1990s were more formalized, it’s common these days to see small “spinoff” gangs that pick fights or try out pranks they’ve seen online.

Redd believes one way to discourage this sort of activity is improved communication between police and residents. A new smartphone app allows people to anonymously report a crime.

“Our community should never just be OK with hearing gunshots or feeling like, ‘I live over there, and shootings happen all the time,’” she says. “We have to get out of that mindset, and the reality is that it’s going to take a concerted effort by everyone to combat the issue.”

Positive Influences

For decades now, the Rockford Park District has provided children with safe summertime activities in its neighborhood parks. This past summer, children ages 5 to 15 gathered in 10 local parks for fun activities, field trips and mentorship.

While efforts are made to recruit adults from the neighborhood, care is also made to bring in young mentors. This past year, nearly 40 junior leaders age 13 to 15 provided guidance to their peers while building their own leadership skills.

Danielle Potter

“They can still stay involved in a positive program and be around adults,” says Danielle Potter, superintendent of operations-recreation. “They receive training on how to be a group leader, and then our goal is to hire them when they become 16.”

At Haskell Elementary, summer campers found a version that was longer, more intense, and more educational. Supported by a $30,000 grant from the City of Rockford, this Summer CampEd program mixed fun activities while also developing reading and math skills. It brought together familiar leaders from the school and outsiders including the Family Peace Center, which introduced conflict resolution and coping with trauma.

“We offered a free program in which 30 kids were able to show up every day with positive adults,” says Potter. “That means they weren’t doing negative activities; they were able to get swim lessons and an educational component.”

Jay Sandine

Jay Sandine, park district executive director, sees a bigger connection between programming and youth crime.

“When it comes to the park district’s role in developing kids and keeping them out of trouble, that is not new to our industry,” he says. “That’s literally one of the reasons why this park district was developed in 1909. Levin Faust created the park district for two reasons, and one of them was because the boys were causing trouble in 1909 and there needed to be something to get the kids off the streets.”

Of course, resources aren’t unlimited. Where the park district held more than 30 neighborhood summer programs in the 1990s, financial limitations mean the park district can only afford 10 or so these days, says Sandine. That’s troubling to him on several levels.

Chief Theo Glover

“I think there’s a direct correlation today with the lack of youth programing to the increase in youth crime we’re seeing,” says Sandine. “And I have no doubt of that. We had a litmus test back in 2020 when COVID came into our community and caused our park district, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club to close. When we closed our facilities, youth crime literally went up 100% instantly. I think we need to recognize that when the park district goes away, our youth are in a much worse condition.”

Park district police chief Glover also thinks wistfully of the days when he hosted a junior academy where children could see inside the police department and build healthy relationships with officers. Not only did it reel kids into something positive, he says, but it gave them more tools to succeed. These days, it feels like an uphill battle.

“One of my big difficulties would be the lack of respect that we, as police officers, have now because of some bad actors,” says Glover. “We’re stereotyped because of those bad incidents and people think we’re just as bad. It’s harder for us to reach out to those kids because they have their minds made up, and their parents are telling them, ‘Don’t do this, don’t listen, you don’t have to do this.’”

Working Downstream

Although there’s a heavy focus on upstream initiatives to prevent crime at its root, there’s plenty that’s already happening within the criminal justice system.

At the Winnebago County jail, inmates aren’t simply locked away. If they’re struggling with mental health challenges, support is there to help them regain control. Inmates within the jail’s mental health unit often struggle with suicidal behavior, functional impairments, and mania or psychosis. They may have feelings of isolation or an inability to follow daily routine. Sheriff’s officers in this unit offer education, encouragement and medication management.

“There are countless inmates who have become medication-compliant and stable on medications while in the mental health unit,” says Lt. Anthony Ponte, PREA coordinator for the sheriff’s office. “As stabilization occurs, their insight regarding their illness strengthens and their desire to maintain that stability can be seen. They say the support given to them here makes a big difference in both their perceptions and attitudes regarding their illness and treatment.”

The remainder of Winnebago County’s nearly 800 inmates have access to other services, including religious ministries, drug rehab and assistance with education – including a unique program that trains them to run computer-controlled manufacturing machines. In connection with Rock Valley College (RVC) and the Rockford Reachout Jail Ministry, inmates are learning to run a set of CNC machines located in the jail’s basement.

Sheriff Gary Caruana

“So, they’re coming out of jail with a certification, and we’re helping them to get placed in the community,” explains Sheriff Gary Caruana. “We’ve been doing this almost two years now, and they come out with jobs because they got their training through RVC.”

Meanwhile, the state’s attorney is routing certain low-level, nonviolent offenders away from the traditional criminal justice model and into a process known as “deferred prosecution.”

“Those who are charged with these offenses enter into an agreement with our office and they have to, No. 1, agree not to commit additional crimes,” says Hanley. “They have to admit to the crime they are charged with, and then we set certain conditions, such as be at work or go to school, do community service, pay restitution, and maybe do drug and alcohol counseling. If they’re successful after a year, the case is dismissed.”

The goal is to help that individual avoid committing future crimes, says Hanley.

For those coming out of incarceration, Tretara Flowers and her Get Connected group stand ready to offer a fresh start. Newly released individuals have questions about where they’ll live, what clothes they can wear, where they’ll work, how they’ll get there, and how they’ll communicate with their parole officer, among other barriers. It’s enough to crumple those who aren’t prepared.

Tretara Flowers

Flowers gets it. Incarcerated in 1999 at the age of 18, she went through those challenges herself when she was released in 2005. For years, she fought barriers in employment, all the while learning how to navigate the system. Now, she’s filling the gap she once fell into.

Focusing on employment, education, finances and pro-social engagement, she’s helping formerly incarcerated individuals – both parolees and probationers – to connect with employers, manage their finances, continue their educations and meet like-minded people.

The barriers are many, and the risk of re-offending is high. For guidance, Flowers and many parole officers will rely on a standardized assessment tool that suggests one’s likelihood of re-offending. It looks at factors such as criminal history, education, employment, finances and family/social support. For some people, returning to the old neighborhood is a recipe for domestic violence and re-joining the wrong crowd. Others may face threats from addictions or poor decision-making abilities.

“We really look at those areas where the risk is highest, so we can provide services in those areas to help eliminate and alleviate their barriers,” says Flowers. “Once we eliminate those barriers, they see, ‘I can do this. I can see these accomplishments and milestones.’ Then, they will have hope that there will be a day where they’re on the other side of the fence.”

Going above and beyond, Flowers helps her contacts with tasks such as contacting parole officers, getting a driver’s license or enrolling in school. She’s a source of accountability and a ready ear. And she’s not just meeting people on the outside.

“Right now, we’re conversing with up to a dozen people who will be out within the next year,” she says. “We send them information and keep conversing with them right up to their release, so that they know us and we know them. We already have an idea of what their struggles are going to be, and we can get involved with them within the first 72 hours of their coming home.”

Bigger Threats to Public Safety

Sheriff Caruana is keeping a close eye on developments in Springfield. That’s because, on Jan. 1, 2023, the rules completely change when it comes to detaining suspects before trial. Not only do the SAFE-T Act and the Pre-Trial Fairness Act abolish cash bail but they also change the conditions for release. Leaders across the state have called for amendments or full-out repeal, but Caruana isn’t holding his breath.

Passed in a lame-duck legislative session in January 2021, the bill presumes every person charged with a crime will be released before their trial, except in cases of domestic violence, certain sex offenses, gun felonies and human trafficking. For a whole host of crimes, including aggravated battery, robbery, burglary, aggravated DUI, drug-induced homicide, kidnapping, second-degree murder and threatening a public official, judges have limited ability to detain a suspect and may do so only if a judge finds they are a risk of “willful flight.”

“How do we hold them accountable?” Caruana says. “If you take aggravated vehicular homicide – aggravated DUI – we are working with them on 12-step programs and other services while they’re sitting in the county jail. Now, they’re released, and what are the chances of them going back and reoffending?”

This October, Caruana joined Hanley and state’s attorneys from 58 Illinois counties who are suing to stop the law. While Republicans have taken up the SAFE-T Act as a rallying cry in this election season, it’s actually a bipartisan group of state’s attorneys who have signed on to the lawsuit. As of late October, the General Assembly had passed two amending bills, and there’s talk of more to come.

Hanley is primarily concerned with the limits the law puts on judicial discretion. Specifically, he says, the list of detainable offenses is too narrow and detention standards set the bar unreasonably high.

Under the new law, two conditions warrant a person’s detainment pre-trial: dangerousness and willful flight. The dangerousness standard is restrictive because, in most cases, prosecutors must show that a person is a threat to a specific person, Hanley says. As for willful flight, a prosecutor must show “a high likelihood” of flight to avoid prosecution – yet, a history of failed court appearances cannot alone prove likelihood, according to the law.

“Bottom line, this law doesn’t protect the community,” Hanley says.

Hanley also finds other portions of the SAFE-T Act problematic, including the way it limits arrests for minor offenses, including criminal trespass.

“So, let’s say you have someone at the gas station who’s been told multiple times they can’t be there. What’s the officer supposed to do? Just give them a ticket and let them stay at the gas station?” says Hanley. “Even if they walk the person a block away, that’s going to be problematic, and it puts our law enforcement in a difficult position.”

Adds Caruana: “It’s like slapping them on the hand and saying, ‘Don’t do it again.’”

State’s Attorney J. Hanley

Defenders of the law suggest it’s a matter of income – that people who can’t afford bail don’t deserve to remain in prison. Still others call it racial justice. That doesn’t hold water with Caruana or Hanley.

“What I have been clear on is that I am not advocating for a return to the cash bail system,” Hanley says. “I think people have assumed that or outright said that, and it’s not correct. What I’m looking for is a model closer to what’s in New Jersey, where they give the prosecutor discretion to seek detention on any offense, and then the judge makes the determination.”

For McNamara, who agrees with abolishing cash bail, there still are problematic aspects of the bill, from the high standards of detainment to the unfunded mandates on police and the timing of outcry so close to the midterm elections.

“Safety is, for sure, the one thing we all can agree upon,” he says. “I haven’t met someone who doesn’t want to live in a safe state. And so, how do we get to that safe state? I think we have to focus on those areas we can come together and branch from there, rather than just attacking people politically.”

It all comes at a critical time for Rockford, as McNamara sees a steady improvement in the city’s crime rates and numerous local partners fully invested in a long, slow, generational-level change.

“This is a new way to do things,” Cacciapaglia says. “We have really tried and done a lot of good work, and we’ve had a lot of successes. Our community is changing, and the good news is we will be successful. It’s important to remember that we are in this together and we have an amazing city where people want to help and make this successful.”

Preying on the Vulnerable

They catch you with a promise of something better: I’m the person who’s going to fix that. I’m the one who can protect you. Then, it turns into favors. Can you do it just this once? And so begins the slippery slope of human trafficking.

It’s easy to think it doesn’t happen in Rockford, but data shows it has the most cases in Illinois behind Chicago – and as a state, Illinois falls within the top 10 for trafficking, says Megan Vold, program manager for the Drop-In Center at Rockford Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (RAASE).

Locally, human trafficking appears in prostitution, “massage” parlors, lingerie shops and truck stops. It happens in private homes and appears as pornography online. It entraps victims through personal relationships, online communications and other seductions.

Women and girls are disproportionately affected, but boys and people who identify as LGBTQIA can also fall prey. Traffickers may also prey on other vulnerable populations, including immigrants, the homeless, substance abusers and children who’ve experienced abuse.

Escaping its horrors is never easy, as Vold sees when she meets survivors at the Family Peace Center downtown and RAASE’s drop-in center in Rockford’s Midtown District.

“One of the things that we see is that our survivors don’t necessarily identify as being trafficked,” Vold says. “Definitely, when we’re talking with youth, we know that the age that a person gets into this trafficking or exploitative world is anywhere from 12 to 14.”

Traffickers can be family, friends or strangers and they use tactics of control, much like a domestic abuser. Because of those tactics, rescuing trafficked people is a challenge, adds Cacciapaglia. They’re taught to mistrust authority and feel shamed. Breaking that control and getting immediate support are essential for those who flee.

“I think one of the most difficult things for everyone to wrap their heads around is that you don’t have to have a gun pointed to your head to be doing something under force, fraud or coercion,” says Cacciapaglia, a board member of RAASE. “If they have my child at home and my child is going to suffer if I do or do not do something, I can tell you I am going to do whatever it is I have to do or not do to make sure my child is protected.”

Human trafficking persists in part because of simple economics, says Vold. Stop the people who pay for these services and traffickers will have less incentive to continue.

“The end demand approach is taking out the buyer, so then the sellers have no one to sell to,” Vold says. “Therefore, there would be no survivors and no survivor services needed. In order to see a decrease in this crime, it is imperative to focus on the prosecution of end users. When a lingerie shop on Seventh Street got shut down, the community saw the buyers’ faces and their names in print, on the news and social media. Public exposure serves to deter buyers from purchasing.”

If you or someone you know may be involved in human trafficking,
call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888
or Text for Help to BeFree (233733)

Hitting the Streets

It felt almost like boot camp, and Tank Weathers was the drill sergeant. This past summer, the pastor and construction worker put six at-risk youth to work, ripping out and replacing local sidewalks for the City of Rockford.

“I was testing them mentally on being drilled, being yelled at, being constantly told to flatten your trowel,” Tank says. It’s like the test before the real-world test.

When he was in their shoes, he was filled with the creeds of a street gang. Now, he’s filling these youths with a different sort of creed – a creed that builds oneself and one’s community. A creed to follow a path away from crime and into a safer and more productive future.

In turn, his pupils are spreading hope to others. The streets are watching.

“Now there’s a father saying, ‘My son did that. My daughter did that,’” says Tank. “We actually built something in this city. That’s my cousin, he ain’t shooting nobody. He doing that. If the momentum gets going and we go where we should go, this is going to bring a change.”