A recent seven-day stretch has led to increased calls to address gun violence in Burlington. From September 5-11, four people were shot in three separate cases throughout the city. Two of the gunshot victims died.
Residents Speak Out
About a half-dozen people spoke out during this week’s city council meeting. They included former mayor Tim Scott, who said he is very concerned about what he sees as an increase in serious, violent crimes in the city.
“Mayor, you have the power, and you alone have the power to contact the Governor’s office and ask for help,” said Scott to current Mayor Shane McCampbell, adding the request should also be made to Iowa’s Congressional delegation. “I would do that.”
Scott said that assistance should come in the form of grant funding with no strings attached to help the city hire additional police officers. Many grants to help increase police staffing provide up-front state funding but the financial burden eventually falls on the city.
Scott said he’s also worried about the future of Burlington. He said more and more people are buying guns to protect themselves from what they see as an escalation in violence. He said he moved away from Burlington when he was younger and worked for years to return.
“I’m not so sure I want to stay anymore,” said Scott. “There are other cities that experience the same problems we have, but there are a lot more cities that are not experiencing it. They don’t put up with it, they stop it before it happens. Do what you can.”
Samantha Hellberg said she just purchased a home in Burlington and she does not want to leave. She wants to see the entire community come together to stop the violence.
“I want to build this community to be a safe place where people want to be, (where) they want to come. We can go out and do whatever and feel safe. And I think we can get there but it will be a whole group effort," she said.
Burlington School Board member Tom Courtney, who is also a former state senator, said he and his wife recently attended a community event honoring the people who had died in violent crimes in Burlington in recent years.
“I am just appalled,” said Tom Courtney. “I’m not blaming anyone either. I am just appalled that we are letting this happen. We are doing something wrong.”
Nancy Courtney told the council, “I just hope we can get some peace in our community. I don’t know where it begins. At home, in the schools. We all need to get the guns off the streets, the drugs. We need more mental health facilities so people can get the treatment they so need.”
Tom Courtney suggested the city hold a community-wide meeting to discuss the gun violence and how to halt it.
The Burlington City Council generally does not respond to comments made during the public input portion of its meetings. But Mayor Shane McCampbell chose to address what he had heard and what he had seen in the community.
McCampbell said he has made the calls to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and he would continue to do so to see if there is funding available to help add more police officers. He added that the city council alone cannot solve the problem.
“There is no law out there that’s going to make people good,” said McCampbell. “We need to be mindful that if we cannot legislate, it’s going to take people working together to get it done.”
McCampbell said the community needs to look at what is going on with young people, even while they are still in school, and find out why they are choosing criminal activity instead of becoming law-abiding citizens.
“If you are putting out convicts who are going to get straight A’s, what’s the point because they are still going to be convicts,” said McCampbell during the meeting.
He said the community also needs to look at itself because it is no longer connected.
“Far too many people do not know there neighbors,” said McCampbell. “If you don’t know who your neighbors are in just a one-block stretch, how can you help them and how can they help you. That’s how it starts. It always starts small and then it builds.”
Police Chief Response
Police Chief Dennis Kramer said the recent seven-day span of gun violence is not indicative of the current level of safety in the community.
“The frequency of the last three events in such as short-time span kind of caused a little bit of a panic,” said Kramer in an interview with Tri States Public Radio. “Not to say that people’s concerns are not warranted.”
Kramer believes those seven days are an outlier, pointing to the crime statistics his office reports to the FBI each year.
The statistics show that non-fatal shootings and aggravated assaults are on pace to be down in 2019 compared to 2018. But homicides, reports of guns, and reports of shots fired are on the rise.
The department implemented a Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) unit a couple of years ago in response to a spike in violent crime from 2016 to 2017. The department said the unit works to prevent crime before it happens by being pro-active in the community.
Kramer said the result was a general reduction in crime in 2018. He said the POP unit was operating the first six months of this year as well.
“And then we had some officers that left for different employment for various reasons and left the department,” said Kramer. “So it kind of put us behind on our staffing levels.”
Kramer said the BPD administration had to make sure that patrol units were properly staffed, so officers were shifted there instead of the POP unit. He hopes to be able to restore the POP unit to full strength as soon as possible.
Kramer said staffing is always an issue with his department. He said he could always use more officers, but understands the financial challenges facing the city.
Former BPD Chief Doug Beaird presented the city with a proposal to hire two new officers each year for three years. The plan was to take the total number of sworn officers from 43 to 49 during that time.
Aldermen signed off on year one, adding the 44th and 45th officers. But that is as far as the proposal got with no new officers added in recent years.
Kramer said he will work with city leaders to reach optimal staffing levels. But he said his department will continue to work as well -- no matter how many officers there are -- to make sure residents and visitors feel safe in Burlington.
“Sometimes we get so focused on negative attention in the community that we overlook the positives that are happening,” said Kramer.