CEDAR RAPIDS — The fight against violent crime in Cedar Rapids last year did not get off to a promising start.
On the heels of the city’s worst year for incidents of gunshots being fired, police responded to 14 such episodes in January 2016. The next month, police went to only half a many such incidents but still the city marked its first homicide of the year — Joseph P. Perkins, 25, shot in the parking lot of the Cedar Valley Townhomes.
In March, a dozen shots-fired incidents were reported and the city saw its deadliest weekend of the year: On March 18, 15-year-old Senquez Jackson was unintentionally shot by another teen and died the next day. Fresh off that shooting, on March 19, Brandon Johnson, 21, was fatally shot during a brawl. Kenyauta Vesey-Keith, 16, was charged in connection with it.
March ended with the death of Robyn Furmanski, 62, who was pulled from a fire at her condo but died from blunt-force injuries — police say at the hands of Onyala V. Hughes, 43, who’s in jail.
But then something changed.
The incidents of shots being fired in the city dropped off dramatically, reaching double digits in a month — 10 in August — only once for the rest of the year.
Despite the brutal start, Cedar Rapids in 2016 saw its first drop of shots-fired incidents in three years. Overall, there were 86 such incidents last year, a 14 percent decrease from 2015’s total of 100.
“I am very pleased with how 2016 went,” said Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman, who has made countering gun violence a priority since joining the city in 2013. “ ... “We’re not going to let up. We’re going to keep moving to keep those numbers on the decline.”
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Importantly, homicides also were down in 2016: four compared with six in 2015 and eight in 2014. Two of those killed in 2016 died in accidental shootings.
Jerman credits the decrease in shots being fired to a department emphasis on community outreach and relationship building, and identifying and arresting those responsible for gun violence.
One team of officers in particular spent the year focused on gun violence. In early January 2016, the police department unveiled its Police Community Action Team, or PCAT for short.
The five-officer team, led by Sgt. Doug Doyle, was tasked with addressing neighborhood and community problems through intelligence gathering and relationship building. The team works independently of usual patrol operations, allowing it to delve deeper into issues and not bounce from call to call.
In their first year of operation, PCAT seized 12 guns and nearly $5,400 in cash, served 285 warrants and wrote up dozens of charges for a variety of offenses, including thefts, assaults, weapons and drugs.
“I think their productivity demonstrates that they’ve been extremely successful,” Jerman said. “The decline of shots fired and other categories is a result of and evidence of their success.”
The team did more than make arrests. It also met with residents and forged relationships. Knowledge that came from those bonds was shared with investigators and other officers, leading to more arrests.
In 2016, the PCAT officers conducted 110 field interviews, had 1,071 subject stops and conducted 508 foot patrols to be more visible and approachable.
“We’ve been able to build relationships with the leaders in the community,” Doyle said. “We were able to make some pretty good arrests.”
In addition to the Perkins, Johnson and Furmanski homicides, Cedar Rapids police investigated a fourth homicide in 2016 — the Sept. 30 stabbing death of Christopher Arteberry Jr., 18, at 6725 College Park Court SW. No arrests have been made in the deaths of either Perkins or Arteberry.
Also, on Sept. 27, a 13-year-old girl was accidentally shot and killed by a fellow teen at 1500 Eighth Ave. SE.
Overall, crime in the city increased slightly in 2016 with 15,469 offenses, up from 15,045 the year before, according to police data. The most common offenses included:
Burglary: 1,005 reported offenses, up from 999 in 2015.
Assault: 1,319 reported, an increase from 1,272.
Vandalism: 1,116 reported, compared with 1110 in 2015.
Drug violations: 1,529 reported, an increase from 1,373.
Thefts: 3,811 reported in both 2016 and 2015.
Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said the city saw an increase in crimes that largely could be prevented with a little extra effort from residents and merchants.
During the first part of 2016, for instance, police were called out to several instances of counterfeit bills being passed at businesses. Buelow recommends employees take extra time to examine large bills and businesses invest in a special pen to detect fake bills.
“Then we saw an increase in people stealing purses and wallets from automobiles,” Buelow said. “They were then turning around and using credit cards to make fraudulent purchases.”
Concern over burglaries prompted police to try to reinvigorate neighborhood watches across the city in late 2016.
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But Jerman said burglaries can be prevented with simple steps, such as locking doors and windows and not keeping valuables — particularly firearms — in plain view inside vehicles.
“We had 29 guns stolen from cars last year,” he said. “I know two of them were AK-47s. As a law enforcement officer and resident of Cedar Rapids, that greatly concerns and disturbs me that there are 29 weapons that are now in the hands of who knows who.”
Jerman said he’s hopeful crime will continue to fall if residents do their part as well as police.
“I think if we go in that direction and just ask people to be a little more mindful of practicing these crime prevention techniques, we can drive these numbers down and have a very successful 2017,” he said.