ILLINOIS (WCIA)– A unique Target 3 investigation reveals more Illinois officers were killed by gunfire last year than we’ve seen in two decades.

Bradley Police Department Sgt. Marlene Rittmanic was laid to rest Friday. Just before the new year, Sgt. Rittmanic became the fifth officer in the state shot to death in 2021.

Target 3 dug back through the years on the Officer Down Memorial Page and found out it’s been exactly 20 years since we lost five officers to gun violence in a single year in the state.

Just a day before Rittmanic died, Deputy Sheriff Sean Riley was killed. In October, the Pontoon Beach Police Department lost Officer Tyler Timmins. Chicago police Officer Ella French died in August.

The first loss this year rocked Central Illinois. Champaign Police Officer Chris Oberheim was killed while responding to a domestic call on May 19th.

Late Champaign Police Officer Chris Oberheim

In the wake of significant loss, we set out to understand what’s behind it all.

“One of the lessons from this is that there are no routine calls,” shared the executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, Ed Wojcicki.

Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman donned a mourning band when we sat down with him Wednesday. The black band over his badge was worn in remembrance of Sgt. Rittmanic and Deputy Sheriff Riley.

Their deaths ended the year 2021 on a grim note.

“You mentioned if i worry about my deputies: Every single day,” Sheriff Heuerman said

“…I think about my correctional officers with the inmates that we have now and the offenses that they’re accused of committing. I worry about my correctional officers every single day getting injured or killed in the jails. That is just the environment that we’re living in right now.”

“Let’s be honest, law enforcement sometimes can be overly aggressive,” he continued. “Law enforcement can have that attitude, like, ‘Do what I say,’ you know, ‘…because I say it,’ etc. These last two incidents, I’m not aware that there was anything that should have resulted in a struggle. It was more of an ambush.”

Wojcicki, with ILACP, had a message for the Oberheim family: “I want the family of officer Oberheim to know that our association and our members throughout the state hold them dearly in our hearts and in our prayer still, because we know it’s never over for them and we really appreciate the sacrifice that he made.”

Prior to Officer Oberheim’s death in May, the last time an officer was shot and killed in Central Illinois was 2007.

The loss of Douglas County Chief Deputy Tommy Martin was pivotal for Heuerman. The Champaign Co. Sheriff was a deputy there at the time.

“My aunt called me and said, ‘Dustin, are you okay?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure? Why? I mean, what are you doing?’ She’s like, ‘I heard a deputy was shot in Douglas County,'” he remembered.

“…And you can tell I’m a little emotional about it…But it was a stolen vehicle from Chicago that came down. They went off, you know, they did a home invasion…He was going to the scene to do some investigation stuff, the car passed him and saw that he was a police officer, and shot him as they passed him.”

Heuerman added, when an officer is gunned down, the rest of law enforcement can’t help but think this could happen to any of them.

“People feel emboldened to challenge authority figures, to challenge law enforcement officers a lot more than they used to in the past. And again, that’s not necessarily based on statistics or data, or anything like that, just kind of my own knowledge, having a master’s degree in criminology,” Heuerman explained.

“People are fighting a lot more than than they would have before.”

“People feel more emboldened to be violent and to commit crimes because the climate out there says they can get away with it. What they’re saying is that people are being released more easily after they’re arrested,” Wojcicki said.

Renée to Wojcicki: “And this has been sort of an overtime shift?
Wojcicki: “Well, I think that it’s recent. I think that you’ve seen this in the last couple of years.”

That’s about when the coronavirus forced local jails and the Illinois Department of Corrections to release a number of non-violent offenders, and those nearing the end of their sentences, for over-crowding amidst a global pandemic.

“With COVID[-19], everything was thrown into flux…That stress is then catching up with us. That’s what I believe is one of the major contributors to some of the things we’re seeing.” Heuerman explained.

Renée to Wojcicki: “A good number of cases are have not been solved, you know, whether that’s due to minimal evidence or witnesses not talking to police. I know that’s been such a frustration for them. Does that have to do with them being emboldened too, you know, the fact that they know that nobody’s going to talk?”
Wojcicki: “you know, the police will be on the scene of a crime within a minute or less than a minute or two minutes. And nobody saw anything. That’s what they hear so often.”

Renée to Heuerman: “Are [officers] more guarded on scenes? Or, is there any change in demeanor and how they’re responding to any particular call?
Sheriff Heuerman: “I think in general, yes. So you know, last year, I had a deputy who was shot at twice within two months.”

There isn’t much in common between the shootings that left five officers dead last year. The one pattern Target 3 picked up on is that at least three, if not four or more, of the suspects involved had their guns illegally.

“It’s the age old question: How do you keep the how do you keep guns out of the hands of felons? And honestly, I don’t know the answer to that,” Wojcicki said. “I just really don’t.”

He suggested a couple of ways to offer more protection for Illinois officers. One was additional de-escalation training, something that officers are required to go through, but he believes there’s room for more of an emphasis. Wojcicki also said sending more officers together on calls wouldn’t hurt either, but then again, that’s a resource issue for several of our under-staffed central illinois departments.