EVANSVILLE, IN (WFIE) - Twenty homicides in 2017 spurred a change in how the Evansville Police Department fights violent crime.
14 News first reported on EPD's VIPER unit back in January. The new unit stands for Violent Incident Prevention Enforcement Response.
Now, five months since its creation, we wanted to find out if this new approach is working.
VIPER's mission is to target guns and hunt down the most violent, well-known criminals and get them off the streets. Not even half a year in and the numbers show it's making a difference.
2017 was one of the deadliest years on record. After a D'Angelo White's homicide on S. Bedford Ave. on January 1, 2018, the new year looked like it would continue the trend.
"Stop. Really. Because, y'all are tearing families apart," said White's aunt, Caroline White.
We spoke to White's family members at the intersection of Washington and Bedford to ask them how gun crime has plagued their loved ones. Dozens showed up to the pole where they now often put balloons and memorabilia marking White's memory near the street. He'd been shot on New Year's Day and was driving his way to the hospital, but didn't make it.
White's cousin, Keesha, says she moved to Evansville to make a safer life for her five kids.
"Like, this was my peace moving down here from Detroit," said Keesha Collier."It hurts me as a mom. It hurts me as a sister, hurts me as a cousin, it really does hurt," she started to cry. "A lot of people really don't understand until it happens to them and their family."
According to Evansville police records, more than 65 people were shot inside the city limits in 2017. Twenty of those were homicides. That number is almost triple from just the year before.
"Last year it was 65 shootings," VIPER Unit Sergeant Pat Phernetton told us. "If that pattern holds, we could theoretically cut that number in half, which is pretty significant," he said. "These guys are out here targeting criminals that we know carry guns – criminals that we know are out here taking shots at people, gang members, the worst of the worst."
EPD rolled out its VIPER unit three days after D'Angelo White's death. Now, four undercover officers work full time across the metro area. They track men and women with warrants for violent crimes, watching social media and learning their connections to gangs and other criminals. Sgt. Phernetton says when they have a case, they call in other VIPER officers, this time, in uniform to make the arrests. He says so far, his officers have made more than 280 arrests and taken about 25 illegal guns off the streets.
"Simply the number of people shot being down over the first five and a half months is down considerably from last year," Phernetton said. "It's an encouraging sign and it shows that we're having an effect."
We caught up with EPD Chief Billy Bolin on how the new unit is making progress. He says the VIPER unit is getting the job done in reducing gun crime and targeting well-known criminals, but there's still an alarming number of different cases EPD as a whole has seen this year.
"We're still sitting at six murders this year," Chief Bolin said. "But, our very first one of the year, January First, (D'Angelo White), would fall into these kind of people that were targeting. So, I think it's working, but unfortunately, we still have some other incidents that are kind of skewing the numbers little bit." Chief Bolin pointed to domestic violence cases.
Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann says EPD's 'boots on the ground' initiative with the VIPER unit has seen results when it comes to the number of cases and charges filed over the last several months.
"We've seen an increase in cases filed," Hermann said. "We've seen an increase in the guns taken off the streets. So, I think it's been successful in that regard. It's still pretty early, you know we're just a few months in as things getting to trial--most felony cases take six months to a year to get to trial."
Still, compared to this time last year, prosecutors have seen a surge in gun felony cases, up 29%, and even more for drug offenses, up 58%.
Back to the White family on the corner of Washington and Bedford is a group of citizens who are hoping change comes from within others in the community.
"It's been a hard pill to swallow," said White's cousin, Keesha. "Even though he was my little cousin, I look at him like he was one of my sons."
We asked the family if the new VIPER unit gives them peace of mind.
"Yes it does," said Caroline White. "Even though they have caught all four people, they still ain't going to bring my nephew back."
Chief Bolin says while the numbers show progress with the new unit, there's still a lot of work for VIPER to do.