SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Amber Oberheim, the widow of slain Champaign police officer Chris Oberheim, visited the Illinois statehouse on Wednesday to endorse Republican calls for tougher prison sentences for repeat firearms offenders, and to increase state funding for law enforcement.
Senate Republicans ramped up their calls for Democrats to hold hearings and debate their crime package, which includes proposals to spend $100 million in state grant funding on police, mandate 10-year minimum prison sentences for first-time felony firearm offenders, and life sentences for repeat offenders.
Standing in front of the Illinois Police Officers Memorial, where her husband’s name will soon be etched in stone, Oberheim recounted the worst day of her life and described the scene that unfolded when her husband approached a suspect on a domestic disturbance call around 3 a.m. on May 19th.
“That morning, our life stopped and our world came crashing down,” Oberheim said on Wednesday, flanked by her four daughters and 11 Republican lawmakers. “We had big plans. We had big dreams. Everything that we dreamed of was stolen by a repeat felon with an illegal gun.”
The tragic shooting rocked the Champaign community, and hit close to home for Senator Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet).
“Chris’ partner that night is one of my best friends,” Rose said of Officer Jeffrey Creel, who recovered from his gunshot wounds. “Chris Oberheim’s murderer, the man who shot my friend Officer Creel as well, was a multiple convicted felon. Officer Creel and Officer Oberheim were responding to yet another domestic disturbance by that individual.”
Later, the Champaign County State’s Attorney said Officer Creel was justified in using deadly force to return fire and kill Darion Lafayette. Court records show Lafayette had previously been arrested and charged with felonies for domestic violence and drug possession, but none that included firearms charges.
Rose acknowledged his proposals would not have kept Officer Oberheim’s shooter behind bars, but he says his plan to target gun trafficking might have kept a gun out of his hands. As a felon, Lafayette was not legally allowed to have a gun under Illinois law.
One of Rose’s proposals would sentence the person who gave Lafayette the gun to 10 years in prison. Federal law enforcement agencies took over the firearm investigation, but still don’t know where Lafayette got the gun.
Those missing pieces of evidence in tracking the firearm used in the Oberheim killing underscore the difficulty police and prosecutors often face in monitoring the flow of weapons or getting convictions in court.
State senator Steve McClure (R-Springfield), a former prosecutor in Sangamon County, said putting more police officers on the streets would help prosecutors close cases and win more convictions in court.
“To enhance evidence gathering, you have to have enough law enforcement in each of these communities to collect evidence, to stop crime, and to fight crime,” McClure said. “You cannot gather evidence if you don’t have enough people working the streets to gather evidence. That’s a major issue right now, and that’s causing a lot of the crime.”
Oberheim called on Democrats, who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, to hold hearings and debate the Republican proposals.
“I ask you to not leave your time in Springfield without getting something done to protect the citizens of Illinois,” she said. “Do not let the state of Illinois down.”
“Democrats like to call use the ‘Party of No,'” Senator Don DeWitte (R-St. Charles) said at the Wednesday press conference. “We are here with solid proposals to help get illegal guns out of our neighborhoods, keep violent criminals off of our streets, and to have a major impact on reducing many of the root causes of crime by investing in mental health services.”
Rose wrote letters to top Senate Democrats who chair committees and urged them to hold hearings on the crime proposals.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Lightford (D-Maywood) said she hadn’t seen any detailed analysis of the proposals, but gave Rose credit for “a couple good ideas.”
“I find it to be a real breakthrough that Senate Republicans want to invest in reducing gun violence,” she responded. “It’s rare that any Republican acknowledge guns as a problem. I look forward to working with him.”