Violent crime in Springfield hit a 14-year high last year with 12 murders and more than 50 people injured by gunfire, but city leaders hope an investment in an early intervention program can curb that trend in 2016.
Community involvement is also crucial to fighting what Springfield Police Division Chief Stephen Moody called a public health crisis.
“Until the community stands shoulder to shoulder with us, we’re going to be plagued by this,” he said.
City leaders and police have said much of the recent gun violence can be linked to several feuding groups — maybe comprising a total of about 20 individuals — but their back and forth hasn’t been without collateral damage.
People like George Walker Jr., shot to death in 2014, have been hit by bullets never intended for them. In September, a 10-year-old boy was injured during a string of drive-by shootings.
“If it’s this bad now, what’s it going to be like when my grandchildren are older?” said Kelly Walker, George Walker Jr.’s mother.
The perception of Springfield as unsafe also has far-reaching effects on economic development and the vibrancy of neighborhoods, Mayor Warren Copeland said.
When Copeland speaks to groups in Dayton, “I say Springfield, they think violence,” he said.
‘Shield of fear’
A Springfield News-Sun analysis of 15 years of police data shows the city averaged six homicides per year since 2000 until the past two years. With the sharp increase in 2015 the city’s murder rate per capita surpassed Dayton’s.
The city averaged 186 aggravated assaults annually since 2001 and that number also spiked last year to 405.
Police handled more than 730 calls for shots fired in 2015. That’s up from about 530 five years ago.
Over and over again, community members told the Springfield News-Sun the problem is complex, but they identified a few key issues.
Children are coming up in an environment where violence is too common and they are growing into young adults without direction and without the skills to solve disputes peacefully.
Criminals have created a shield of fear they hide behind while witnesses refuse to cooperate and prosecutors struggle to make charges stick.
And although neighbors are outraged with each new incident, that anger quickly fades leaving little momentum for a true movement to stop the violence.
Leaders say all these issues need addressed, but they must focus first on the immediate need to drastically reduce homicides as many fear the summer months could usher in another spate of back-and-forth gun battles.
“We’ve had some shootings here recently, which means we’re waiting for retaliation at this point,” said Wendy Doolittle CEO of McKinley Hall.
George Walker Jr.’s brother James Cooper said from what he’s heard, “It’s going to be a rough summer.”
Springfield and Clark County will spend $50,000 to bring the Violence Interrupters program here and the organization’s CEO said he anticipates at least a 20 percent reduction in homicides this year.
“There’s a way you can stop the violence, but you have to be in a position where you can hire credible messengers, which are the Violence Interrupters, who can intercept whispers on the ground level in order to stop killings on the front end,” Tio Hardiman said.
He started the program in 2004 in Chicago and it has expanded to more than 15 cities.
The program’s most recent success was in Freeport, Ill., a city of about 25,000 people that went from eight murders between 2012 and 2014 to zero in 2015.
Hardiman will come to Springfield in April and train three people to be violence interrupters — trusted and respected individuals who know what’s going on on the streets and can step in to mediate conflict before shots are fired.
The interrupters aren’t the police, Hardiman said.
“You have to hire people that know the young people out there, that are involved in the violent lifestyle,” he said.
Along with a program coordinator who will run a counseling arm of the program, they will work out of McKinley Hall, which will spend $30,000 to cover the bulk of the cost for the program.
The Clark County Prosecutor’s Office will kick in $15,000, the city $5,000 and the Turner Foundation has committed to $5,000, Doolittle said.
City leaders are encouraged that this program can do what the police and other outside groups haven’t been able to — reach potential shooters before they pull the trigger.
“It’s all the same groups with the same grievances that do not have the ability to sit down even with an intermediary… (Someone who) can actually look a young man or young woman in the eye and speak from experience,” Moody said. “I can’t do that.”
The other arm of the program will address mental health and addiction issues facing offenders re-entering the community that, if left unchecked, could lead them right back to violence.
“Our belief is that most of these young people that we’re dealing with have some mental health diagnosis, whether it’s PTSD from growing up in those environments, whether it’s anxiety, whether it’s depression,” Doolittle said.
She hopes the program will eventually be able to expand beyond those on parole to intervene with those who haven’t committed a crime.
“We probably can’t eliminate all of it, but I just came to the point where, from my point of view, we couldn’t stand by and watch it happen without trying something to reduce it and that’s what this is,” Copeland said.
SPRINGFIELD HOMICIDES, 2014 AND 2015
Some residents like Mary Dill are skeptical that the Violence Interrupters program will work.
Dill’s son Dovon Williams and his friend Arbrie Smith were gunned down in 2011. She now leads the group Parents of Victims of Crime, which organized a peace walk in November.
“I want them to do something, I just don’t think this is it,” Dill said.
The police and prosecutor already know the handful of individuals behind a majority of the shooting incidents, she said, but those people have repeatedly had charges dropped or deals for lighter sentences.
“The police need to quit turning their head to the obvious when they know who’s doing it. They can’t continue to just cut deals knowing how dangerous they are,” said Prudence Mundy, whose son James Mundy was shot to death last year.
Moody and Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson confirm they know who’s perpetuating the violence, but they said locking them up isn’t as easy as some would like.
“Our community is in crisis here and the community has the power to turn this around,” Moody said, but more times than not, people choose not to help by cooperating with police.
“We need probable cause to make an arrest,” he said. “We’re talking about taking people’s freedom away … We take that very seriously.”
While some of the known individuals may have gotten plea deals in the past, Wilson said, but no longer.
“We are basically almost taking a zero-tolerance policy with them,” he said. “If they’re caught with guns, if they’re caught in these crimes, then we don’t really offer them anything.”
But he said police and his office need help from witnesses.
“The constitution protects individuals, even the thugs, from oppressive government practices. So we can’t just go shaking people down on the street,” Wilson said.
Witnesses intimidation is a real challenge, Wilson said, and is alleged to have played a role in the recent acquittal of Jerome Palmer Jr. in the death of William “Billy” Haney.
“They hide behind this shield, don’t snitch,” said Brian Keith of the Springfield Promise Neighborhood.
Following Palmer’s trial, Wilson’s office started researching solutions.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had trials where we put a witness up on the stand and the courtroom is packed with the defendant’s family and friends who are just glaring at our witness and there’s not a single person there other than our staff to support that witness,” Wilson said.
There’s a program in Cincinnati where residents volunteer to attend trials and support the witnesses.
“Letting these witnesses know that people from the community support you, you’re doing the right thing,” Wilson said.
Dill and others have also taken issue with the what they say is the police department’s refusal to acknowledge the presence of gangs in Springfield.
But Moody said no matter what you call these feuding groups, the problem doesn’t change.
“They are criminals and they’re using violence against each other,” he said.
Intervening with kids
Many in the community agree there’s been a shift in how young people handle conflict that has contributed to Springfield’s surge in gun violence.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t hear about people getting shot like this. The worst would be a fist fight,” said Cooper, 30. “Now you have that perception that he has a gun so I have to get mine now.”
Cooper was like a zombie following his brother’s death, he said, and it took him about a year to talk about it.
He misses laughing at his brother’s goofy pranks. His mother, Kelly Walker, said she still looks for George Walker Jr. to walk through the door.
They’d both like to turn their loss into something positive and want to see teens get mentoring to intervene even earlier than the Violence Interrupters.
“A lot of kids are misinformed by the streets,” Cooper said, and they see young men getting a couple years in prison and coming back to the community with street cred.
Keith has also seen a shift in the mentality of the young people he deals with.
“It’s a culture thing … a lot of the talk is violent talk,” he said.
Teaching kids how to de-escalate situations is crucial, Keith said.
The opiate epidemic, like crack before it, has had a huge affect on the raising of the next generation, Doolittle said.
“Let’s not overlook what happens to young people when their parents are addicted to drugs, when their parents are being sent away to prison,” she said. “Let’s not overlook the mental health of these kids. And that is what has happened.”
The Springfield Promise Neighborhood — a local effort to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in the 110-block area around Lincoln Elementary School — has made huge strides in improving academic performance and giving kids ownership of their education, city leaders say. It could be a program that bears fruit down the road in reducing the number of teens that turn to violence.
“The transformation there has been phenomenal,” said Moody, who has mentored kids at Lincoln.
The program has expanded to Perrin Woods Elementary and is seeking a national Promise Zone designation to grow again.
“Though the Promise Zone makes up only 36 percent of Springfield’s overall population, 58 percent of the murder cases in the community have occurred in the zone,” the city wrote in its application for that designation.
Unifying the community
Prudence Mundy spent 20 years living on East Southern Avenue. She left when she noticed drug activity and violence creeping into her neighborhood and she now lives in Xenia.
Her son moved back to Springfield in 2013 and was killed in 2015. On Jan. 2, Danyale Piersoll, 37, was shot to death in a house across the street from her old home in what police believe may have been a domestic dispute.
She worries that people who haven’t experienced loss themselves or haven’t seen it on their block, aren’t concerned enough about the city’s future.
“Our young people are dying, what’s going to be left in Springfield?” she said.
She attended the November peace walk, but said not many others did.
“There’s more people out here trying to do the right thing and not being violent. It’s not like the whole city’s at war,” Keith said.
But it can seem that way.
“We need to work harder to make our voices louder in the community and say we’re not going to accept that kind of behavior,” Keith said.
Copeland, who lives on the south side, tells residents there’s no need to live in fear of being shot as the city is overwhelmingly safe. But the larger community should care about this violence, he said.
“These are human beings. They are somebody’s kids, in some cases they are the parents of kids,” he said.
In addition, every shooting serves to further diminish Springfield’s reputation to outsiders. What’s happened in the past two years has reinforced that image.
“When prospective employers look Springfield up on the Internet, which they all do these days, the stories that are likely to come up will be stories about these shootings,” he said. “So this is also significant in terms of economic development and attracting people to want to live here.”