Springfield leaders: Anti-violence efforts lead to drop in murders

Springfield police chief cautions that while homicides are down, gun violence continues to climb.

The homicide rate in Springfield dropped almost 60 percent last year and community leaders believe their efforts to reach out to young people are part of the reason for the improvement.

But gun violence remains a rising problem, Springfield Police Chief Steve Moody said.

A dozen people were murdered in Springfield in 2015, with four of the killings within nine days. Last year five people were killed. So far 2017 has seen two homicides.

RELATED: Murders drop in Springfield, but chief says gun violence still up

New and continuing programs intended to teach youth and adults about the effect of gun violence have contributed to that drop, said Deontrae Ellis, criminal justice program coordinator at McKinley Hall, a Springfield drug treatment center.

“They do work and they do have an impact,” he said, “and I hope that people really pay attention.”

But aggravated assaults — crimes that often involve a gun — jumped 25 percent last year, Moody said. That number shows that gun violence remains a big problem, he said.

And with recent cuts to the police division, he said it could be difficult to combat.

Interrupting violence

Several local organizations have played a part in the decreased homicide rate, Ellis said, including the Peace Keepers, NAACP Springfield Unit and the Opportunities for Individual Change.

The Violence Interrupters, part of McKinley Hall's criminal justice program, kicked off in Springfield in last May. It's a program aimed at stopping violence in the community

The three Springfield men who've been given the title "Violence Interrupter" are tasked with being the eyes and ears in the street with a goal to mediate conflict before it can escalate to gunfire, the Springfield News-Sun previously reported. They intentionally don't work with the police as a way to build trust with neighbors, Ellis said.

“In 2015 and 2014 we had those two years and the homicide rate was really going up,” Ellis said. “I think people just really got tired.”

Since the program began, the men have built good reputations, he said, and community members have started to reach out to them if they have a problem.

“We don’t have to go out as much as we did in the beginning,” he said. “People are starting to come to us.”

READ MORE: Gun thefts, illegal weapons linked to Springfield violence

They’re making a difference, said Christopher Hatcher, who attends meetings at McKinley Hall twice a week. Hatcher has been arrested in the past, including for drug possession and drug trafficking, he said, and was introduced to the treatment center’s criminal justice program by his probation officer.

He’s not a drug addict, he said, but was addicted to the lifestyle of making money quickly and easily.

“You’ve got to want to change for yourself,” he said.

It took him wanting to be a role model for his children to take the program to heart.

“It took me being sick and tired of doing the same old thing that I’ve done since 14 and 15 years old,” he said.

The efforts of the Violence Interrupters work, but he said a lot of people don’t know about the services available at McKinley Hall.

Showing kids another way

Other local programs have aimed their efforts to children to give them positive influences and keep them busy.

The Springfield Promise Neighborhood, located within the attendance zone for Lincoln Elementary School, has after-school programs for children in the neighborhood and recently added summer programs.

“The more positive things for children to do in the summer the better,” said Bob Welker, executive director of the Springfield Promise Neighborhood.

Last summer was the first year it offered two-week camps for kids, with activities like sports, arts and field trips. About 50 children participated in the camps.

“Why certain kids do really well … it always comes back to learning and having positive adults care about you,” Welker said.

Now the Promise Neighborhood is working on expanding the program to other schools in Springfield, he said.

Strengthening families

It’s not just men with criminal backgrounds who need to be shown another way of life, Ellis said, which is why programs that reach out to assist children are needed to prevent violence.

Fatherhood Clark County program at Urban Light Ministries works with fathers to improve their parenting skills, including those in prison, said Eli Williams, President and CEO at Urban Light Ministries.

“We looked around the community and decided that one of the biggest things missing was that no one was reaching out to strengthen the families by working with dads,” Williams said.

RELATED: As Springfield violence climbs, two sides battle different fronts

The mentoring program has been around for more than 10 years, he said. It connects fathers with the resources they need, be that employment, legal services or emotional support.

“We start with the assumption that most dads really care about their children,” he said, “rather than the assumption that they’re deadbeats.”

When a child has a relationship with their father, he said, they’re more likely to be successful. Children who grow up in homes without a father are twice as likely to be involved in crime and to abuse drugs, according to the Ohio Commission on Fatherhood.

“Mountains of research show that children who have an actively engaged father … those children are less likely to commit crimes,” Williams said.

And the program doesn’t only prevent violence in the next generation, he said.

“We have found that wanting to be a good father is a terrific motivator for these fathers,” he said.

The programs are available to all local fathers. James Cooper enrolled in the Fatherhood Institute, a three-week class taught at Clark State Community College. Cooper has had a relationship with Williams since he was 10 years old and involved in Urban Light Ministries after-school program.

“I didn’t have a father growing up so he filled that void for me for a long time,” Cooper said.

DETAILS: Police ID shooting victim in Springfield’s first homicide of year

He wants a better childhood for his two children, he said, and Williams is always there as a mentor when he has questions.

“As a father my goal is to provide the best childhood possible,” Cooper said. “I know how bad it can be from my experience.”

Gun violence is a difficult subject for Cooper, who’s brother George Walker, was shot and killed in 2014. But he believes the fatherhood program could make a difference.

“To show people a different way of living and a different way of handling situations is definitely important … if anybody could change it, Pastor Eli can,” Cooper said.

Still a growing problem

While these programs aren’t connected to the police division, Moody said their efforts are important.

“There’s still work to be done and they all can’t do it alone,” he said.

But while it’s a good thing the homicide rate was down in 2016, Moody said, it doesn’t mean people weren’t shot.

“Fortunately people are surviving,” he said.

More than 180 aggravated assaults were recorded in 2016, according to data from the Springfield Police Division. That’s an increase from 150 in 2015.

Aggravated assault “usually is accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm,” according to the division.

“There are still people reaching for a handgun to solve a problem,” he said.

Through the first two months of this year, 21 aggravated assaults were recorded. On March 18, a Springfield man, 36-year-old Jeffery Rife, was killed by gunfire in the first homicide of the year. And on March 24, 30-year-old Brandon Dearmond was murdered on Linden Avenue.

Police have been inundated lately with calls for overdoses, Moody said. Police responded to 300 overdose calls in 2015 and about 350 last year. But in just the first two months of this year, officers have been to about 230 overdose calls.

The increased problem with heroin is probably one of the reasons for the increase in aggravated assaults, Ellis said.

“Whenever you get an increase in drug use, you’re going to have stuff like that,” he said. “More burglaries, assaults and gun violence.”

MORE COVERAGE: Rally against heroin held in downtown Springfield

McKinley Hall is also working hard to combat the addiction problem in Springfield, he said.

At the same time, many changes were made at the beginning of the year in the police division that have affected its community policing efforts, Moody said. After voters rejected a tax increase in November, budget cuts from the city went into effect.

The police substation on West Johnny Lytle Avenue closed and the community response team now has just one officer to oversee it.

“We’re beyond cut to the bone,” Moody said. “We’re in the marrow now.”

It’s essential for the community response team to build relationships with neighbors, he said, so residents come to officers when they have problems rather than taking matters into their own hands.

“You lose that connectivity in the community,” he said. “We’re still able to do a few things but it’s not as much as we were doing prior.”

Ellis and other community leaders said they plan to continue their efforts to prevent violence and provide programming for both kids and adults.

“People in the city are starting to become a little bit proud of the place that they live in,” he said. “And not just the programs but even the people in the community are doing a little bit better of a job of just talking to the young people out here.”

By the numbers:

58 percent — Decrease in homicides from 2015 to 2016

25 percent — Increase in aggravated assaults from 2015 to 2016

1 — Homicides so far in 2017

Staying with the story

The Springfield News-Sun has delivered unmatched coverage of the rise in gun violence in Springfield the past three years, including stories digging into the Violence Interrupters and the what recent cuts have meant for the Springfield Police Division.

About the Author