Detroit leaders mobilize gun violence response as shootings rise
Mia Reid asked a crowd of a few dozen people gathered in Gordon Park Monday to raise their hand if they knew someone killed by guns. Nearly every arm rose in unison.
Reid lost her only son Charles in a shooting that ended his life at age 24. Reid noted Black Americans face a higher risk of being killed by guns due in part to poverty, health disparities and structural racism, which has caused widespread trauma among families in Detroit.
City Council leaders convened a Monday press conference with other city officials, faith leaders and community organizers working on gun violence prevention strategies. The event honored victims of shootings and their families at the start of National Gun Violence Awareness Month.
“We all know the tragic toll that gun violence takes in our city, in our communities,” said City Council President Mary Sheffield. “We see the headlines – just this morning I woke up to a story of more unfortunate, senseless violence in our city. We cannot as a community continue to allow this to happen in our city. That is why we are here today, to recommit ourselves to the fight against gun violence.”
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Detroit Police Chief James White said there have been 110 homicides this year and 323 non-fatal shootings. Thirty-six people under 17 were shot this year, including six who died. Detroit also experienced two mass shootings this year, defined as an incident where four or more people were shot, resulting in two deaths.
“Over the past week, we have had multiple people shot at barbecues and parties, multiple people shot celebrating graduations,” White said. “What about the victims, what about the people who won’t get an opportunity to be city council president to be police chief, police officer, school teacher, activists? In many instances, the person who was shot isn’t the intended target.”
Sheffield said gun violence is a public health crisis that has a larger impact on Black families. Homicide is the leading cause of death for Black men under the age of 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children and teens killed by gunfire in the United States increased 50% between 2019 and 2021, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of CDC data. Black children and teens were roughly five times as likely as their white youth to die from gunfire in 2021. Black youth were victims in nearly half (46%) of all 2021 gun deaths, despite making up only 14% of the overall population.
“We are not going to normalize the level of violence that we see in our community,” Sheffield said. “We are losing the next generation of leaders of community builders, of organizers to gun violence, and it must stop.”
‘Out of control’
After her son’s death, Reid became a therapist and focused her grief into advocacy for gun regulation. She also created the Charles W. Reid Community Help Center, a nonprofit that supports people impacted by violence and poverty.
“We are suffering deep,” Reid said. “As yourself, the people who do not get help, what are they doing with that hurt? It’s going back into the community … Sometimes, you can’t wait for other people to help you. This is our community. You’re gonna have to join in.”
Bonnie Whittaker’s 18-year-old granddaughter Tikiya Allen was riding a friend’s bicycle when she was killed by a gunman in a red Ford Taurus who opened fire on the street on a summer afternoon. Whittaker said the bullet destroyed her granddaughter and the grief threatens to break her family. She honors Allen’s life by organizing events at her church and attending rallies in Detroit and Lansing.
“It’s not the natural order of life for us to bury our kids and grandkids, it’s just out of control,” Whittaker said. “I wake up every day with it and I have to get up and do something.”
Allen’s murder remains unsolved nearly three years later. Whittaker shook White’s hand after the Monday event. The chief said he’s familiar with the case but police are still looking for the shooter.
Allen was studying to be a nurse anesthetist at Oakland University. Whittaker mourns the loss of her granddaughter’s future. She had a bright but incomplete life. Allen said learning Arielle Anderson, a victim of the February shooting at Michigan State University, was studying to be a doctor was devastating.
“I imagined they could have been in practice together,” Whittaker said.
City leaders and community organizers said causes of violence include the proliferation of guns, a lack of economic and education opportunities, unaddressed trauma and a lack of community resources like recreation centers and after-school activities for young Detroiters. Solutions must take a comprehensive approach, they said, and build relationships with people who are at risk of committing violence.
“I can’t keep telling somebody to stop doing something and there’s nothing there for them to occupy their time,” said Dujuan “Zoe” Kennedy, an organizer with the community violence prevention group FORCE Detroit. “I can tell the person who’s constantly getting provoked and trolled on social media, who’s never been taught emotional intelligence (or) never went through a (cognitive behavioral therapy) curriculum, how to manage that just with words.
“We start with the resources, they have to be there. It has to be real, because our people have been given hope, time after time, and they killed them and destroyed the systems that they created. We cannot let that happen this time.”
Community violence intervention efforts were referenced by several attendees. The city set aside $10 million in federal pandemic relief dollars to fund the work of five community nonprofit organizations in areas that experience high rates of violence. Organizations that show success in bringing down shootings will receive additional funding to expand their efforts. The grants haven’t been awarded yet.
Dwight Harris is the CEO of Icon10, a nonprofit that applied for the funding. Harris said people involved in gun violence prevention work need to have relationships with residents and be involved in the specific community they’re trying to change. Outside activists coming into a neighborhood won’t drive change, Harris said, it comes from connecting mentors and peers who already live there to young people.
“Who are the shooters, who are we dealing with? Post-pandemic, our kids, we lost them,” Harris said. “They became something else during COVID. We don’t even know these babies.”
Council Member Fred Durhal III chairs the city’s gun violence task force, which convenes a group of 30 community members to connect the council to street-level organizing. Durhal said data collected from the “ShotStoppers” violence intervention program could help create a route to access more federal funding, if success can be demonstrated.
“You might have heard the term community violence intervention, this is not a fake term,” Durhal said. “These are folks who are on the ground every single day in places that we are not. They are not at the council table. They are not in patrol cars. They are in the neighborhood with folks saying ‘hey, put these guns down.’ They are identifying the real problems.”
Ray Winans, director of the nonprofit Detroit Friends and Family, said the city seems to have a “comprehensive strategy” to address violence for the first time in his life. Winans said community groups need resources to treat violence as a preventable health issue.
White said a massive increase in gun sales since the pandemic has contributed to the problem, as legal gun owners have their weapons stolen and then used to commit a violent crime.
“When you’ve got that number of guns in a community, you’ve got to have that level of responsibility,” White said. “You can’t take that gun to the club and leave it in the trunk, then the car gets broken into and somebody gets the gun to use it in our community.”
Durhal said the gun violence task force plans to release a report later this summer that will include more details on the effectiveness of community violence intervention work and how to improve on what’s been successful.
“You can’t legislate morality but what we can do is provide resources,” Durhal said. “It’s going to take funding, we’ve got to find a way to connect our mental health systems; we talk about conflict resolution, cognitive behavioral training, the effects of poverty and living in communities subjected to gun violence. We also want to work with labor and skilled trades to connect (youth) to jobs and careers.”
Council President Pro Tem James Tate said mass shootings over the past decade are starting to drive conversations around legal reforms and policy changes, but Detroit has long struggled with gun violence that hasn’t been recognized the same way.
“For a long period of time, we’ve had these so-called mass shootings, but they didn’t call it that,” White said. “Once it started invading middle America, now we got to come up with a solution … The real issue is trauma. The real issue is mental health and the real issue is poverty. The real issues are policies that are purposefully harming disproportionately communities of color. When we take away all and we strip away all of those ideological feelings, it boils down to trauma, pain and hurt.”
Deputy Mayor Todd Bettison said drug and alcohol abuse is contributing to irresponsible gun use. Bettison also blamed rap music for creating “a culture of being a user” with lyrics about taking pills and designer drugs. Bettison called on the audience Monday to be courageous and help family members who are struggling with drug abuse or mental health issues.
“Our young folks are being influenced by this, so you have 13 and 14 year olds who are high on pills and have access to guns,” Bettison said. “We know people in our family who are high, they’ve got a gun. We know people in our family who suffer from mental illness, we know people that should be committed. If we don’t give them the help that they need … then we fail them.”
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