LOUISVILLE, Ky. — While combatting violent crime has been studied for centuries, so much of the research involved in preventing what happened in 2020 from repeating itself is still in progress.
Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said evidence-based approaches work under “normal” conditions, but this year has presented problems beyond what researchers have seen before.
"You have a series of conditions that are sort of like a perfect storm where social systems, law enforcement systems are all taxed, and it’s leading to great loss of life in many cities,” Webster said.
What are the options? What can the community do to build a better Louisville?
With more than one week left of 2020, Louisville has reported 580 non-fatal shootings and 162 homicides. Homicide rates have increased 81% from 2019, according to data from the Louisville Metro Police Department.
Law enforcement officials said they are stretched to the limits, and the pandemic has only put more weight on them.
"Just the proliferation of the sheer number we've had obviously has put a burden on us,” LMPD spokesperson Dwight Mitchell said.
Webster said balanced policing is necessary to helping target the few people in a community engaged in violence and those at a higher risk of being victims.
"For Louisville to thrive, it is going to have to commit itself to the key principals: fair policing, balanced approach with positive supports to the most vulnerable for being potential victims of violence,” Webster.
But the community cannot rely on police alone. Experts found that providing basic security for all aspects of life is crucial to cutting down on gun violence.
"Providing social services, providing job opportunities, housing, food,” Webster said. “Providing all of the insecurities that might lead them to pick up a gun in certain situations you actually want to help and provide assistance so they're making good choices."
Dr. Eddie Woods, CEO of No More Red Dots, said it starts with model behavior.
“If we can get a hold of the kids as early as possible then we can kind of change some of their dynamics a little bit,” Woods said.
The organization is Woods’ way of making sure no more lives are stolen in Louisville. He and a team of volunteers take matters into their own hands, mentoring the young and impressionable.
“We try to get them into the right program – different group sessions and trips and different events and things that change how they think, change their whole sense of purpose and future,” Woods said. “They got to feel like they can do some things – that they can accomplish some stuff.”
Woods has been doing this work for decades, reaching out to more than 100 children and teenagers, with many of his mentees walking the path he helped pave for them.
Introduced to “Doc” when they were just preteens, Deshon Watters, Rontele Shepard and Leevaughn Morris now work alongside him in helping their community. When police get called to a shooting, the Woods and his volunteers get notified, deciding what their next steps should be in helping the community.
“Some of the people that nobody is going to be able to reach, we are the ones that can reach them,” Watters said. “We don’t put band aids over bullet wounds. We try to figure out the best way the most effective way to reach the people that we can.”
For so many of them, the wound is a lot deeper than what meets the eye.
“A lot of us face poverty so it forces us to have to go do other things, which you know we all got friends and family that’s in the penitentiary doing 10, 20 years, for life,” Morris said.
While they try to do what they can to help their community, it is difficult to help with so few resources. The group said kids today often have to pay for everything they do – summer camp, TARC rides, or other events. Those without money are left with a clear disadvantage, often leading to a rough lifestyle.
“When the city tears down all the community centers, the spaces where the kids are supposed to have a safe haven, and leave them with nothing else to do, then you turn to the streets,” Shepard said.
Louisville Urban League President and CEO Sadiqa Reynolds said she understands how difficult it has been to provide basic security for so many in the city as her team has been working around the clock during the pandemic to help as many people as possible.
Reynolds said the Urban League believes the solutions are clear: jobs, education and housing. The Urban League’s $52 million sports and learning complex will soon transform West Louisville, offering a space for mentorship, physical activity and job opportunities – already bringing economic development to the area.
“The people that will come here with disposable income, who will need a place to stay, need a place to eat, to have that in the West End and for this part of the city, to understand that that belongs to us…that’s our space – everybody can use it, we’ll let everybody come – but it’s ours,” Reynolds said.
When balanced policing and better social services work hand-in-hand, then Webster said the community can be at its best. Still, the pandemic has depleted or canceled social services so many depend on – making the chance of working together even more difficult.
"The systems are strained by the pandemic. It does make this work harder, but lives are always depending on that. We can't take our eye off the ball,” Webster said. “The harms that are created by gun violence are really incalculable. Aside from deaths themselves and the injuries, the fears created in these communities is just incalculable.”
Metro Government recently partnered with LHOME, a nonprofit that provides residents in West and South Louisville affordable loans to promote small businesses and home ownership. In November, they launched a free Financial Navigators program to help people navigate financial issues related to the pandemic.
“We want to be sure to connect those that have been underestimated in our community and underserved with financial resources so that they can build wealth,” LHOME CEO Amy Shir said. “We will sit with you on the phone, and we will listen to whatever it is that you have going on in your life without any judgement. There is no shame.”
By letting people know what resources they have available, LHOME hopes to make sure no one feels like they have to turn to violence.
Mayor Greg Fischer also recently introduced a new national strategy that Louisville will use to curb violent crime called Gun Violence Intervention. Local and federal law enforcement officials will identify people who are in circles causing violence in neighborhoods with high crime rates. The people will then meet with prosecutors, social workers and peers impacted by their action.
“It’s based on a fundamental understanding of homicides and gun violence that’s evolved over about 30 years,” said David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities in New York. “[They] talk directly with people in those groups and say to them ‘We want you alive, we don’t want you hurt, we don’t want you locked up, we don’t want you to and won’t let you hurt anybody else.’”
The strategy has been used in cities like Oakland and Boston, with Kennedy saying it cut homicides by 50% in Boston the first time it was implemented. He said he believes it will work in Louisville as well.
“It’s an important approach for Louisville to embrace right now, because it is a way of saying concretely the way we have been doing public safety has not been what it should be,” Kennedy said.
As all experts said, it’s not up to one group to stop gun violence – it’s a team effort.