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Task force grapples with rash of Roanoke gun violence

Task force grapples with rash of Roanoke gun violence

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The shadow of an uncommonly violent week marked by seven shootings in eight days hovered in the background Friday as Roanoke’s gun violence task force gathered together.

The city appears to be part of a nationwide spike in gun violence unfolding at a time when communities are also grappling with the unbalancing effects of a pandemic and an impassioned debate about policing and safety.

“We are in unprecedented times,” Shakira Williams, chair of the task force, said as the group convened a virtual meeting via Zoom.

Gunfire was reported in the city four times last weekend and twice Wednesday night. Four adults and two teens were wounded but survived.

A seventh shooting that left one man seriously injured was reported Friday afternoon. That altercation happened about 4 p.m. in Washington Park, officials said.

No arrests have been made in any of the cases. In several instances, both witnesses and victims were reluctant to cooperate with detectives.

“Obviously, that makes it difficult for our investigators to thoroughly and accurately get to the bottom of what’s going on,” police Chief Sam Roman said.

Authorities said no information has been found to date to suggest that any of the shootings were linked, but efforts are ongoing to untangle what spurred each event.

This week, the department released a clip of body camera footage in hopes of generating leads in one dramatic volley of gunfire that broke out downtown over the weekend.

The gunshots, which struck several cars and at least one building, went off about 2 a.m. Sunday in a crowded parking lot filled with an estimated 100 people.

The body camera footage came from one of several officers who were close by patrolling downtown and monitoring the crowd.

The video doesn’t capture the shooting itself but highlights the volume of shots fired. First one gunshot is heard, then another, then a cacophony of firing.

Officers later collected about 50 spent casings from the scene. The casings spanned different calibers, including 9 mm and 7.62 mm rounds.

The footage released by police shows the armed confrontation lasted less than 45 seconds. The officer wearing the camera was on scene swiftly, but people were already scattering. The squeal of car tires fleeing can be heard.

No one was reported injured in the melee.

In releasing the video clip, officials turned to the community for help. Investigators want to not only find the people involved but to understand what set off the confrontation.

What was at the root of the clash? What, if any, new strife could it spur? What can be done to intercede and de-escalate tensions?

That 360-degree view of a situation is crucial to preserving a safe community, Roman said, and is part of the core mission of the city police.

“That is the bigger picture,” he said. “To try to figure out what is causing something and to see how we can have the biggest impact in reducing violence.”

The community is an essential part of that work, he said. Tips can be made anonymously, and officers can help those who might have fears about coming forward.

Mayor Sherman Lea echoed the need for people to report what they know. Speaking to the gun violence task force Friday morning, he noted that the urgency of that group’s work is more evident than ever.

“We’re in a moment now where violence is really striking hard across the country,” he said, alluding to a nationwide trend of rising violence that has emerged in recent months.

“I know we are all concerned,” he said. “Your work is critically important to our community.”

The city’s task force, formed last year, is developing a series of strategies to combat gun violence on multiple fronts using a public health model that deals with both violence and its root causes.

Rapid response interventions, community-building, youth outreach and anti-recidivism measures all number among its subject points.

Friday morning’s meeting was set before the past week’s string of shootings, but the outbreak weighed on the minds of organizers.

“It’s no secret that there has been an increase in violence around our nation and in gun violence specifically, as well as here in Roanoke,” Williams said.

The group resolved to meet again in two weeks as it continues to push to work for change. Some of the task force’s goals, such as creating a new rapid response coordinator post, were slowed by the onset of COVID-19, but work has continued steadily, officials said.

Interviews for the rapid response coordinator, a position funded by a new grant, are expected to take place over the next two weeks.

Roman, who’s in his fourth month as police chief but has a 25-year history with the department, spoke at Friday’s meeting and said afterward he’s a strong supporter of the initiative.

Strengthening partnerships and bringing all parts of the community together to find solutions is crucial, he said.

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Related to this story

In a year already consumed by a fast-moving pandemic and an urgent reckoning on racial justice, cities nationwide — including Roanoke — are also grappling with another crisis: a surge in gun violence that experts say can’t be neatly ascribed to one simple explanation.

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