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Editorial: Gun violence in Star City prompts methodical, thorough response to pressing need


Coordinator Lloyd Merchant and other members of Roanoke’s RESET Team (the acronym stands for Rapid Engagement Support in the Event of Trauma) walk a neighborhood around Williamson Road Northwest in May 2021, three days after a shooting took place nearby. The team, formed last year, is composed of civilian volunteers who mobilize to help communities affected by violence.

The statistics, while not surprising, are sobering nonetheless.

The charts compiled by Roanoke police that were shared with the city’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission on Tuesday evening showed that in 2021 the city saw a 21% increase over 2020 in incidents where a victim was hit by gunfire. Homicides increased by 45%, from 11 to 16, while aggravated assaults went up 13%, from 45 to 51.

Two-thirds of the shooting victims last year were Black males, most between the ages of 16 and 25, and in the 33 instances where the assailant is known, 85% of suspects were Black males, about half of them between ages 16 and 25.

Furthermore, there are well-established links between poverty and gun violence nationally that seem to be repeating in Roanoke.

A study published in November in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined almost 68,000 firearms-related deaths in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016, finding that close to two-thirds happened in counties where the percentage of people living below the federal poverty line was 15% or more. Many other studies have reached similar conclusions.

In Roanoke, 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. A map of poverty levels in Roanoke neighborhoods compiled by online resource using census data correlates eerily with the police department’s map marking where the shootings have been concentrated.

Kyleanne Hunter, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran and gun violence prevention advocate, put it this way in a 2019 interview with Scientific American: “To see in black and white that the greater the inequality that exists, the greater likelihood that you’re going to get shot, that’s really stark.”

When a teenager joins a gang, often it’s because they need an income, explained Angela O’Brien, the chief strategy officer for the city manager’s office. One program the city is pursuing addresses that need by offering jobs.

Many of the programs that city officials and members of the commission discussed Tuesday aim to engage at-risk youth productively in their communities.

“We’ve got an entire city, from solid waste employees, library staff, parks and recreation, social services, the city manager’s office, general services and others working together outside their job duties and work obligations to prevent and intervene in gun violence in the best way that we know how,” O’Brien said.

When it comes to reining in gun violence, officials and volunteers face a frustrating reality. While the damage done by a single impulsively pulled trigger can be instant, permanent and tragic, mitigating the phenomenon requires long term planning geared to address societal ills from multiple angles, a response that’s unavoidably methodical and bureaucratic even when carried out with urgency.

The city has earmarked $2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to address gun violence, and further plotted out how that money will be divided up.

Items include:

  • $100,000 for Roanoke police recruitment bonuses, to help out a department coping with a severe shortage of officers;
  • $150,000 to cover police officers’ overtime pay;
  • $300,000 to fund mini-grants for community partners in the gun violence prevention efforts;
  • $250,000 to support the city’s Youth and Gang Violence Prevention Unit;
  • $200,000 for lighting upgrades and camera installations downtown;
  • $50,000 for annual youth and gang violence community assessments, and more.

Roanoke councilman Joe Cobb told those gathered in person and virtually at the meeting that when it comes to implementing all the proposals on the table, “We can start as soon as possible.” Though the city has until 2024 to spend the ARPA funds, “This work is critical and we want to get these dollars out into the community as soon as possible.”

Regarding those annual gang violence assessments, Cobb shared results from the first of those with the commission, pledging to plunge into more detail at the commission’s Feb. 7 meeting, when the report will be presented in conjunction with the consultants who conducted the surveys from late October through early December.

The assessment incorporated answers from 114 community leaders, 63 youth-serving agencies, 528 city residents and 216 school students.

Overall recommendations involved increasing after school activities, job opportunities and counseling, and making those things as easy to access as possible, including providing transportation when needed.

Among the students who responded to the survey, the majority were Black, which Cobb suggested was a result of the populations the consultants focused upon.

About 15% said they were aware of gang violence in their school within the previous six months. While a large majority of students asserted there were no gangs in their schools, a small portion of the respondents, almost 8%, said that they were currently or had previously been involved with a gang.

Cobb discussed making the questions more specific to narrow down the precise meanings from that subset of answers.

What motivates a gang member to leave a gang? According to the assessment — though this data came from a very small sample size, only 19 people — pressure from family members ranked the highest, followed by getting married and taking on family responsibilities, Cobb shared. “I think those are important insights.”

Though much of Tuesday’s talk focused on youth and schools, “we also want to connect with our young adults, because we’re seeing a lot of our incidents of gun violence and domestic violence gravitating toward that 19 to 29 age range,” Cobb said. “So let’s just keep that in the forefront of our minds as we’re doing this work and thinking about gaps that may exist and how we might want to address those through prevention and intervention programs.”

Though rising gun violence is a national problem — made worse by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its economic reverberations — the effects demand a local response. The initiatives discussed Tuesday all show promise.

Statistics that Roanoke police provided for the first 10 days of the new year demonstrate why a pressing need exists for the commission’s every effort.

Though police have released few details about the Jan. 10 killing of 23-year-old Brooks M. Mullen on Yellow Mountain Road in southeast Roanoke, the documents shared Tuesday described a white woman in her early 20s, shot and killed in a Garden City neighborhood. Her death is listed as Roanoke’s first gun-related homicide of 2022.

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