Opinion: Cleveland in Crisis: Increasing Gun Violence and Silence From City Hall

By Jennifer Carter

“Hit the deck” I yelled.  The sound of gun shots had me immediately on alert. I began military crawling to go check on my family.  I opened the door and the maintenance man looked down at me. I wondered why he wasn’t panicking.  I was embarrassed when he told me those were not gunshots but fireworks. Years later I still panic as I try to decipher between gun shots and fireworks. I frequently hear both where I live.  I note on my phone when I think I hear gunshots. Then I check the morning news. On far too many nights, the gunshots I heard have taken someone’s life.

A few weeks ago, there was particular disturbing shooting. My heart sank as I saw the story on the news.  A 13-year-old girl had been shot in the stomach, arm and hand in Cleveland. As this story goes to print this precious innocent teen is still fighting for her life. The previous week at the same address a 44-year-old disabled man was been shot in the head and killed.  In February, Destiny Johnson, 24, was attending a party when a fight broke out. The suspect chased Johnson and shot her as she entered the stairwell. She did not survive her injuries. Her murder remains unsolved. On the morning of June 12, three people were killed and four more were injured in a mass shooting in Cleveland.

Although summer has yet to begin, the amount of shootings are alarming.  No one is safe as these shootings become more common place. Residents are beyond weary. The bloodshed has only added more turmoil to what has already been a stressful year for many as they battling the pandemic.  I spoke to two people who have witnessed the effects of gun violence in our city firsthand. What they had to say was disheartening.

“Mother’s are putting their children in the bathtub,” said Gregory “Tonto” Terrell.  His eyes were large and expressive.  I knew I heard what he said clearly, but I asked him to repeat it again.  I was in uneasy disbelief.  He repeated the exact same words adding “the tub protects their children from the bullets.” Terrell is the CEO of Stop The Pain Inc @Stopthepain216.org, an organization whose mission is to bring  hope, healing and peace to communities affected by violence.

Although it has only been in existence a little over a year, Terrell has had over two decades experience doing this kind of work through a different organization.  He was been working tirelessly over the past few months trying to prevent more shootings.  He and his team patrol the streets affected by gun violence from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. If there is a shooting after that time, he is notified. It does not matter what time, he goes to those places as well. He’s been to over 25 locations where people have been shot or killed in the past 60 days.

I asked what the experience has been like visiting the crime scenes. “It’s traumatizing. It’s horrible.  It’s un-Godly.  People are being held captive in their homes by fear,” said Terrell. “There have been shootings all over the city, not all have been fatal. City Hall has been absent. We desperately need help. Since those being paid to do it are not helping much.  Where are they?”

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Division of Police has been struggling with low morale, the federal consent decree, the COVID-19 pandemic, and difficulty recruiting new officers.  As of 2020, according to story in Cleveland.com, homicide detectives had solved only 45% of slayings in 2020, down significantly from 2019. Non-fatal shootings rose sharply in 2020, according to the city’s statistics.

Through December 14. 2020, police logged 1,385 shootings, including incidents where no one was hurt by gunfire, an increase of 60% over 2019. All five police districts showed increases of more than 48%, including an 82% increase in the Third District, which encompasses downtown and parts of the Hough, Central and University neighborhoods on the East Side. Both West Side districts showed increases of 59% and 62% respectively.

There is definitely a problem when civilians have to bridge the gap where law enforcement falls short. Terrell has been able to make a difference, but the work has an effect on him as well. When I asked what stood out to him the most about the crime scenes he has visited, he had this to say: “There was one crime scene that was particularly odd where a young man had been murdered. Something just didn’t feel right. The body had been removed, then about an hour later when I was home it hit me.  It was the kids. The murder did not seem to bother them. They were not shaken up. They see it. They live it. It’s like they’ve become immune.”

Cleveland police told 19 News that homicides are up 30% and shootings are up 56%. Police officers have confiscated more than 1,400 guns so far in 2021, which is a 72% increase from 2020.  There has been little communication from City Hall but Mayor Frank Jackson, along with 27 other mayors, have jointly written to President Joe Biden asking for help to reduce gun violence.  In my opinion, this cry for help is too little too late.

There is very little funding provided to programs that could prevent shootings.  Children and teenagers in Cleveland don’t have much access to after school and summer activities.  Extracurricular activities that develop skills and interests in students are almost non-existent.  Jobs that provide a living wage are also scarce. People feel abandoned by city leadership. All of these things contribute to violence in the  city. As Mayor Jackson finishes his fourth and final term as Mayor, he has left Cleveland in dire turmoil.  Experts noted recently to cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that the increase in violent crime in 2021 is a continuation of what started last year when Cleveland had 190 homicides, the most since 1982. There have been 76 homicides in Cleveland in 2021, as of Tuesday  — in 2020 there were 67 homicides as of June 16.

City Hall has been quiet on the influx of violence while three mayoral candidates have spoken out to the media. Basheer Jones, current ward seven councilperson made an impassioned plea for a cease fire. Justin Bibb, a non-profit executive stated he seeks to “address the root problems of violent crime that have plagued our city for far too long.“

I sat down with former city councilman Zach Reed, another mayoral hopeful who recently had his own personal experience with gun violence in June.  He heard gunshots as he was parking downtown on West 9th street at around 12:15 p.m. Moments later he saw a shot up Mercedes as a different car sped away. Police arrived shortly after. I asked how witnessing that made him feel.

“It was scary, very, very scary.  If I had parked around the corner, or walked up a few seconds earlier I could have been shot as well. It made me think about how close innocent people are to the ongoing gun violence in the city of Cleveland… These individuals really don’t care. They really don’t give a damn. There were cameras everywhere. There was a police car there as well,” explained Reed. “It was a beautiful, sunny day across the street from the Carl B. Stokes Courthouse, with lots of people walking.  Yet they just shot someone. Someone has to care, someone has to give a damn. It has to be the leadership in the city of Cleveland.  Something has to be done to curb this violence.”

I asked Reed how he felt about the current leaderships handling of this issue. He was not quick to criticize, but he did have this to say. “Finger pointing isn’t going to work. Naming names isn’t going to do anything. The numbers speak for themselves. We are well on our way the tenth consecutive year of 100 homicides in the city of Cleveland. We need real solutions to real problems that are affecting everyone in the city.” Reed said he has a solution that he believes will decrease violence if he is elected mayor. But he said adding more police is not the solution.

“We need police to replace the ones that are retiring, but we are not going to police ourselves out of this issue.  Police are reactive. You call them after something happens. After someone gets shot. After someone pulls a gun, we need to be proactive. Therefore, we need new solutions,” said Reed. His solution is a fully-funded program called Cure The Violence.  It would take fully-trained people who have been formerly incarnated to go out into the community to engage with the violent disruptors in the Cleveland.

“The team would teach them that the path they are on will only lead them in two directions death or destruction,” he said. The team will also find out what it is that people need to not pick up the gun, to provide conflict resolution, but will this work? Reed is optimistic. He has traveled throughout the nation and seen similar programs be successful in large cities like New York, San Francisco and Baltimore.  Reed also supports real community policing.  What does community policing look like?  According to Reed, real community policing means that police officers and the community are working together to reduce the violence in the city. It is not the police are on one side and the residents are on the opposite side.  They work parallel to each other.  To me, it is refreshing to hear these ideas.  It brings hope to communities where hope is being lost as quickly as each gun is fired and a life is being lost.

I see no relief from the violence any time soon.  If the uptick in violent crimes continues, this will be a bloody summer filled with more injuries, murders, and more people suffering from the trauma that these events bring.  While Mayor Jackson remains silent, I asked Reed what words he has to encourage Cleveland residents.

“I feel their pain. I feel their hurt. All too often I’ve visited the homes of victims. I’ve sat at their table. I’ve prayed with them. I’ve cried with them. I’ve wept with them. People in this city deserve to be safe. Every neighborhood deserves to be safe, said Reed. “Crime is the number one issue, it’s the number two issue, it’s the number three issue and I’ve got a plan to do something about it. That’s one of the main reason’s I’m running for mayor.  Have hope. Change is coming.”

As a Cleveland resident who has lost loved ones to gun violence, this is the kind of hope I’m holding on to as well.  If you have any tips regarding unsolved crimes in Cleveland please call Crime Stoppers at 216-252-7463 or you local police department.  Be safe, Cleveland. Remember, we are stronger when we work together.

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