Following a rash of shootings in Mobile, city leaders say they’re committed to addressing the causes of gun violence and engaging more closely with the communities it impacts the most.
The Mobile Police Department recently provided members of Mobile City Council’s public safety committee with statistics and maps showing the frequency of gun violence and the areas of the city where the majority of those incidents have occurred.
Public Safety Director Jim Barber and MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste told the committee the data MPD has collected since 2013 shows an “alarming” but undeniable trend.
“This is something that is disproportionately located within African American communities,” Barber said. “In fact, the number one cause of death for a black male between the ages of 14 and 26 in our community is gun violence.”
Lagniappe has reached out to MPD seeking any available data on the number of shootings reported in Mobile, but police have maintained those statistics are hard to produce. For one, not all gunshots are reported to police, and some reports prove to be unwarranted.
But MPD has been able to release information about where shootings, homicides, robberies and assaults involving a gun have occurred in recent years. Battiste said most have been in “hot spot” areas where police continue to focus much of their effort to prevent violent crime. MPD has tried to use that data to proactively target high-crime areas, he added.
Because the meeting was public, Battiste withheld details of MPD’s day-to-day operations, but said officers and investigators are targeting drug activity and illegal weapons and are working with federal partners to keep guns off the street and violent criminals behind bars longer.
“We’ve done a number of drug operations in hot spot areas, but we believe our strategy needs to address more than just narcotics,” he said. “We’re looking for those individuals we believe are armed with weapons and utilizing the intelligence we have to identify those we believe are, or could possibly be, shooters and making them daily targets of our operations.”
According to MPD, there were 174 homicides between 2013 and 2017 and the vast majority of victims were black. In fact, at no point during that time did the annual percentage of black victims drop below 70 percent, and at times it was as high as 96 percent.
The department’s data shows similar trends within the number of reported incidents of gun violence. Battiste said there were 193 such incidents in 2018, and 176 of those involved a black victim. That’s compared to just 16 cases where the reported victim was white.
While there have been reports of gun violence throughout the city, most incidents in recent years have been concentrated in such communities as Maysville, Leinkauf, Baltimore, Fisher and Orange Grove. Barber said 10 percent of Mobile’s geographical area accounts for 80 percent of its crime.
Copies of the maps released by MPD can be found below.
Though he didn’t question the statistics MPD presented, Councilman Fred Richardson said city officials would need to do more than determine the race of criminals and crime victims to fix this problem.
“It’s one thing to say that most of these kids are black, but I know enough to say the color of their skin didn’t drive them to do anything,” Richardson added. “Something is driving this, and it ain’t their color. If we can’t get down to the cause, we won’t ever find a solution.”
Barber agreed race isn’t a determining factor for criminal activity, but said to ignore where crime is occurring and who it predominantly affects would be “to ignore the facts.” He also attributed the rate of crime in some underserved areas to a “breakdown of social controls.”
According to Barber, strong families, schools and churches that once played a role in the upbringing of children aren’t as engaged in some communities where MPD has seen consistent criminal activity. He said police need help from those institutions to make a lasting impact.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Barber said. “To expect law enforcement to be able to deal with this problem on its own is unrealistic, but to do nothing is unacceptable. The only alternative to us is working together with leaders in the community to rebuild those social controls and create an environment that’s not an incubator for violent criminal activity.”
Barber said the community has to be involved in this solution because some of the young people he’s seen get swept into criminal activity are simply a product of their environment. Those are the ones Barber hopes can be reached by preachers, teachers and mentors before they fire a gun.
“The mayor and I went out to Strickland Youth Center and actually talked to some of these shooters, and what you find is a child that looks like he ought to be sitting in Sunday School involved in a homicide,” he said. “When you ask why they’re carrying guns they say they do it for their own protection. A lot people ask: ‘Where did the fistfight go?’ Well, it went the way of the 9 millimeter … you just don’t punch a guy with a 9 millimeter.”
All of the city leaders who sat in on the committee meeting agreed that community buy-in would be an important part of any long-term solution to gun violence, but Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the city government should also be focused on what it “can actually do something about.”
Stimpson said the city can’t repair broken families or stop the flow of illegal drugs that often leads to gun violence. However, he said, it can exert some level of control over MPD’s operations, the public school system and the availability of safe, affordable housing options.
Councilwoman Gina Gregory also noted many of MPD’s “hotspots” for crime are “hotspots” for blight and disrepair as well. She said that’s something the council could actually fix.
“We can go in and try to improve those conditions. We can make owners and landlords clean up their properties and continue trying to build affordable homes. Those are the sorts of things we can do,” she said. “The rest of it really has to be community driven.”
The committee also expressed support for a bill introduced by Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile, earlier this year that would place greater restrictions on pretrial criminal bonds.
The right to a bond is guaranteed to criminal defendants except those facing capital charges, but HB 282 would allow judges to deny a pretrial bond when a defendant is facing a possible life sentence and in cases where there is “a strong presumption of guilt.”
Speaking to the need for the change, Barber cited the case of 20-year-old Isaiah Kelly, who was one of the teens charged after a 2015 shooting that left a random motorist blind in one eye. Kelly was released from jail two times and after each release was involved in a subsequent shooting.
“This would take that 10 to 15 percent doing 80 percent of the crime and allow them to be held without bond,” Councilman John Williams said. “I can’t in good conscience understand how anybody could release a shooter back into the community knowing they’re going to shoot again.”
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