With 35 homicides reported in 2016, 12 in the last month alone, the Mobile Police Department has redoubled its efforts against violent crime — stepping up enforcement, intelligence and outreach throughout the Port City.

With a 10-year average homicide rate of around 30, Mobile has already exceeded its usual numbers, but more concerning to police is that 2016 has also seen 12 teenagers killed by gun violence in both homicides and accidental shootings.

Recently, MPD Chief James Barber told Lagniappe that incidents of violence among young people appear to be the driving force behind the recent spike in violent crimes overall.

“That’s the anomaly we’re seeing that’s different from years past. We’ve always had youth violence, but nothing like we’re seeing this year,” Barber said. “Clearly, they’re not legally supposed to be possessing these weapons at all.”

Last week, Barber was joined at a public meeting by stakeholders from the Strickland Youth Center, the Drug Education Council, Mobile United and public and private schools in the area — all part of MPD’s growing push to keep illegally obtained guns out of teenagers’ hands.

According to the MPD, many of the firearms used in recent murders and shootings were obtained by breaking into vehicles. So far in 2016, the department has seen 161 firearms reported stolen during vehicle break-ins in Mobile alone.

Barber also said there have been a number of recent cases where young people have seemed to be “specifically targeting” handguns, and “with the gun culture we have in the South,” Barber said teenagers “don’t have to pull on too many door handles” before stumbling upon a weapon.

Though Barber’s response to the string of recent homicides has drawn some criticism, the chief has been fairly direct about the fact that “80 percent” of the homicides in 2016 have occurred in predominantly African-American neighborhoods or involved African-American victims.

However, Curtis Graves, who leads strategic initiatives for MPD, said violence in the city affects everyone, no matter what ZIP code they claim. According to Graves, there are a number of underlying factors driving the violent behaviors exhibited by some teenagers, all of which he said would eventually need to be addressed.

“You’d be amazed … you’ll have someone who is an ‘A’ student, but they’ll have a weapon on them. You’re asking why and they’ll tell you, ‘because I have to have protection when I walk home from school,’” Graves said. “We change that by having a real candid conversation about what’s going on in the community and how to fix it because it’s repairable. People are repairable. People can be taught and given hope.”

The department has already implemented several programs in both private and public schools, some beginning as early as the fourth grade. As for teenagers, in 2015 the MPD launched its “You Have A Choice” program, which aims to educate students about some of the consequences of criminal behavior.

The MPD has also been in the process of developing a smartphone application that teenagers and students might “feel comfortable” using to anonymously report firearms in the hands of their peers.

Even if a young person enters the criminal justice system, there are additional resources offered through the Strickland Youth Center. According to Juvenile Court Judge Edmond Naman, some of those programs can help redirect a teenager before criminal behavior escalates.

“We’re trying to correct the problem and intercept it before it grows into something horrible,” Naman said. “We do psychological testing and we also utilize social programs to try to find out things likew how they’re doing in school or what’s going on at home.”

While the prevention of crime remains a continued focus of MPD, the other facet of the department’s effort to stem the wave of recent violence has been a visible increase in enforcement with emphasis on areas where crime is more prevalent.

Operation City H.E.A.T.
On the heels of last week’s community meeting, MPD announced its officers would soon be increasing the use of warrant service, safety checkpoints, curfew enforcement and probation checks as part of Operation City H.E.A.T. (Heightened Enforcement and Apprehension Tactics).

Despite the unique name, this type of “hotspot” policing is not unheard of in Mobile and has drawn criticism in the past. Last year, repeated checkpoints in the Village Green area off Azalea Road created concerns about the racial demographics of the areas the MPD was targeting.

Last week, MPD officers set up “safety checkpoints” in the RV Taylor community, and in just one night issued numerous arrests and citations. Altogether, the checkpoints set up on Oct. 20 resulted in 15 citations, 13 misdemeanors, 12 felonies and the recovery of three illegal firearms.

So far, no city officials have raised any questions about the return of safety checkpoints, but during last week’s public meeting there was a mixed response from some of the community members.

One resident, Tim Hollis, suggested bringing back roadblocks before large public events like the Greater Gulf State Fair, claiming that “when roadblocks were around, anyone who had something to do had lots to worry about.”

“If they were going out to do anything mischievous, they thought twice,” Hollis said. “Everybody knows you don’t get around roadblocks, and if you turn around to avoid a roadblock, [the police] comes after you.”

However, others expressed concern over that approach, claiming that, in the past, roadblocks had “disproportionately targeted African-Americans.” Another woman said she found it “troublesome” that she might be stopped when she “hadn’t done anything” to warrant it.

Barber told the group he wasn’t taking any tactic off the table, adding that any area where “violent crime or gun carrying” can be documented might be subject to a roadblock. However, he also said any approach used by the MPD would be done strategically.

“What you have to weigh is public convenience versus public safety,” Barber said. “So, setting up roadblocks all over the city of Mobile does a great job of inconveniencing the public, but does that improve safety?”

So far, the only other safety checkpoints the MPD have utilized were set up along St. Stephens Road over the weekend. However, shortly after police left the area, the city’s most recent murder was reported not far away.

There, at a Chevron gas station in the area, 17-year-old Jacob Thomas was shot and killed by three other teenagers identified as 17-year-old Fabian Russell, 17-year-old Devin Crenshaw and 18-year-old Christopher Logan — all of whom have been charged with first degree robbery. Logan, who police believe pulled the trigger, has also been charged with murder.

Of the homicides reported this year in Mobile, 12 remain unsolved, and the MPD recently began offering a $5,000 reward for “any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers” in those cases.

The victims in Mobile’s unsolved murder cases are: Angelo Quinnie, 24, Jan. 8; William Blevins, 48, Jan. 21; Corenzo Rogers, 18, March 15; Darius Mose, 21, March 23; Thaddeus Knight, 30, May 7; Lonnie Rayford, 48, June 2; Kerry Muzzey, 70, July 2; Justin Sanders, 33, Oct. 10; William Hall, 62, Oct. 14; Gary McCovery, 35, Oct. 15; Keith Washington, 32, Oct. 16 and De’Launa Powell Anderson, 24, Oct. 18.

Anderson’s case has been especially troubling for some in the Mobile area because, as Barber has stated, Anderson wasn’t involved in any “at-risk” behavior when she was shot to death near Duval Street in the early hours of Oct. 18.

“De’Launa began her day like many of us,” Barber said. “She got up, got ready, got dressed, kissed her 5-year-old daughter goodbye, got into her car and began driving to work at Ingalls. “It appears that anyone that drove up to that stop sign at 4:12 a.m. that morning could have been the victim of a violent gun crime.”

Anderson’s family held a candlelight vigil in her memory Oct. 21 in Cooper Riverside Park — an event well attended by many members in the Mobile community including Barber himself.

In addition to a reward offered by MPD, “an additional reward of $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Anderson’s killer” is being offered and paid for through a GoFundMe page estbalished by State Rep. Napoleon Bracy, Jr. (D-Mobile).