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Published: 1/6/2013

Reducing gun violence

Detroit suffered one of its most violent years in nearly two decades in 2012. It reported 386 homicides last year — a murder rate more than three times higher than Toledo’s.

Perhaps no other city in America can match Detroit’s concentrated poverty and attendant social problems. But the time has passed when Toledo area residents can say: Thank God that’s not us.

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Gun violence has become nearly a daily event in our city, accounting for 60 percent of last year’s homicides. Altogether, there were 198 fatal and nonfatal shootings this year, as of Dec. 30, 2012, Toledo police report.

Fifty homicides occurred in the metropolitan area this year, including at least 37 in Toledo. In 2007, Toledo reported 13 homicides. Ten children in the Toledo area were killed in 2012, the most child deaths since 1995.

The senseless nature of much of this violence is even more chilling than its brutality: A 41-year-old Toledo woman is shot repeatedly in a vehicle with her three children. A 1-year-old girl is shot in the head by gunmen firing into an apartment. A 27-year-old father of four is gunned down while walking to a carry-out store. Sometimes, just a few words or other perceived gestures of disrespect can end a life.

Last April, to their credit, the Toledo Police Department and its community partners rolled out the Toledo Community Initiative to Reduce Violence. The effort included focused law enforcement, as well as options for people caught up in a culture of violence. Delivering a message of nonviolence to the community and evaluating the overall effectiveness of the program are also components.

Toledo police officials say the initiative represents a long-term commitment. The department should be commended for recognizing that reducing violence will take more than data-driven enforcement after the fact. Still, it’s too early to tell whether Toledo will match the success of cities such as San Jose, Calif., or Boston, with its renowned Ten Point Coalition.

Conversations with on-the-ground community organizations suggest Toledo’s initiative has not yet fully engaged residents. That must happen if the coalition hopes to have a significant impact. Police officers can’t solve cases if people in the neighborhoods don’t trust them enough to provide information.

Nor has Toledo developed the kind of positive options for gang members and others that are found elsewhere. When young people without hope become disconnected from mainstream norms, values, and opportunities, a culture of nihilism and violence can fill the gap.

Ex-offenders can play important roles in reducing violence. In Detroit, a youth deterrent program is run by state inmates, serving life sentences for murder, who talk to troubled teenagers. The initiative has proven effective in changing young people’s behavior.

In San Jose, prevention, intervention, and suppression programs, under a two-decade-old Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, have helped create one of the nation’s safest big cities. With 1 million people, San Jose reported 20 homicides in 2010, down from 31 in 2007.

During that period, the task force dispensed $4 million a year from the city’s general fund to crime and violence-prevention programs run by dozens of community-based nonprofit agencies. Among them: Clean Slate, a laser tattoo removal service for ex-gang members who are seeking jobs. With volunteer physicians and a donated laser machine, the program removed more than 12,000 gang-related tattoos.

Baltimore, where homicides peaked at 353 in 1993, lowered its number of fatal and nonfatal shootings through technology, data-driven police work, and close cooperation among state and local law enforcement agencies.

In 2010, Baltimore reported 223 homicides, the lowest number in 25 years. In getting there, Baltimore police didn’t arrest more people; in fact, they arrested far fewer people, cutting back on drug arrests and focusing instead on violent repeat offenders and illegal guns. A fraction of offenders — about 2,000 of the 77,000 people under probation or parole supervision — were targeted.

These cities and others show that violence is not uncontrollable. Law enforcement, working with the community, can make a real difference.

It’s a lesson Toledo must learn and execute on a large scale, before the violence here becomes unmanageable.

This is the first of an occasional series of editorials and columns on violence in the Toledo area, and possible solutions, that will appear in The Blade in 2013.



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