This past weekend included still more acts of gun violence in our community, unfortunately, yet again resulting in injuries. Even more troubling is that Roanoke is among an ever-growing list of communities experiencing upticks in violence. Realizing that the only outcome that ultimately matters is a reduction in acts of violence and the harm they cause, I feel it necessary to use this week’s post to highlight some of what the City is doing to respond to the increase in violence. I do so, knowing the City’s response will no doubt be criticized by some but also with a conviction that it is critical to share what we can and are doing, and where the need exceeds the ability of law enforcement and the City. Increasing gun violence is not a policing failure, it is a societal failure and requires responses from the entire community – law enforcement, elected officials at all levels of government, faith leaders, parents, neighbors, teachers and many more. I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but feel the subject requires it.
National Issue – Local Impact
Over the July 4 weekend, Nationwide 516 people were shot and injured and 180 killed. These shootings included victims as young as age 6 in Norfolk, groups of victims attending holiday celebrations and even police officers. So far this year, urban areas of Virginia have seen more than 650 people wounded or killed as a result of gun violence – more than 35 of those here in Roanoke. Increasingly, the perpetrators and victims of violence are younger and younger – with about one-fourth of the victims in Roanoke under the age of 21.
Analysts associate the increase in gun violence with a number of possible factors including COVID-19, economic disruption, the ease of accessing firearms, anti-police rhetoric and more, though none of these alone appears to explain the sudden reversal of what had been a long and hard earned trend of decreasing violence. Many of these same issues have caused record-breaking increases in drug use and overdoses, as well as suicides (which far outpace the number of homicides, even here in Roanoke).
Clearly, something terrible is going on across our Nation and, sadly, Roanoke is not exempt from this trend as we have seen higher numbers of gun-related woundings and homicides in the past two years when compared to previous years.
As noted at the beginning of this post, gun violence will not be solved by law enforcement nor will it be solved overnight. There is, obviously, a vital role for law enforcement and for the City government in addressing gun violence, both in the immediate timeframe and over the long-term. The answer most often put forth is “hire more police” or “put more police on the street.” It is important to note that though the number of officers in our police force, which remains the largest in Virginia west of Richmond has, as nearly everywhere else in the Nation and Virginia, lowered due to resignations and low recruit numbers, the number of officers on the streets each shift has not diminished. Indeed, in many instances the numbers have actually increased for targeted patrols and special units.
Hiring police officers is a complicated undertaking. One does not just “hire” an officer, rather in most cases officers are recruited to join the Police Academy and only after months of training are they added to the ranks. The City has attempted to address these issues by establishing signing bonuses for certified officers willing to join us from another jurisdiction, and by increasing pay for all officers – raising starting pay by more than 10%. Retention bonuses have been included in this year’s budget for current officers, on top of two similar bonuses issued last year. The City Council approved, with this year’s budget, over one and one-half million dollars in salary increases for police officers that will be increased further over the next two years, resulting in pay increases over a three-year-period of as much as 26%. It is hoped these efforts will aid with retention and recruitment of officers.
Within the Police Department, the Police Chief has realigned his officers to place a greater emphasis on addressing gun violence, especially that perpetrated by gang activities and known offenders. This has included the formation of a gang unit, increased use of intelligence and data gathering, and renewed partnerships with various state and federal law enforcement agencies. These efforts enable the police to focus on locations experiencing the highest incidences of gun violence and on those most likely to be perpetrators or victims of gun violence. As recently as this weekend, these efforts have led to arrests of individuals with outstanding warrants and recently involved in local criminal activities.
Further, the Police Department has instituted use of a coordinator that visits locations where acts of gun violence have occurred. This RESET Coordinator and a team of volunteers meet with individuals and neighbors to assure them the City is doing what it can to slow the increase in violence, to connect them to resources, and to interrupt the response toward retribution toward known or perceived perpetrators. Most recently, the City has entered into a collaboration with Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare to provide a co-response in instances where police have been called to respond to individuals experiencing a mental health challenge. Officers will be accompanied by trained mental health professionals in an effort to de-escalate situations and avoid harm.
Alongside the efforts of the Police Department, City Council established the Gun Violence Prevention Commission—a Council-appointed body of citizens working to address the root causes of gun violence and particularly to slow the involvement of youth in acts of violence. The efforts of the Commission have resulted in more than one-half million dollars, interrupting the pathway toward gang activities for youth, and involved outreach efforts, along with meaningful positive alternatives for area youth. The Commission has also enlisted the help of the community through the provision of mini-grants to provide a variety of responses intended to address the trauma of gun violence, the preponderance of weapons on the street, and to engage youth in alternative activities. The work of the Commission is focusing on the long-term needs of the City while law enforcement focuses on immediate needs.
Finally, in addition to the efforts of law enforcement and those of the Gun Violence Prevention Commission, the City government as a whole is aligning more resources toward addressing the root causes of gun violence—offering increased youth activities, establishing new employment pathways for area youth, and enhancing the response to quality of life issues that so often create the physical context where violence is perpetrated. These efforts are bringing together City personnel in Parks and Recreation, Libraries, Social Services, Purchasing, Human Resources, Code Enforcement, and others alongside and in support of the Police in their efforts.
Gun violence in our community is real and is on the rise. The City’s response is multi-faceted, including applying more law enforcement resources and compensating those that provide such services at a higher level, providing effort and resources toward root causes of violence, especially focused on supporting youth and offering alternatives to criminal pathways, and addressing immediate issues and long-term needs. Will our efforts succeed? They have in the past, they have been proven to work elsewhere, and for the future of our community, they must. Will our efforts succeed if we don’t have the help of the entire community? Absolutely not. We need the full support of the entire community.
We need volunteers with resources and ideas, not just criticism. We need people who see something to say something—it is wrong to think that someone may be able to get away with shooting a child because someone refuses to share what they know. We need people to conduct themselves in a lawful and civilized manner. We need Legislators to help make policing better, not less effective. We need prosecutors to prosecute and judges to sentence. We need our community to support their police as they attempt to do a very challenging job, and we need our police to work closely with the community to show that they can continue to be trusted and that they will continue to adapt to the changing expectations of our community. We need local media to spend as much time and print on accomplishments and positive progress as on the latest incident of violence.
We are in this together and we need to come together to respond. Lives depend upon it.
-- Bob Cowell