YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic will be remembered for a lot of things nationally and in Youngstown.
There were lockdowns, mask mandates, curfews and social distancing. Lives, careers, and, in some cases, livelihoods were put on hold or ended.
That also includes a rise in violence across the country, as homicides and shooting rates skyrocketed.
Youngstown is no exception.
Criminologists believe when the final 2020 nationwide numbers are in, the United States could be looking at the biggest one-year increase in homicides in recorded history.
In 2020, the city recorded 98 shootings, 27 of those fatal, an increase of 40 from 2019, when 58 shootings were recorded, 13 fatal. In 2018, Youngstown saw 67 shootings, 20 of them fatal.
Youngstown, like the cities that saw a rise in shootings, has neighborhoods where ongoing social and economic problems were only made worse by the pandemic.
Guy Burney is the head of the city’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, which works with people considered at risk to commit violence. He said locally, the pandemic increased problems with people who were already dealing with high unemployment and poverty.
People already stressed out are more inclined to turn to violence when those stress factors are multiplied, Burney said.
“The pandemic just became a stressor that adds on to stress and conflict and gave rise to all those kinds of violence,” Burney said.
Victoria Allen is the head of the ICU Blockwatch on the South Side, which has seen the bulk of violence over the last three years. She said she noticed a lot more police calls in 2020 for things like domestic violence, that arose from people being stuck together for long periods of time, as well as more “strongarm” robberies, or robberies committed on the spur of the moment by people, usually armed.
City police were also hampered by the social distancing guidelines imposed by the pandemic and reduced the number of traffic stops that typically turn up weapons. Search warrants in drug investigations, where large numbers of guns are also seized, were also curtailed because of the pandemic.
However, after a rise in violence that culminated in 19 people being shot in October, three fatally, and nightly calls for gunfire, former police Chief Robin Lees instituted a series of special patrols, all on the South Side, to look for gun offenders.
The patrols have generated over 35 arrests since Oct. 19 for weapons offenses, almost all of them on the South Side. The number of shootings also dropped in November and December, with four and eight shootings, respectively.
For 2021, Youngstown has seen seven people shot, two of them fatally.
Current police Chief Carl Davis, who took over from Lees in January after Lees had a falling out with Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, said the special patrols will continue in areas that are prone to gun violence. He said the patrols have worked and he would like for them to continue.
“We know who the players are,” Davis said.
Lt. Brian Butler, who heads up the special detail, said officers have seized over 40 guns. The department will also be teaming up with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives later this year to reprise Operation Steel Penguin, an effort of combined patrols and prosecutions in 2019 that city officials credited with decreasing the city’s homicide rate from 28 in 2018 to 20 in 2019.
Operation Steel Penguin runs much the same way the special patrols do, where officers and federal agents patrol areas prone to gun violence and look for people who are repeat weapons offenders.
Allen, however, said she doubts in a lot of cases a police presence would have cut down on the violence.
“If we had a cop on every corner,” Allen said, “something would happen in the middle.”
THE SOCIAL-DISTANCING ERA
At the beginning of 2020, city police were already contending with an uptick in shootings and murders, with 18 people wounded before March 21, the unofficial date of the state lockdown, when police began to enforce a curfew imposed by Gov. Mike DeWine.
Among those 18 shooting victims were eight homicides, including a triple homicide and a double homicide.
In 2018 and 2019, the city had recorded just seven shootings each before March 21, with two of those in 2018 fatal and one homicide in 2019.
While it is certainly true that crime heats up along with the weather and police departments are generally busier from late spring to early fall, 2020 was busier than usual in Youngstown, as the city saw 81 people shot after March 21, 31 more than the same time period in 2019 and 20 more than 2018.
It wasn’t just people being wounded, however. There were almost nightly calls for gunfire, especially on the South Side, where houses and cars were shot up. At one point in the summer, police had to park a cruiser in the 200 block of West Boston Avenue after a house was shot at four times within 24 hours. Later in September, after the same house was shot at police collected about 40 shell casings, including 27 from an AK-47 style semiautomatic rifle.
No one was hurt in any of these incidents.
At one shooting on East Evergreen Avenue where two separate semiautomatic rifles were used an officer said “there was so much brass, it was like training day at the range.” A man was shot to death on the street later on in the year in October.
On the South Side in 2020, the city saw 57 of the city’s 98 shooting and 15 of their 27 homicides by gunfire. The city had 28 homicides total.
That trend continued from 2019, when the South Side had 35 of the 58 shootings and also 2018, where 44 of 67 shootings in the city were recorded.
Officials say the South Side has more crime and more violent crime because it has the most population of any part of the city and also some of its poorer neighborhoods.
One of those neighborhoods in the Oak Hill Avenue area, from Marshal Street to St. Louis Avenue bounded by Market Street and Glenwood Avenue, saw 11 shootings in 2020, compared to six in 2019 — including a triple homicide — and just one shooting in 2018. It is known as U.S. Census Tract 8139.1
According to a 2015 study of the area by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., the poverty rate for the population of 2,578 is 35 percent — just three percent below the level for the city as a whole. The unemployment rate is 26 percent, well above the city’s rate of 18 percent.
Allen said she has noticed more people than normal attending the food drive at her church, Mount Bethel Baptist at Oak Hill and Kenmore. She said the line of cars stretches blocks down Hillman towards West Woodland Avenue.
Burney said neighborhoods like Oak Hill were hard hit by the pandemic because problems people are already having — such as lack of jobs or transportation — were made worse because of the social distancing requirements imposed by the pandemic.
Burney said the solution is to keep plugging away. He said he is still doing mediations and he wants to increase virtual meetings with residents and others to help get the message out that violence is not the answer.
He said he looks forward to when he can have more face-to-face meetings with people, but even now, he said he thinks it important to meet virtually and give people a chance to vent.
“I think people need an outlet and people do need someone to talk to,” Burney said.
Davis also has some plans besides extra patrols. He is banking on his planned midnight basketball league to help give younger people a place to go and something to do late at night to keep them out of trouble. He also wants to partner with Allen on events in the community. Lees also participated in some events with Allen, who has run food giveaways as well as events for children like the South Side Summer Experience.
Allen is also hoping to put together some virtual block watch meetings in the future and continue her partnership with police, who she says are generally visible in her neighborhood. She also plans on doing some mass mailings to get more people involved.
One thing both Allen and Burney said, however, that needs improved is something that is hard for police or another outside agency to do; that is improving attitudes so that people do not think that violence is the answer to any type of problem.
“Until the mindset of people changes, you’re going to have crime,” Allen said.
Burney said some progress has been made and he wants to see it continue. He said one thing he can guarantee is he will keep working.
“One incident is too much, but the climate is better,” Burney said. “But we don’t stop.”