YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — City police enter the new year hoping to continue their success in seizing guns as well as cutting into the numbers of homicides and shootings.
For 2021, the department made 236 gun arrests, according to WKBN files, far surpassing the 102 police made in 2020.
But for all those arrests and weapons taken off the streets, police also had to deal with 138 shootings, up 40 from 2021, including 30 homicides, an increase of two from 2020.
Youngstown is not the only city in the state or country to experience high levels of violence. Akron set an all-time record for homicides this year with 50, Columbus topped over 200 homicides for the first time in its history, and Cleveland also saw an increase in homicides in 2021. Nationally, homicide and violent crime rates spiked for the second year in a row.
Criminologists across the country blame the global pandemic for the increase, as well as a surge in gun sales.
In Youngstown, police have dealt with a meteoric rise in violence since the pandemic began. In 2020, Youngstown saw 98 shootings and 28 homicides, an increase from 2019 when the city saw 58 shootings and 20 homicides, respectively.
The violence seemed to culminate in August, when 30 people were shot, including six people shot fatally. The city saw relatively quiet months in September, October and November before seeing a rather busy December in which 12 people were shot, three fatally.
Police Chief Carl Davis attributed the downturn in the later part of the year to the work of the department’s Neighborhood Response Unit, which was formed in the spring when shooting rates began to skyrocket.
The NRU patrols areas of the city, primarily the South Side, with high rates of gun crime, focusing on finding guns and people known to be involved in violent crimes. At times, NRU members also work with other agencies, such as the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Adult Parole Authority, on their patrols.
Davis said the reason the NRU members have met with success is because of the officers themselves; they are all young, eager and well trained. That last aspect is the most important, Davis said, because the training shows how the officers deal with people they are stopping.
Davis said he has watched body camera footage of several NRU gun arrests and they are always professional, to the point where some of the people they are stopping are complimenting the officers on how they are handling themselves. Davis said that is important because it helps their credibility with residents in the neighborhoods.
Davis said he would like to expand the NRU this year, but that all depends on how many officers the department can add to its undermanned patrol division, which has seen an exodus of officers leaving for jobs at departments that pay a higher salary. City council last year increased the starting pay for officers in an effort to attract new candidates and also keep younger officers who have just begun their careers.
Davis also credits a series of prayer walks undertaken in the late summer that lasted into the fall by city churches in high-crime areas as a help also. Davis said he believes that helps because it shows residents that there are people who care for them and it brings people together.
Guy Burney, head of the Community Initiative To Reduce Violence (CIRV), said he hopes to be able to do more in-person mentoring and other programs this year. He said the social distancing aspects of the pandemic have cut down on that part of CIRV greatly and he hopes conditions can improve so they can be held again.
For 2022, Burney said he wants to increase mental health services for people impacted by the grief and trauma caused by violence and to have some mental health professionals who can be a conduit between the community and the police.
Of the 138 total shootings this year, more than half — 75 — have taken place on the South Side, including 19 of the city’s 30 homicides.
Of the 236 gun arrests, 153 of them are for improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. That often means the person being arrested has never had a felony before that can deny them the opportunity to carry a gun. Of the people arrested on gun charges, 57 of them are under 21.
Davis said he agreed when asked if those kinds of arrests signify that people who normally do not carry guns now think they need to because they do not feel safe.
Burney said one of the reasons so many young people are carrying guns is because of the culture that glamorizes firearms. But the main reason, he said, is that people either are going someplace where they feel they will need it or they don’t feel safe where they are at.
To combat the cultural part of gun carrying, Burney said programs have to be held for children starting at a young age to help them know the problems they could face in the future for carrying guns illegally.