YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — The city of Youngstown was on the cusp of history before four homicides within 36 hours in mid December.
Before the killings, the city had 16 homicides in 2019, which would have been the lowest number since 1978, when 18 people were killed when the city’s population was well over 100,000.
As it stands, Youngstown closed the books on 2019 with 20 homicides, the lowest number since 19 were recorded in 2016. Of the homicides in 2019, six have been solved. Of the 28 homicides in 2018, 19 have been solved, with 10 of those cases being solved in 2019. Chief Robin Lees said he expects even more cases from 2018 to be solved.
In 2018 and 2017, the city recorded 28 homicides each year.
Lees credited the downturn to the seizure of guns, both by the patrol division and Operation Steel Penguin, which was a joint effort run by police, state parole agents and the federal government to look for people who are known to use guns.
Lees said by concentrating on people who engage in violence and use guns, they were able to clamp down on violence by either putting those people in jail on other charges or by keeping the pressure on them so they would think twice before getting into trouble.
“We felt we would basically meet them on the beach and push them back,” Lees said of targeting gun offenders.
The number of guns seized by police in 2019 is not yet available, but 91 gun charges were filed in municipal court in 2019, with 47 of those cases generated from arrests by the Patrol Division or Operation Steel Penguin. The remaining gun cases were filed by the Vice Squad, a mixture of guns seized in traffic stops or found during search warrants.
Of those cases, the number-one charge was having a weapon while under disability — or being a felon in possession of a firearm. There were 55 of those charges filed in municipal court, 27 of them generated by patrol/Operation Steel Penguin arrests and 28 were generated by the vice squad.
However, in 2018, police seized 200 guns, down from 402 seized in 2017. In 2016, police seized 268 guns, 191 in 2015 and 155 in 2014.
Lees said the number of guns seized may have been down, but it was the location of where those guns were seized that made a difference. He said officers on the road and in Operation Steel Penguin relied on analysis that showed where most gun crimes take place and the opportune times to be in the areas where arrests were made.
One of the advantages of Operation Steel Penguin is some of the people arrested were charged federally, where sentences for gun crimes are much tougher. Lees said he believes the penalties at the state level need to be a lot tougher to deter people from carrying guns who should not have them.
“Too often, people who should not have guns get probation, which is unacceptable for a community that suffers from gun violence,” Lees said.
In Ohio, the charge of having weapons while under disability is a third-degree felony. The maximum sentence is three years in prison.
In federal court, if certain sentencing guidelines are met, a gun offender on a similar charge can be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Lees also credited the Community Initiative To Reduce Violence, commonly known as CIRV, and its director, Guy Burney, for helping to lower the homicide rate.
CIRV looks to speak to people they consider at risk for gun violence. They offer a series of programs to help them find jobs or child care or other social services, but participants are also told the realities of life; if they continue to engage in gun violence, they will most likely wind up dead themselves or wind up in prison.
Of the 20 homicide victims in 2019, three were women and one was an infant. Eleven of the homicides were on the South Side, while four each were on the North and East sides and the remaining homicide was on the West Side.
Chief of Detectives Capt. Brad Blackburn said homicide investigations have grown more labor intensive over the last 10 years with the advent of social media. Because of that, detectives have much more information and evidence to process, as well as affidavits for search warrants to type up.
It takes time to process not just that evidence, but also ballistic evidence, Blackburn said. He said detectives often know or have a good idea who may be responsible for a homicide, but they have to wait until the tests on evidence comes back before they can ask prosecutors to take a case to a grand jury for indictment.