Experts struggle to explain rise in Cleveland gun violence

There have been 85 gun homicides compared with 61 for the same period in 2014

By Mark Gillispie
Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Why such a big rise in shootings in Cleveland? Is gang activity up? Are Facebook and Twitter to blame? Poverty? Drugs? Or is it just a statistical aberration?

Experts say it's difficult to pinpoint why the city has seen a 40 percent increase in gun homicides and a 33 percent rise in felonious assault shootings through the first nine months of this year compared with the same period a year ago.

Cleveland police crime statistics obtained this week by The Associated Press through a public records request show that through Oct. 3, there have been 85 gun homicides compared with 61 for the same period in 2014. Felonious assault shootings increased from 512 to 683. Those spikes occurred during a period when property crimes fell substantially across all categories.

Cleveland police did not make anyone available to discuss the increase in gun violence or crime statistics.

Many of the nation's largest cities have also seen big jumps in homicide rates this year, yet Ohio's other two large cities — Columbus and Cincinnati — have seen only slight increases.

Violence experts said in interviews that there are numerous potential causes for why gun violence has spiked so dramatically in Cleveland. Those causes, they say, include an increase in gang activity and their involvement in the heroin trade, easy access to firearms, disputes fueled by social media and the longstanding problems of poverty and lack of opportunity.

"That's the scary part about it," said Hank Davis, who is part of an effort to quell violence on the streets of Cleveland. "We can't just put our finger on one thing that's causing it."

One possible explanation, experts said, is that the increase in Cleveland and nationally could be a statistical anomaly after more than a decade of relatively low murder rates. A recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the national homicide rate has been steadily declining since the mid-1990s. By 2013, that rate had fallen by half from its peak of 10.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 1980.

"When things are low, there's nowhere to go but up," said Mark Singer, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and an expert on youth violence and trauma. "Having upticks may just be statistical."

Statistical aberrations provide no solace to the families of victims and those who must deal with the aftermath of fatal gun violence. The problem has drawn even more scrutiny in the past two months after a 5-year-old boy, a 3-year-old boy and a 5-month-old girl were fatally shot in gunfire meant for others.

Frustrated and saddened by those deaths, members of the Greater Cleveland African-American Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association organized a procession of 25 hearses in mid-October that drove all around the city carrying signs with pointed messages that said, "Put the guns down: We don't want your business that bad," and "If you don't stop the shooting this may be your next ride."

Funeral director Stephanie Strawbridge said several days after the procession that the needless deaths of young people take an emotional toll on those who work in her industry. Strawbridge handled arrangements for Ramon Burnett, the 5-year-old boy who killed by crossfire on Sept. 4 while playing football behind his grandmother's home. A 19-year-old man has been charged with aggravated murder in the slaying.

"People don't think we care, but we do," Strawbridge said. "It's hard to even describe. You're never prepared for something like this."

Beatrice Wakefield said she saw coverage of the hearse procession and found it stunning and scary. But she doubts that those engaged in violence heeded the funeral directors' message. Wakefield says she'll live the rest of her life struggling with the senseless killing of her 5-month-old granddaughter, Aavielle.

"I'm just wondering what's happening to our young people," Wakefield said. "They have no regard for human life."

Wakefield — along with her daughter-in-law Ieshia, Aavielle and another child — were headed to grocery store the evening of Oct. 1 to buy cake mix for a birthday when someone opened fire and riddled the car with bullets. Avielle, sitting in her car seat, was struck once and later died. No one else in the car was hurt. The killing remains unsolved.

"I would have gladly have traded places with her," Beatrice Wakefield said. "They could have killed me instead of my grandbaby. I would have took her bullet."

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press

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