CLEVELAND — From Cleveland to Cincinnati, inner-ring suburbs to those on the outskirts, gun violence and homicides in cities across Ohio and the nation have spiked since the calendar flipped to 2020. It strains police department resources. It tears apart families and it drains the morale of neighborhoods, street by street and block by block. Although Cleveland isn’t alone in the shared misery, the city is also emblematic of many of the root causes of gun violence.
Through the week ending on Sept. 11, there have been 118 homicides in Cleveland, amounting to a 5.34% increase over 2020, according to data provided by the Cleveland Division of Police. However, when examining this year’s data in comparison to 2019, the spike in gun violence is even more apparent.
The 118 homicides through the same time period in 2021 is a 53.2% increase over 2019, according to police data. Through the end of the 37th week in 2019, there were 77 homicides. CPD data shows that 110 of the 118 homicides so far in 2021 have involved a gun, which is itself a 13.4% increase over 2020 and a 64% increase over the same time period in 2019.
“Violence impacts the entire community. It impacts everyone in it,” said Pastor James Hart of Peace Missionary Baptist Church on East 63rd St. in Cleveland. “That type of violence, it hurts, it kills, it does nothing but destroy.”
Like many churches on the East Side, violent crime and especially gun violence are a focal point of Peace Missionary’s philanthropic and outreach efforts. Much of the church’s emphasis is on the secondary victims of gun violence: families, friends and loved ones of those killed.
“You definitely see a lot of violence. It’s so sad to see the young people’s lives being affected,” Pastor Hart said. “Not only from the aspect of them losing their lives but a lot of them struggling with life, period.”
Gary Wolske, the president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police and retired law enforcement officer who spent 33 years at the Garfield Heights Police Department, said the uptick in violent crime has been a topic of nearly daily discussions amongst the union’s members.
“Everybody in law enforcement wants to protect people from becoming victims. When these criminals and these gang members are doing whatever they want to do, it’s a shame,” Wolske said. “There is no regard for anybody’s person or property. Nobody cares. Shooting someone is like throwing a punch 30 years ago.”
The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCCJ) released a report earlier this year that examined the homicide rates through the first quarter of 2021 in comparison to 2020. The research and subsequent report examined the changes in homicide rates and violent crime as well as drug offenses, among other metrics. The commission studied 34 different cities. Cincinnati was the only city in Ohio to be included in the research.
Across the 34 cities that were examined, the homicide rates during the first quarter of 2021 had declined from their peaks in the summer of 2020, which coincided with nationwide unrest after the killing of George Floyd. Although homicide rates in the first few months of 2021 had declined from last summer, they were still higher than the first quarter of prior years. The number of homicides rose by 24% to the first quarter of 2020 and by 49% compared to the first quarter of 2019. Cleveland’s increasing homicide rate also showed similar increases.
Despite the uptick in gun violence and violent crime in 2020 and 2021, the homicide rate is just over half of what it was in the mid-1990s. In his observations and experience, Wolske said the surge in violent crime is due to the proliferation of guns, a lack of conflict resolution skills, and a reticence by some police departments to engage in proactive policing. Aggressive prosecution of gun violence suspects has also waned, Wolske said.
“When I worked on the street, we were lucky to find a gun here and there, every now and then. Now it’s almost every traffic stop, somebody has a gun on them,” Wolske said. “Back when we were younger, you would get in a fight with somebody and the next day you were friends. Now they just pull out a gun and start shooting. It’s just a huge impact that has a lot of ramifications for everybody — not just the two people involved in the incident.”
Wolske said the pandemic’s impact on the criminal justice system has been profound. It has caused delays in trials and other court proceedings as well as jails opting to limit capacity in order to limit the spread of the virus. “Systems are basically shut down because of COVID,” Wolske said.
Dr. Dan Flannery, the director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University, is a leading researcher in gun violence and its impact on society and youth. Flannery said research has shown that victims of gun violence are more likely to become perpetrators of gun violence later on. However, a single shooting incident should not be viewed as occurring in a vacuum, he said. There are myriad of different sociological and economic forces at play, he said.
“When you combine all of those things with a significant increase in the number of guns available on the streets and people carrying weapons and you add in the increased lethality of munitions and semi-automatic weapons, you see what we’re seeing now,” Flannery said. “Disputes that might have been handled differently in the past are now being settled with a firearm.”
The year-over-year increase in the number of firearms seized by the Akron Police Department shows the proliferation of guns available on the street. According to APD data, officers seized 941 firearms in 2020. Through August 2021, officers had seized 916 firearms. The department has almost doubled the number of firearms seized so far through 2021 compared to the same point in 2020.
Flannery said the nation’s gun background check system is wholly obsolete and inadequate. Additionally, he said practical measures could be taken by policymakers that would not only reduce the number of illegal weapons on the street but also maintain a citizen’s Second Amendment rights. However, policy alone won’t entirely eliminate gun violence.
“To fix it, it really is a longer-term approach to prevention and you can’t just rely on a law enforcement response after the incident occurs,” Flannery said. “It really needs to be a layered approach. You need to do things for the individual. You need to address issues in the family. You need to address issues in the school and in neighborhoods as well as providing access to effective services such as mental health.”
This story was part of News 5's special report: "Killing Our Community — Violence in Northeast Ohio." See more from this special report here.