Major U.S. cities, gripped with crisis, now face spike in deadly shootings, including of children

By Mark BermanShayna JacobsBen Guarino and Mark Guarino

July 6, 2020 at 8:02 p.m. CDT

As the nation faces a pandemic, financial catastrophe and massive social justice protests, it is suddenly also confronting a spike in violence in some of its major cities.

Tragedies struck in urban centers thousands of miles apart, with 65 people shot over the weekend in New York and 87 in Chicago, and homicides climbing from Miami to Milwaukee. Though the summer months in the United States often augur more violence, the recent toll has been particularly devastating in communities where the victims included young children.

“You shot and killed a baby,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said at a news conference after Secoriea Turner, an 8-year-old, was killed during the holiday weekend. The young girl was fatally shot while riding in a car with her mother Saturday night, at a time when revelers and demonstrators across the country were marking the Fourth of July with celebration and protest.

That same night, 11-year-old Davon McNeal was at an anti-violence cookout in Washington, D.C., when bullets struck him. In Chicago, 7-year-old Natalia Wallace was outside her family’s house during a holiday gathering as the shooting began. Both children were killed.

The burst of bloodshed came at a particularly fraught time in the nation’s relationship with its police forces, amid waves of demonstrations decrying police tactics, brutality and racism following the death of George Floyd while in custody in Minneapolis in late May. In the upheaval since, police have been facing calls for their departments to be defunded and their operations to be stripped down, putting them on the defensive as they have been at the center of a political and social tempest.

In New York, where police officials have bristled in the face of criticism, Chief Terence Monahan described the Fourth of July holiday as “one of the most violent weekends we’ve had in recent history” and called June record-setting.

“This is a tough summer,” Monahan said at a briefing about crime statistics Monday. “It’s quite obvious a lot of people are walking around with guns.”

Some law enforcement officials and their political allies have sought to link the recent violence with anti-brutality protests. On Monday, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said on Fox News that the demonstrations have “now led to a lot of violence continuing to happen across this country. It’s sad to me that we’re not hearing Democrats talk about the seven children that were killed this past weekend, most of them African American. We’re not hearing about things that are happening across this country as the violence continues to spread out of control.”

The confluence of pandemic, social justice protests and violence was perhaps nowhere more stark than in Atlanta, where a wave of activism resurged after a police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks on June 12 next to a Wendy’s restaurant on University Avenue. The location had become the center of protests and block parties, with police keeping a hands-off approach as it became a gathering spot.

On Monday morning, officers were there cleaning off the memorials and tents that had been erected, reflecting the changed environment since an 8-year-old girl was struck and killed by gunfire across the street Saturday night.

In total, Atlanta saw more than 20 injuries and five killings over the July Fourth holiday weekend, while the Georgia Department of Public Safety headquarters was vandalized. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on Monday declared a state of emergency and ordered up to 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to defend state buildings.

Gerald Griggs, vice president of the Atlanta NAACP and a lawyer, blamed police for much of the recent crime, suggesting they have not been doing enough. 

“A lot of the onus for the violence falls right at the feet of law enforcement,” he said. “There are certain elements in our community that don’t take a break when the police take a break. You’re sworn to protect and defend, but when there are a few rogue [police] being held accountable you decide to shirk your responsibility? That speaks volumes about why people were protesting to begin with.”

Though experts caution about putting too much stock in a small sampling of crime data — with the pandemic providing an unprecedented variable — so far the crime statistics show a worrying toll in some of the country’s most densely populated regions.

Halfway through the year, some city police departments have found an increase in homicides compared with the same period of 2019, while reports of other crimes fluctuated across cities.

Atlanta’s police said there have been 50 homicides there through late June, up from 46 the previous year. Rapes, robberies, burglaries and larcenies all declined by double-digit percentages, police said, while aggravated assaults increased slightly.

Other cities have similarly seen reports of some violent crimes increase as others have fallen. In Philadelphia, police reported 210 homicides through Sunday night, up from 165 over that date a year earlier. They also said shootings and shooting victims went up while reports of rapes and robberies declined.

The Miami-Dade Police Department reported an increase in homicides through late June — up to 46 from 36 at that point last year — along with more aggravated assaults and fewer reports of sex offenses, robberies and burglaries. In Los Angeles, police data through mid-June showed that homicides rose slightly to 119 from 113, while reports of rape and robbery both fell.

In Chicago, a city where gun violence surged in 2016 and has declined in the years since, homicides and shooting victims both went up in the first half of 2020 over last year. By the start of July, the city had at least 329 homicides and more than 1,600 shooting victims.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, children were the most prominent victims of gun violence, as had been the case during the two prior weekends. They ranged in age from as young as 20 months to 14 years old. None were intended targets, but all were in what wound up being the wrong place at the wrong time, said David Brown, Chicago’s police superintendent.

“We cannot allow this to be normalized in this city,” Brown said Monday. “We cannot get used to hearing about children being gunned down in Chicago every weekend.”

There were 87 shooting victims over the holiday weekend and 17 people were slain, Brown said. Two of those killed were children, both on Saturday, as the nation celebrated its independence.

Brown blamed a host of ills for the resurgent violence, saying that sentences are not long enough for gun crimes and that courts have been letting people back onto the streets too soon after they commit crimes. 

“We must keep violent offenders in jail longer,” said Brown, who took over the police department earlier this year. 

The Rev. Ira Acree, of Greater St. John Bible Church on the West Side, said, “People are just overwhelmed right now.” Acree gave the eulogy Friday for 13-year-old Amaria Jones, who was fatally shot on Father’s Day weekend. 

Aysha Butler, a community organizer on the South Side, said she believes the way to curb the violence is to confront systemic racism. 

“In every single system we have an attack on poor communities,” she said. “You push these people so down underneath this world that when they react, it is vengeance and no one is safe.”

Children were killed in several cities over the weekend. In the District, 11-year-old Davon McNeal was joining his mother — who works as a “violence interrupter” for the city — at a cookout meant to build community trust when men began shooting in a nearby street.

In Hoover, Ala., police said an argument Friday at a shopping mall between a 22-year-old from Birmingham and a “group of males” turned deadly when the two sides pulled out guns and began firing at each other. No one involved in the argument was hurt, authorities said. But their bullets killed an 8-year-old boy and injured three other people, police said.

“Every homicide is a tragedy,” said Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It particularly is a tragedy when you see these kids get shot.”

Berk said the uptick in violence raises questions about how policing practices might be able to change amid the protests, saying it could be necessary for some give-and-take between what protesters and police both want to see as the result. 

“This focus on increases or decreases, it misses the fundamental point,” Berk said. “Whatever the change is, there’s just too many damn people getting killed.” 

At a crime statistics briefing at New York police headquarters Monday, Monahan said his officers are afraid to carry out arrests now because of a new law passed amid the recent protests making it a misdemeanor for them to apply pressure to someone’s back or chest while taking someone into custody.

Monahan also laid out grim figures of recent violence: 11 homicides over the Fourth of July weekend. Last month, there was a 130 percent increase in shooting incidents citywide — with 205 — compared with June 2019, during which there were 89, according to department statistics. Monahan said all of the murder victims in June and so far in July were part of minority communities.

In Minneapolis, where officials say they have faced an unprecedented surge of violence since Floyd’s death on May 25, a 7-year-old boy was shot outside a neighborhood market during a drive-by-shooting in North Minneapolis, just blocks from where a youth football team narrowly escaped injury during a shootout on June 22 in the city park where they were practicing.

On Sunday night, a woman who was five months pregnant was shot while inside her car a block from the South Minneapolis memorial marking the spot where Floyd died.

Relatives and friends identified her as Laneesha Columbus, 27, a mother of two. She was rushed to the Hennepin County Medical Center, where doctors were able to deliver her daughter, who was placed in a neonatal intensive care unit. Columbus was later pronounced dead, according to police. The baby remained in intensive care Monday.

Jacobs and Ben Guarino reported from New York, and Mark Guarino reported from Chicago. Holly Bailey in Minneapolis and Haisten Willis in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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