A deadly streak of mass shootings in Detroit has left residents long aware of the threat of gun violence in the city feeling less safe in public spaces and desperate for solutions.
Residents, community organizers, faith leaders and city officials prayed together in a pharmacy parking lot Wednesday at the corner of Wyoming and Seven Mile, just a few blocks from where the first shots were fired Aug. 28 in a seemingly random spree of killings. Survivor John Palik, a 76-year-old Detroiter who was shot while walking his dog, mourned along with family members of Chayne Lewis Lee, 28, who was among three people fatally shot and called for unity and healing after the rampage – the ninth mass shooting in Detroit this year.
“The man up above kept me around to try and get people to react,” Palik said, his left leg wrapped in bandages. “The more we can pay attention, the more we can avert things like this. In most cases, we can stop things like this from happening.”
Danielle Hall, a neighborhood organizer and vice president of Oak Grove Community Group, told BridgeDetroit that the shooting has left many feeling wary to leave their homes. Like Palik, Hall said she routinely gets up early to walk around Detroit’s northwest side. On the day of the shooting, a nagging hip injury kept her in bed for an extra hour and Hall said she believes that it may have saved her life.
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“I wanted to get up and walk but (the pain) was so horrendous that I was like, ‘well, I’m just going to lay down for another hour,’” Hall said. “I woke up to helicopters. That could have been me.”
Hall said she contacted District 2 Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway in the aftermath of the murders to organize a vigil for the victims and create a safe place to discuss solutions to gun violence. Attendees lit candles and prayed for protection.
“Standing here, I don’t feel safe,” said Ingrid Pittman, a cousin of Lee, who attends the same church that family members believe he was headed to when Lee was fatally shot. “It could be somebody walking down the street right now. Nothing is going to change until we all come together. That’s the only thing we can do.”
Three people were fatally shot and another injured in what police have said was an apparently random shooting spree unfolding over roughly two and a half hours on the morning of Aug. 28. According to police, Lee was approached first by the gunman around 4:45 a.m. and was shot several times. He was found by police, lying in the doorway of a church. Three blocks away, the gunman is accused of killing 16-year-old Ja’Miya Lawrence next before he allegedly gunned down LaRi Brisco, a 43-year-old mother of five.
Palik was the final victim. Police said he was shot in the leg around 7:10 a.m. while walking his dog on Pennington Drive. Palik’s dog was also shot in the paw. He credits his survival to neighbors who drove the gunman off by drawing their own weapons and applying a tourniquet to prevent blood loss.
Palik is back on his feet and slowly healing. He said the bullet passed cleanly through his left leg. Despite it all, Palik said the shooting hasn’t affected his feeling of safety in Detroit.
“I’m not uncomfortable,” Palik said. “I’m not.”
Dontae Ramon Smith, 19, was arrested some 12 hours after the first shots were fired and was later charged with three counts of first-degree murder and other felony crimes. Detroit Police Chief James White said the suspected gunman “terrorized” the community in the hours before he was apprehended as Detroiters were left wondering if he would strike again and where.
‘It could happen at any time’
Pastor Ovella Davis, with Always in Jesus’ Presence Ministries, said because the shooting started early on a Sunday, many Detroiters were at church when they first heard a gunman was on the loose.
“Members began to leave church service to call family members to see if everyone was OK,” Davis said. “One of my members was actually headed to the grocery store on Seven Mile when he heard about it. He went straight home. It caused terror because you don’t know where the active shooter is or what is going on.”
Davis, founder of Code 22, a community organization that calls for a day of peace on the 22nd of each month and organizes gun violence prevention efforts, said the group is urging Detroiters to wear white in solidarity on Sept. 22. Davis said gun violence has left many feeling discouraged because there’s no easy answer. It’s affecting all aspects of life, she said.
“What (the recent mass shooting) did is demonstrate that there is no safe place in our city, because the violence has become so random that it could happen at any time,” Davis said.
Non-fatal shootings are down by 12% compared to this point in 2021. Detroit experienced 667 non-fatal shootings as of Sept. 5. Violent crime also declined 12% from last year and is down by 9% from 2020. However, the city has seen a rash of shootings that involve multiple victims.
Whether these events are classified as a “mass shooting” can be up to interpretation. There is no official consensus on what defines a mass shooting, though the FBI and gun violence research groups generally say it applies for incidents when at least four people are hit with gunfire.
Council President Pro Tem James Tate, who represents District 1, said drawing distinctions between what qualifies as a mass shootings is far less important than identifying the causes of violence.
“It’s important to identify what led up to these incidents, but trying to classify something as an urban mass shooting, to me, we’re talking about lives,” Tate told BridgeDetroit on Wednesday. “It’s about the fact that we have harm, pain, trauma and loss of life in this situation.”
The Gun Violence Archive, an independent nonprofit dedicated to tracking shootings across the country, recorded nine mass shootings in Detroit this year. The archive recorded eight deaths and 36 injuries connected to the shootings.
The last month has been particularly bloody. The Aug. 28 rampage marks the third shooting involving four or more victims in August.
Five people were shot and seven more were shot in separate incidents that occurred roughly 12 hours apart on Aug. 6, resulting in two deaths. Eight people were shot, two of them killed, on July 31.
The Detroit Police Department said in August that 50 children and teens have been shot in the city this year Of those, 10 were killed.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Detroit, called gun violence in the city a crisis that needs an “all hands on deck” response during a Tuesday press conference with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Detroit officials. The congresswoman highlighted the impact on children – CDC mortality data shows firearms became the leading cause of death among kids and adolescents in 2020.
“It is deeply disturbing that at least five children under the age of 11 have been fatally shot in Detroit this year,” Lawrence said. “These are babies. Our children give us hope for tomorrow, their life has been snuffed away.”
Whitfield-Calloway said there’s no clean solution to gun violence – it’s an issue deeply intertwined with societal forces that must be addressed holistically.
She said Detroit is in a “state of emergency.” City officials called on Detroiters to create block clubs, get more involved in neighborhood organizations and check in with family members who might be struggling with mental health issues.
“We can’t continue to avoid these conversations,” the council member told BridgeDetroit. “These are tough conversations. We have to stop pretending that we don’t see. This is a dirty city. It’s a violent city. I’ve been in this city my entire life. It’s not a loving city like it should be. We have to start with care and love and coming together. It has to be the norm that we’re praying for each other, that we’re supporting each other, and not just in times of tragedy.”
Members of the council are looking at ways to improve the city’s response to gun violence and alert residents when an active shooter is on the loose. The City Council created a task force earlier this year to explore community interventions and curb shootings.
Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero in late August drafted a resolution seeking clarity on Detroit’s plans to manage mass casualty events and asking for annual meetings to inform residents in each of the seven council districts.
The resolution, she said, was a response to mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, multiple cities over the Memorial Day weekend and incidents that occured in Detroit. Santiago-Romero said the resolution was pulled after the Law Department informed her that emergency plans must be kept confidential.
“We were told that moving forward, any information that we learn is confidential,” she said. “We actually still haven’t gotten those details. I see this as my job to do to make sure that we have a response. It’s going to be an ongoing conversation we have in the city.”
Santiago-Romero, herself a victim of gun violence, said repeated shootings have become an unfortunate part of life in America, but it’s important to acknowledge the issue as a public health problem.
“This does seem to be a norm,” she said. “When I saw what was happening in real time, the immediate thought was ‘this happens often.’ I don’t know if that’s the correct way of looking at it. Is it ingrained trauma? Is it the reality of our lives right now?”
Emergency alerts and training
Santiago-Romero and Whitfield-Calloway said more needs to be done to ensure residents are properly notified in the event of a mass shooting.
The City of Detroit has two forms of emergency alerts that send messages to residents through email, text message or through a mobile app. Detroit Alerts 365, launched late last year, sends alerts to registered users. The city also recommends downloading the CodeRED mobile app to receive emergency alerts based on location.
A total of 6,170 people have registered their phone numbers for Detroit Alerts 365, including 48 people in August, according to data shared with the Board of Police Commissioners. That’s less than 1% of Detroit’s total population. More than half of the people who are signed up are city employees.
Jackson Vidaurri, a public information officer with DPD, said alerts were sent through both systems during the Aug. 28 shooting.
The Detroit Police Department posted alerts on its social media pages warning of a suspect wanted in connection with multiple shootings near the 12th Precinct. The posts included a photo of Smith, though he was not identified at the time, and advised residents to stay away from him and call 911 with any information. DPD issued updates through social media and press releases throughout the day and confirmed when the shooter was apprehended that evening.
The shooting spree unfolded between 4:45 a.m. and 7:10 a.m., according to police. The first DPD social media post warning residents of the shooter was published online at 12:31 p.m. Vidaurri said the department put out the information “when we received it.”
Detroit Police Sgt. Terri Kennedy said more residents are looking for ways to protect themselves and last week calls poured in from people looking to sign up for free civilian response training offered by the department.
Kennedy is lead instructor for the DPD Shield program, which uses a curriculum developed by Texas State University in partnership with the FBI. She said interest in the training spikes every time there’s a mass shooting, which has become increasingly common in the last decade.
“People are really understanding that this training is necessary,” Kennedy said. “With the day and age that we’re living in now, it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s when.
“We are trying to make sure that we train civilians how not to be a victim and things they can do to make themselves unavailable to become a target,” Kennedy said.
The training focuses on three central tenets ranked in order of importance: “Avoid, deny and defend.” Kennedy said people in an active shooting situation should first try to get away. If that’s not possible, they should put barriers between themselves and the attacker. As a last resort, people should prepare to defend themselves with improvised weapons. DPD Shield also offers courses to stop an injured person from bleeding out by applying a tourniquet.
Kennedy said the department has offered 140 training events for over 3,000 people since 2019. Churches, businesses and community groups commonly host training events for members, she said.
“You name it, we’ve been there,” Kennedy said.
The Aug. 28 mass shooting comes as the City Council weighs a $7 million contract to expand ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology to eight police precincts across Detroit. Council members at the Wednesday vigil said policing tools like ShotSpotter should be considered as only one part of a larger strategy to reduce violence.
“It’s so much more than just more policing,” said Tate, who previously served as a deputy chief and spokesman for the Detroit Police Department. “It’s really about getting into the household. Someone who lives in that family, whether they’re in the city or outside of the city, they have a much deeper connection. I can help bring some resources to the situation, but we need to get more family members involved in this fight.”