GRAND RAPIDS—Like other grieving parents across Michigan, Antionette Evans said she is still groping for answers in the shooting of her 16-year-old son.
“It is unbearable, just unbearable. Some days I don’t even want to come out of my room,” Evans said last week as she fought back tears in her living room. Her son Ja’Juan Webb was killed July 4 just blocks from home. Police arrested a suspect in Georgia four days later.
The boy’s death marked the fourth fatal shooting of a Grand Rapids teenager this year, and added to a bleak surge in violent crime plaguing some Michigan cities. As theories abound on the cause, police, prosecutors, politicians and business leaders scramble to find effective solutions.
In the first seven months of 2022, Grand Rapids recorded 3,363 crimes, including 761 assaults and 15 homicides ─ all above averages for the previous three years.
In Oakland County, there were 26 homicides in the first six months of 2022, double the tally for the same period last year. There have been 10 homicides this year in Pontiac alone. Four of the county victims were children aged 4, 6, 7 and 16.
Detroit has been jolted by five mass shootings in three months that left four dead and 28 wounded. At least four people were shot in each of the incidents, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit gun research group.
The violence arrived despite warnings of severe consequences from city officials.
In June, Detroit officials announced a crackdown in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates. The Project Safe Neighborhoods plan promised to prosecute felony gun crimes in federal court. The federal penalty for a felon possessing a firearm is up to 10 years in prison, compared to a five-year maximum under state law, officials said.
In Grand Rapids, Police Chief Eric Winstrom told city commissioners in July that three neighborhoods with historically high crime rates would receive extra police resources.
And in Lansing, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order instructing Michigan law enforcement agencies to tap federal resources from the recently passed bipartisan congressional gun bill intended to stop dangerous people from buying firearms.
“Far too many families in Michigan do not feel safe in their neighborhoods because of crime and gun violence. That is unacceptable—we must stop the violence and hold people accountable,” Whitmer said.
A ‘perception that things aren’t as safe’
For Grand Rapids, a city proud of its downtown, economic growth and cultural offerings, rising crime has been a gut punch.
Two days after Ja’Juan Webb’s death, an official with the Grand Rapids Chamber sent a letter to city commissioners warning that the “high rate of shooting, violent crimes,” harassment and vandalism were harming downtown and neighborhood businesses.
“This has been coming for quite a long time, the perception that things aren’t as safe as they used to be,” Joshua Lunger, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs, told Bridge in an interview.
He noted a community survey this year that found 85 percent of Grand Rapids residents felt safe downtown during the day, but only 56 percent felt that way at night. On the city’s southeast side — which encompasses high-crime areas targeted by Police Chief Winstrom — just 54 percent of residents reported overall feelings of safety, a drop from 65 percent three years ago.
“The business community wants to know this is a priority,” Lunger told Bridge.
Alistair Chapman, a trauma surgeon at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in downtown Grand Rapids, said the damage inflicted by guns is difficult to accept.
“We have nights where we see three or four gunshot cases, and then we might go a week without seeing any,” Chapman said. In the past couple years, Chapman said he has operated on gunshot victims ranging from a 5-year-old to seniors. “We see it in all ages and wounds in all areas of the body,” he said.
Rather than making him numb to the carnage, Chapman said the violence has had the opposite effect.
“Every single one of these events hits me harder,” he said. “You realize how real a problem this is in our society. You realize it’s happening in a community you love.”
The surge in violence is not unique to Michigan. Since the pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, researchers have documented sharp jumps in domestic violence, violent crime, homicides, and more generally in gun violence.
Increases in violent crime also are not limited to big cities. Nationally, murder rates in rural areas have soared during the pandemic. Nor are they limited to blue cities and states.
And there are limits to how much police actions or policy decisions can help.
One national criminal justice expert told Bridge there’s growing evidence that targeted policing (that is, directing more resources to high-crime neighborhoods) pays off — but those tactics were deployed in Detroit and Grand Rapids this summer.
“The research is very consistent in support of its effectiveness. We recommend that agencies continue and even strengthen their so-called hotspot strategies,” said Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a founder of the Crime and Justice Research Alliance, a national research collaborative formed in 2015.
No one cause, no one solution
Sometimes, crime rises and falls for reasons beyond the control of law enforcement, and context can be important.
Rosenfeld noted, for instance, that crime rates today remain considerably below what they were in the early 1990s. Violent crime in the U.S. peaked in 1991 and has steadily declined since, which researchers attribute to several factors, from the end of a crack cocaine epidemic to mass incarceration, an aging population, more police and in some places stricter gun laws.
“We’re nowhere near where we were in the late 1980s and 1990s,” Rosenfeld said.
Michigan’s homicide rate in 1987 stood at 11.8 homicides per 100,000 population, but began a steady decline in the mid-1990s which lasted for decades, until 2020 — when homicides jumped 32 percent over 2019. Nationally, homicides rose nearly 30 percent, with the vast majority of killings involving firearms.
The pandemic is viewed by many experts as a key driver in the 2020 crime surge, as COVID-19 disrupted virtually every aspect of life — closing schools and daycares, ending jobs, isolating residents and feeding a spike in mental health challenges.
Rosenfeld said it’s also possible the surge is tied to changes in policing, as some officers pulled back on crime enforcement — amid calls by activists to reform police departments and hold violent officers more accountable — after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
In the Detroit Downriver community of Taylor, Police Chief John Blair told Bridge last year he had nine officers retire or leave the force over the previous year, leaving the city 12 officers short of its budgeted staff of 84.
“We do exit interviews when officers leave and every one of them talked about the current political environment in the country, and the demonization of officers that they have seen since George Floyd,” Blair said.
Echoing a national trend, Michigan gun sales exploded in 2020. Federal background checks went from 490,000 in 2019 to more than a million in 2020 and 970,000 in 2021, according to FBI data. While a causal link between guns and crime remains in dispute, recent studies found that prevalence of gun ownership is tied to rises in violent crime.
Criminal justice experts say communities must look to strategies that extend beyond policing to address factors they say contribute to rising crime: Poverty, racial inequality, gun control and lack of support for struggling families.
“Public safety is about more than police,” Jeffrey Butts, director of the New York City-based Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Bridge.
“We use police when things are out of control,” he said. “The question is, how do things get out of control?”
Butts pointed to 2020 John Jay College research titled “Reducing Violence Without Police” that underlined several strategies beyond the gun and badge, including:
- Improve the physical environment
Adding green space in a neighborhood, improving housing, lighting and public spaces “have been shown to reduce violence,” the research found, citing a study that found greater reports of violence for inner-city housing residents in barren buildings compared to those in “greener” buildings closer to trees and grass.
- Strengthening anti-violence programs
While research said evaluation of community outreach programs is “promising but mixed,” it cited longstanding Chicago outreach aimed at gang violence linked to “declines in gang involvement and homicide and retaliatory killings.”
- Reduce substance abuse
“Policies to enforce age limits on alcohol access, restrict alcohol sales in certain areas or during specific times, as well as increasing access to treatment have been shown to decrease violent crime,” it stated, as a Kansas study found that a 10 percent increase in neighborhood drinking establishments coincided with a 3 percent to 5 percent increase in violent crime.
University of Michigan assistant economics professor Sara Heller researched summer youth jobs programs in cities including Chicago and Philadelphia and found a consistent theme – they, too, help reduce violent crime.
‘It’s one of the few programs that basically every time someone tests it in a rigorous way, they find it either reduces violence or involvement in the criminal legal system or both,” she told Bridge, noting that Detroit and Grand Rapids deploy similar programs.
Heller said exactly how and why youth jobs programs reduce crime isn’t clear, but she speculated it may be due in part to “self-regulation” skills youth workers acquire on the job, helping them be less impulsive. That may explain why the reduction in violent behavior among these youths continues months after their summer job ends.
“A lot of homicides result from basic altercations getting out of hand, by someone arguing about whether someone stole a bike or stepped on a shoe or looked at someone’s girlfriend wrong,” Heller said.
“And it sort of quickly spirals out of control and that can have fatal consequences. And so if in those hot, decision-making moments, someone figures out to take a breath or walk away, you might think that could help reduce violence.”
In Grand Rapids, Shannon Harris helps manage a summer jobs program launched in 2020 for people aged 15 to 24. It employed 185 young people this year in jobs that range from beautifying parks to camp counselors to teacher assistants at early learning centers.
While Harris said there’s “no silver bullet” to combat crime, she sees obvious benefits to this work.
“For many, it’s their first time working and working in a professional setting. It really helps these young people build their ability to make meaningful decisions. It’s a self-confidence builder.”
Michigan State University criminal justice professor Chris Melde co-authored a 2021 study of four U.S. cities that traced trends in fatal and non-fatal shootings to what’s called “contagious gun violence” — where one shooting triggers another. The results were mixed — contagious gun violence increased from 2019 to 2020 in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, remained largely unchanged in Chicago and declined in New York.
Still, contagious gun violence accounted for a significant share of shootings in those cities in 2020, ranging from 19 percent of shootings in Chicago to 33 percent in Philadelphia.
“A single event can spawn multiple follow-up events because of norms of retaliation and revenge, and shootings and homicides have a long memory,” Melde told Bridge. “When violence in general goes up, you fear the fact that given those norms and retaliation, violence begets more violence.”
In Oakland County, Sheriff Michael Bouchard seemed to be describing a similar dynamic. He told Bridge the vast majority of recent homicides in Oakland County are either gang-related, tied to drug deals gone bad or personal confrontations that turned violent.
“Let’s say Gang A is on this block and Gang B does something to hurt Gang A, then Gang A retaliates and it ping-pongs back and forth, often with multiple victims until a number of people are either killed or caught,” he said.
“The next big bucket (of homicides) is related to interpersonal fights, relationship breakdowns, domestic disputes,” he said.
And that, he speculated, may be tied to festering tensions brought on by the pandemic.
“I think generically people are quicker to anger, and so you are seeing road rage up, you are seeing people arguing in grocery stores and you’re seeing domestic violence spill out on so many levels. And that may be an offshoot of the isolations and anxiety created by the lockdown and other side effects of COVID.”
Riding a bicycle, then tragedy
Ja’Juan Webb was gunned down in the middle of a holiday afternoon. Police say he was riding his bike with friends on July 4, on his way to play basketball. He was supposed to meet family that night to watch the city’s fireworks show.
Antionette Evans said the alleged shooter had threatened her son for months, apparently in a dispute over a girl.
She said her son’s friends still stop by from time to time, searching for a way to somehow keep him close.
“They just want to come over and sit for a minute in his room. How can I say no to that?” she said.
“This is one of those things that can just never be repaired. No one can ever fix this for me or for any family who has gone through this.”