Dean Mosiman, Wisconsin State Journal, July 13, 2020
The numbers are alarming and the answers hard to find as local law enforcement officials and others face a summertime surge of gun violence in the city of Madison.
Since June 30, the city has seen two fatal shootings, at least 18 incidents of shots fired, nine residences and nine vehicles struck by gunfire, and about 160 shell casings recovered, police said. That doesn’t include incidents in neighboring communities.
Madison police and community activists are struggling to contain the “unprecedented” level of gun violence in recent weeks at a time when attention and resources are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn, along with ongoing protests for social justice and racial equity.
No one is sure what sparked the uptick in gun violence, but city officials and activists suspect it’s a combination of hot weather and people living with chronic poverty, stress and trauma now compounded by a pandemic that has increased job loss, financial insecurity, frustration and despair.
“It’s happening spontaneously,” said Anthony Cooper, executive director of the Focused Interruption Coalition (FIC), a community-based organization that responds to gun violence incidents and uses peer support to prevent further conflict and retaliation. “There are a lot of people who are hurting. People are carrying weapons now for their own protection or how they’re looking at life now.”
Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl said, “I don’t think anybody has a definitive answer or we’d be closer to solving these things. Nationally, a lot of cities are seeing significant spikes in gun violence. We are not alone in this.”
In some respects, Madison is less equipped to respond because it cut funds for FIC in the 2020 budget and a public health approach to violence that took shape after spikes in 2016 and 2017 has stalled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am deeply concerned about the recent violence,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “We have to invest in our community and reduce the stressors that can lead people to violence.”
Struck by gunfire
Some incidents involved people in moving vehicles shooting at each other on streets. A majority of residences struck by gunfire were occupied — by both adults and children — at the time of the shootings. Evidence indicates both handguns and rifles were used, Wahl said.
The police have responded to 99 shots fired incidents — including a record 29 in June — and recovered 267 casings in the first six months of the year, with incidents continuing in July. For perspective, police responded to 144 shots fired incidents, and recovered 473 shell casings in all of 2019, Wahl said. There have been six homicides so far this year, compared with four in all of 2019.
Michael Johnson, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, who has long been engaged in trying to address gun violence in the community, said it’s a combination of factors.
“Like most urban communities, it’s getting warm outside and most people have been isolated for weeks,” he said.
“In Madison, there are neighborhood cliques, individuals who are underemployed or unemployed who are dealing with life challenges like trauma, a lack of education, poverty and a lack of direction. In some of these cases, conflict within individuals are causing an uptick in violence and there seems to be a lack of deescalation skills among those involved and embedded in our community.”