Kalamazoo panel: How to decrease gun violence

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
KALAMAZOO, MI — It’s chilling to see two or three young men with guns sneak up on unsuspecting enemies and fire multiple rounds.

It’s scary to watch them spray a car or a house with bullets, then flee. Then watch them shuffle from side to side, ducking a return of gunfire as if it was a game of dodgeball.
The lethal reality of gun violence in Kalamazoo was brought to life for a few minutes – as captured on security cameras and cell phones – for about 100 community members who gathered on Tuesday evening at Mt. Zion Baptist Church to talk about what they might do to stop it.

A larger audience was able to see projections of some of the incidents via online streaming as the meeting started.
“I think a lot of time, when people see there was a shooting or see a statistic, it kind of gets lost,” David Boysen, chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, said of the impact and horror of gun violence. But speaking of the trauma such incidents leave, he said, “When you start putting faces to this and families to this, it becomes real.”
The things Public Safety officers see when they arrive at the scene of a shooting stays with them for the rest of their lives, Boysen says. And people should realize that gun violence has the potential to impact those officers as they live, work, and travel about the city.
Al JOnesCommunity leaders participated Tuesday in a panel discussion on gun violence led by, from left: NAACP President Wendy Fields; Mount Zion Senior Pastor Rev. Addis Moore; and Mount Zion, Assistant Pastor Christopher Moore.Rev. Addis Moore, “We have resources going toward combating gun violence already but it’s still prevalent and it’s still happening too much and too often. And as we move into the warmer months, spring now and summer, we want to make sure that we’ve done everything we can … to curtail and eradicate gun violence.”
Addis, the senior pastor of Mt. Zion and president of Kalamazoo’s Northside Ministerial Alliance, helped lead a panel of community leaders in a discussion Tuesday evening about what can be done to stop gun violence. Entitled “Community Against Gun Violence; an Everyday Response,” the event was intended to awaken more people to the reality of gun violence and inspire individuals to take ownership.

It was co-sponsored by the Northside Ministerial Alliance and the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP. The event was facilitated by Moore, along with Wendy Fields, president of the local NAACP, and Rev. Christopher Moore, assistant pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
Saying that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has declared gun violence to be the No. 1 cause of death for children under the age of 19 in the United States, Pastor Addis Moore said that is startling and unacceptable “because there’s so many of us that have the resources, the knowledge, and the influence to actually do something about it.”
Boysen said that violent crime has actually declined in the city of Kalamazoo over the past few years. But stopping gun violence remains the top priority of his department and the City of Kalamazoo.
From 2023 to 2024, he said there has been a 54 percent reduction in the number of shots fired. Through April, assaults involving firearms have declined 23 percent compared to the same period in 2023. And they are down 32 percent from where they were during the same period two years ago. That's hopeful news, but there's still much work to be done.

Breaking the 'no-stitch' code

Dr. Darrin Slade, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools, said it is important for community members to break the “no-snitch” code of silence when it comes to reporting crimes and ongoing criminal activity.
He said that during his 33 years in education, two to three students were killed each year in shootings in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. But he said there is still a no-snitch policy.
Al JonesAmong community leaders participating in a panel discussion on gun violence on Tuesday, May 30, 2024 were, from left: Family Health Center CEO, Denise Crawford: Whitley Memorial Funeral Home Director Timothy Ezell: Ascension Borgess CEO Dr. Dean Kind“I grew up on a street where there was a drug corner,” Slade said of Baltimore, his hometown. “And I was complicit (in the wrong-doing) because for everybody out there selling drugs, we knew their names. We knew where they lived. They were the same people out there who were committing murders. We knew that. We knew who these people were. We knew what was going on. But we were complicit because there was a no-snitch policy (as I was) growing up.”
He said he quit that “no-snitch” stance when he became an educator and he encourages others to do the same.
Twenty-one-year-old community activist Genesis Griffin, and Maya Davis, the mother of a young woman killed by gun violence in August of 2022, were among panelists at Tuesday’s gathering who represent efforts they hope will help curtail gun violence.

Blueprint for Peace
Griffin stands ready to help young people in multiple ways, working as youth leadership coordinator for the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network (KYD Network) and youth facilitator for Confident S.O.L.E. Among other things, she said KYD Network has a new grant that should help it grow Kalamazoo’s Blueprint for Peace. a long-term effort to create a place where people are safe from violence and the root causes of violence are addressed through a public-health lens. Griffin said the program expects to train 30 young people and 15 adults in ways to help community members to be resilient in times of trauma.
Al JonesAmong those participating in Tuesday’s panel, discussion on gun violence were, from left: Bronson Healthcare CEO Bill Manns: community activist Genesis Griffin; community activist Maya Davis; and KDPS Chief David Boysen.Davis said her daughter, who was a criminal justice student at Western Michigan University when she was tragically killed, will be remembered through the Naya J. Reynolds Forever 22 Foundation and $1,500 scholarships it will provide to two college-bound students this year.
“What better way then to start a scholarship in her honor because of her love for education,” Davis said.

Talk with those impacted
Bill Manns, president and chief executive officer of Bronson Healthcare, said people don’t talk about the trauma associated with seeing violence. More people need to reach out to young people with humility and talk with them, or encourage them to find a professional to help them cope with the psychological trauma associated with seeing or being a part of an incident of gun violence.
Manns also suggested that people try to stay calm if they have to rush to the hospital to see about a friend or loved one who has been injured in a shooting. The staff of a medical center restricts access to injured parties because they don’t know who supports the victim and who may want to continue their attack on the individual or his people. He also reminded the audience that lots of shooting incidents are the result of legally-owned but unsecured firearms that fall into the hands of children or young people.
If you have a gun in your house, you are more likely to be the victim of gun violence, he said. Bronson offers free gun locks and gun safes.
Boysen said police used to make more traffic stops and random inquiries in hopes of finding gunmen and making more arrests. But he said, “We can’t arrest our way out of this. This has to be a community effort.” He said KDPS is finding more success with a balance of law enforcement and community outreach.
For people who are living a risky, violent lifestyle, he says direct intervention from Public Safety means an arrest — “We’ll stop you if you make us,” he says. Or it can mean outreach — “We’ll help you if you let us,” he said.
The latter involves connecting people to organizations for help with substance use disorders, employment, education and other things.

'One day's shooter is the next day's victim.'
Through public safety's partnerships with various community organizations and help from the public, he said, officers know, “A small number of people drive the majority of our violence and we know who they are.” So it focuses its efforts on their activities.
Because of the retaliatory nature of people who choose to settle their differences with guns, he said, “One day’s shooter is the next day’s victim.”
Slade, who was hired to lead Kalamazoo Public Schools last year, said a strong response by school staff, along with students’ decision to report what they saw, helped Public Safety locate and arrest a student who carried a loaded handgun into Kalamazoo Central High School last week.
“When I became an educator, I started letting my students know that if I find out anything, I’m going straight to the police,” Slade said. “I’m telling. I don’t want to see anybody lose their life. So I’m going to say the main thing we need to do to stop some of this is to start having real conversations with our young people.”
He said the same students who curse at teachers and their mothers in elementary and middle school, are the same young people who are likely to be involved in serious crime later or become the victims of serious crime.
“If we know some young people who are cussing their parents out and being disrespectful, we need to have some real conversations with them, telling them it’s not acceptable,” Slade said.
“I think the best thing we can do is to have our young people be respectful and follow the rules,” he said. “…. There was a time when we didn’t even think of saying something disrespectful to our parents. … We’ve got to get back to the time when we hold our young people accountable.”

Out of sadness, taking action
Dr. Dean Kindler, president and CEO of Ascension Borgess, said sadness is something that we sometimes need to embrace.
“I think that we, as a community, should be sad about the losses that we experience that are unnecessary and for the suffering that doesn’t have to occur,” he said. “Out of that sadness, we can take action.”
He said people often talk about our rights.  He said, “Let’s talk more about what our duties are. We have a duty to our communities. We have a duty to our neighborhoods. We have a duty to people we don’t like as much as we have a duty to people we do like.”
Speaking of raising children, knowing their involvements, and taking steps to solve problems, Wendy Fields said, “We have to be accountable.”
She said, “It truly is important to take responsibility and be accountable for what we do and don’t do.”
Al JonesNAACP President Wendy Fields, center, and other community leaders shared their ideas on what might be done to prevent more gun violence on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.She thanked those who attended the meeting, especially young people, and said, “In parenting, we have to hold our children and ourselves accountable if we want better outcomes.”
Fields said the civil rights organization continues to get all kinds of complaints about unfair treatment and situations in which people believe they were treated unjustly. But sometimes those complaints are unfounded. People should know that the organization investigates complaints and investigators question everybody involved to decide if action needs to be taken.

Moore said that while it may be difficult for one person to feel that he or she can single-handedly do something to stop gun violence, there are smaller things that everyone can do to effect change.

It takes a village
Asked about what people can do to make a difference, Denise Crawford told a story about going an extra mile to hopefully help a troubled youth get back on track. The president and chief executive officer of Family Health Center said she was able to help an overworked woman find help for her out-of-control 16-year-old son as members of the Family Health Center staff wanted to ban him from further services because of his behavior.
“I’m doing the best that I can,” Crawford remembers the mother telling her, “and I cannot get any help. I realize that he’s a problem. I’m so afraid that one day they’re going to call me and tell me that he’s dead.”
Crawford said she wrote a letter and invited the woman to take it to various community services, including a counseling service and a judge. Crawford asked the woman to have a professional at each of the services call her to talk. The results were great, with the mother receiving the help she needed.
“That took me very little time and each and every one of us have the ability to reach out,” Crawford said.

Gun violence funerals are different
Bishop Timothy Ezell, funeral coordinator at Whitley Memorial Funeral Home, said the funeral home stands ready to help families in their time of need, but said, “There’s a lot to having a funeral when there is gun violence involved.”
Until the person or persons responsible for the shooting has been arrested, there is a security risk for whatever church is involved, as well as funeral home workers. He said KDPS has had to be present in some cases at the funeral home, at the funeral service, and at the cemetery.
There have been incidents of violence as people come and go to funerals, first in big cities but now here.
Ezell also said while some help may be available to help people cover the cost of funeral services when someone has been the victim of gun violence, “We implore each one of you that are here today: get some life insurance. Get life insurance if not for yourself, for your loved ones.”

'We can't just talk about it. We have to be about it.'
Panelists were upbeat about the potential for positive change in the fight against gun violence, with Slade saying, “I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think we just need to keep the ball rolling.”
Restating some slang about hard work from his younger years, he said, “We can’t just talk about it. We have to be about it. So I hope things keep moving forward.”
Boysen said overall violent crime is down 13 percent from where it was at this time last year, and down 24 percent from where it was two years ago. 

“We are trending in the right direction and I think this kind of excitement and the partnerships that we’re building from things like this,” he said. “ … I’m really encouraged and I think we’re going to continue to drive these numbers down. One shooting is too many. But I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Of Tuesday’s meeting, Moore said, “It’s not a meeting telling people, ‘You need to do this, or you need to do that.’ It’s each one of us looking at ourselves and asking what can we do and then will we do that?”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.