Kalamazoo City Commission earmarks $100,000 to support gun violence reduction efforts

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Victor Davis
Carmen Hughes 
Londrell Cook
Travonte Brown
McKenna Dutkiewcz
Dondrell Watkins
DeVonte Coleman
Brandon Brewer 
Brandon Kelley  
Michael Clopton  
Robert Earl Johnson  
Rachel Curl  
Robert Richardson Jr.

— Names of those killed in gun violence in Kalamazoo during 2020, read by Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin at the Dec. 7, 2020 city commission meeting

THE KALAMAZOO CITY COMMISSION WILL spend $100,000 to help stop gun violence in the city.

During its digital business meeting Monday evening, Dec. 7, 2020, the seven-member commission voted unanimously to use a City Commission Initiatives line item for 2020 that budgeted that amount to support new initiatives.

Saying that Kalamazoo is experiencing a dramatic increase in gun violence and it is very important for the commission to tackle the issue and not just be reactionary, Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin described the effort as "an initial step in the direction of addressing some of the challenges and contributing factors and effects of gun violence."

"Gun violence is not new,"  Griffin said. "But it has impacted this community in a way, for many of us who have lived here our entire lives -- even folks who have visited -- that we've never seen anything like this before."

Commissioner Jeanne Hess said, "For those who don't know, the commission had, in this year's budget, $100,000 to spend on an initiative that was important to us. I can think of no other issue that is more important than addressing the cause and effects of gun violence in this community. It affects everyone."

Commissioners voted to use its discretionary dollars to begin to tackle what its members said they expect to be a top priority during the coming year.

The money will help provide psychological counseling for those impacted by gun violence, help pay for repair work on homes damaged by gunfire, give local people better access to security systems such as doorbell cameras, and create better communication networks between area residents and authorities.

In information accompanying the proposal, Mayor David Anderson noted that in 2019 there were 31 non-fatal shootings and 13 gun-related homicides. That compares with 60 non-fatal shootings and 11 gun-related homicides as of mid-October 2020. 

Shootings and locations of gun shell casings in Kalamazoo in 2020Anderson recapped a statement released earlier this year, saying, “We have a gun violence crisis in Kalamazoo. And, although cities across Michigan and the nation are having similar experiences, we cannot accept this in our community. Every resident has a right to expect that, no matter what neighborhood they call home, it will be a safe place for them and their families."

He said the commission needs to contemplate "what daily path to tread so that the idea of serious violence in our shared community is an inconceivable notion."

The commission is looking to spend approximately $25,000 in each of four areas that came into focus as Anderson, Griffin, and Hess met individually and then as a subcommittee with City Manager James Ritsema, Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Vernon Coakley, Assistant Chief David Boysen, and others to discuss gun violence intervention strategies. The money will be used to fund:

A Block Club Project - To meet the socioeconomic, human and safety needs of Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo target neighborhoods (Northside, Edison and Eastside), the city is seeking to pilot a network of resident-led block clubs to offer opportunities for acquiring security systems and training to build power among residents. Primary goals for the project are to:

• Improve communications between city organizations and neighborhood residents;

• Develop helpful connections to people, information, and opportunities within and between neighborhoods;

• And foster environments of increased community health and wellbeing, safety, and leadership capacity.

Funds spent here are intended to support resident recruitment, orientation, training, events, evaluation, and outreach, according to the city.

Community Healing -- Saying that the need for mental health support deepens with each act of violence, commissioners said the funds allocated here are proposed to support community efforts that improve access to culturally competent mental health professionals who can help community members impacted by gun violence.

“The tragic, senseless and horrific deaths and shootings are devastating events for the entire community," Anderson stated in the proposal. "It is a profound loss for children, for mothers, for family, for friends, for neighborhoods and our city. All of us experience the riptide of this trauma. Everyone suffers. No one is unscathed. We must first hold a place in our hearts for the families for whom these events are front and center, forever and unalterably life-changing.” 

• Housing Rehabilitation -- A number of homes in various neighborhoods have been severely damaged by gunfire, leaving residents to deal with costly repairs. KDPS Assistant Chief Boysen has said the young men involved in many of the shootings have been part of loosely organized cliques of friends, families, or neighbors. Shooting at the homes of rivals has become a means of retaliation among some of those groups, he has said.

Increased Security Systems -- The City hopes to partner with a company to help residents in affected areas obtain security cameras, video doorbells, and alarm systems that can be linked to smartphones and other technology to help identify and apprehend those involved in crimes. Funding is intended to help give local people improved access to such systems through a streamlined purchasing process and discounted, bulk pricing of such items, according to the city.

Members of the commission talked through the need to make sure the money is not spent too quickly with no way to measure its effectiveness or leverage other support for the effort being made. Commissioners Erin Knott and Eric Cunningham were among those concerned about having adequate oversight on how the money is used and providing the city's administrative staff with good direction to address the four areas that have been identified. And at one point during the discussion, the possibility came up of delaying the vote to make sure such controls are in place.

Cunningham and Knott said the $100,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to what will be needed over the next few years to get gun violence under control.

"My thoughts were that it definitely has to be a community response," Hess said. "It has to be a holistic response and it has to be done sooner rather than later. We have to take action."

Knott and Griffin spoke of the urgency of having the city address gun violence, and each said she understands the fears and concerns of those who live in areas that are seeing a lot of shootings. Each said there have been recent shooting incidents near or in front of their homes.

Griffin, a resident of the city's Northside Neighborhood, said Kalamazoo Public Safety has recovered multiple bullet shell casings outside her home in recent weeks and described having to duck as shots were fired as she tried to get inside her home recently. Knott said they have found a total of 13 bullet shell casings outside her home in the West Douglas Neighborhood after two incidents. 

Three city residents, whose recorded comments were heard during the digital meeting, supported the use of any available funding to help stop shootings. They included Gwendolyn Hooker, executive director of HOPE Thru Navigation, an organization that tries to address the needs of individuals with substance abuse problems and/or previous criminal convictions.

"This is a very personal issue for me," Hooker said. "I think this conversation (about funding efforts to reduce gun violence) is definitely long overdue and I'm grateful that it is being had. But I'm looking forward to many, many more conversations and many, many more dollars being allocated to prevent and support the root issues of gun violence as well as actually supporting the families and the children that have been impacted by it."

Hooker has had two family members killed this summer in gun violence. Her cousin, DeVante Coleman, 28, was shot and killed on July 22 in the driveway of his Cameron Street home in Kalamazoo's Edison Neighborhood. Her nephew Brandon Kelly, 31, was shot in the 500 block of Ada Street on the city's North Side on Aug. 25. He died about a week later.

Their names were among the fatal shooting victims named by Griffin to start the discussion on gun violence. She said, "I want people to truly understand that we're talking about human beings' lives and the ripple effects."

Read more articles by Al Jones.

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.