Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo Public Safety asks for the community's help to stop gun violence

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

Staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 did not prevent the spread of gun violence in Kalamazoo last year. And things aren't much better this year, Kalamazoo Public Safety officials say.
 
“We had 31 non-fatal shootings and seven gun homicides in 2019,” says David Boysen, deputy chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. “In 2020, we had 75 non-fatal shootings and 13 gun homicides. So we more than doubled our non-fatal shootings, from 2019 to 2020.”
 
Shootings accounted for seven of the 10 homicides committed in 2019 and 13 of the 14 homicides committed in 2020.
 
This year, shootings of all kinds (fatal and non-fatal) are up 47 percent versus the same time last year, according to KDPS spokesman Ryan Bridges. There have been 31 shootings thus far in 2021 in the City of Kalamazoo. That is up from 21 during the same period last year. Boysen says those incidents, for each year, included five fatal shootings.
 
Although people were supposed to be social distancing and staying safe from one another by staying home, Boysen says, “That quarantine didn’t impact our gun violence at all. In fact, it made it worse.”
 
Men marched Tuesday evening, June 8, through Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood to call attention to the need for community members to stand against gun violence.In Kalamazoo, violent crimes rose 11 percent in 2020, including a 31 percent increase in aggravated assaults (687 in 2019 versus 897 in 2020), and a 40 percent increase in homicides (10 in 2019 versus 14 in 2020). Some of the shootings may have been the result of people having fewer outlets to relieve stress during the COVID lockdown, Boysen says. But there is no scientific research to support that theory.
 
The command officer says the increase in shootings “is not just here. It’s a national thing.” Reports by Time magazine and other national media predict increases in gun violence across the nation as newly-vaccinated Americans head outdoors for the summer and go back to larger social groupings after about a year and a half of social distancing from one another. 
 
Boysen blames the acts of violence in Kalamazoo on senseless squabbles between groups of young men, their reckless disregard for the potential harm and consequences of shootings, and people having more money to arm themselves – more specifically, the federal economic stimulus money that Congress distributed to support Americans struggling with pandemic-related job losses and to inspire spending.

Various reports indicate including one from the Census Bureau show the majority of the federal money was spent on groceries, rent, and other monthly bills. And others confirmed that gun dealers saw a spike in sales each time a new stimulus check was distributed.
 
Asked why criminals, who probably already have guns, would be interested in buying or stealing more, Boysen says, “One of the things we’re seeing with the number of guns we see, is there’s kind of an arms race out there. It’s not just having a gun now. … Now you have to have a gun with a high-capacity magazine. Then, a high-capacity handgun is not enough. I need a rifle with a high-capacity magazine. Then you need a rifle with a high-capacity drum magazine, then a double-drum magazine. The amount of firepower we’re seeing out there is unbelievable.”
 
Another factor may be a slow-down in activity in the criminal justice system that has included public safety officers writing more appearance tickets for crimes that before COVID-19 would have typically left a suspect in the Kalamazoo County Jail. That comes at a time when the Kalamazoo County jail is at reduced capacity due to COVID and jury trials have been postponed on most felony matters. 
 
On June 2, 2021, Kalamazoo Public Safety officers confiscated seven illegal firearms during five incidents.While bench trials have occurred since courts and other facilities were closed in March of 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID, jury trials in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court are not expected to restart until August.
 
“Why (do) I think we’re seeing more guns out there right now?” Boysen asked. “When the first round of stimulus money went out, people bought guns. So if you went to the gun store, there was hardly a gun on the shelf. And when the second round of stimulus money came out, people had extra money, and many of them used it to buy guns.”
 
That has continued among law-abiding gun buyers as well as those with other intentions.
 
“So what we see is when legal gun owners buy guns -- and there’s a lot of that going on -- when there’s more legal owners with guns, there’s more guns out there that can be stolen,” Boysen says.
 
He says guns are being stolen from cars during automobile break-ins and car burglaries are up. It is also not uncommon for people with criminal backgrounds to obtain a weapon by having someone with no criminal history purchase it for them.
 
Overall, property crimes were down 1 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to information provided by Bridges, who is the public information officer for KDPS. But within that category, car thefts rose 40 percent (from 350 to 491) and thefts from motor vehicles also rose by 13 percent (from 615 reported cases in 2019 to 694 in 2020).
 
And Bridges says the number of reports officers receive about gunfire, is up. Through the end of May 2020, officers responded to 322 “shots fired” calls. Through May 24 of this year, the latest week for which he had statistics, they have responded to 337.
 
On Wednesday, June 2, in response to calls, he says officers confiscated seven illegal guns during five incidents. Those seizures followed two months in which the number of confiscations was up. Officers nabbed 48 illegal firearms in April, up from 32 in April 2020, and 58 in May, up from 26 in May 2020.
 
They occurred two days before a June 4 2021 ­incident in which a 14-year-old boy was hospitalized after he was struck by a bullet while sitting on the porch of a residence in the 700 block of Florence Street. The boy was holding an infant when he was struck. According to KDPS, he was hit by a stray shot, one of multiple shots fired from two cars whose occupants were apparently shooting at one another before speeding away. The boy is recovering. Bridges says no arrests have been made in the case thus far, however.
 
There are hot spots for illegal gun activity, Boysen says. But gun violence is a problem that should be a concern of everyone.
 
“That’s one thing that frustrates me,” Boysen says. “I don’t want people to think ‘This a problem that doesn’t affect me.’ I don’t care where you live in this community, in this society, gun violence impacts all of us. And it could impact any of your family members or loved ones.”
 
That was the case on May 25 when a 27-year-old motorist was shot by another driver during an incident of road rage. The incident happened at about 7 p.m. on South Westnedge Avenue near Parkwood Avenue and Crane Park. The shooting victim apparently refused to let another car merge into his lane and was shot. Boysen says the man survived with the help of a quick response by Public Safety and first responders as well as a good Samaritan who helped him at the scene.
 
What does KDPS want?
 
Boysen says officers want people to decide they won’t tolerate gun violence any longer and work with the department to provide investigators with information to convict those involved. He says he knows that’s a tall order as community members press the police to develop ways to address and resolve their concerns about policing, fairness, and the treatment of African-Americans. But he says it is necessary.
 
Assistant Chief David Boysen of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.Bridges, Boysen, and KDPS Chief Vernon Coakley were among dozens of men to march Tuesday evening, June 8, on Kalamazoo’s Northside to call attention to the need for community members to stand against gun violence. The Rev. Addis Moore, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, invited men in the community to stand up to gun violence, hoping to attract at least 200 Black men and the church reported after the event that more than 200 did.
 
In an online invitation for the march, Moore says, “Gun violence has gone crazy here in Kalamazoo. We’re here to say that gun violence in Kalamazoo has to stop now. Black-on-Black crime in Kalamazoo has to stop now. There’s been five homicides, five murders, in Kalamazoo this year. All of them are Black people killing Black people.”
 
He says members of the Northside community are tired of the violence, tired of predominantly Black neighborhoods being terrorized, and “tired of neighbors not being able to enjoy their streets and children being able to play in the streets without fear of being gunned down.”

Boysen says he does not know why people are buying more guns but suspects that it’s fear.
 
“I think it’s a vicious cycle,” Boysen says. “As crime increases, people become more scared and want to get more guns to protect themselves. When you watch the news and see what’s going on in our society and world, it’s kind of scary.”

There’s an increased risk associated with the growing number of calls officers are receiving.  
 
“Bullets don’t have eyes,” he says. “And anyone can be impacted by gun violence. This is a problem for the entire community, not just a portion of our community. This is all of us.”

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.