Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
“We know who they are,” David Boysen says of the people responsible for the shootings that seem to show up every few days on the evening news in Kalamazoo.
They are young men who are members of cliques – groups of friends, families, and neighbors -- that are too small and disjointed to be called gangs. Police call them “group involved” shooters.
“There’s no Vice Lords or Crips. Those are gangs. In L.A., they have gangs,” says Boysen, the assistant chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. “We don’t have gangs in Kalamazoo. But we have street groups. We have cliques. We have North Side groups. We have South Side groups. We have East Side groups. And we know who they are.”
The big thing to know: They are willing to shoot one another over an insult, money, a woman, status, or some perceived slight that has affected them or their group.
The big mystery: How to get them to stop.
What is Public Safety doing?
“For the most part, these groups are not making a ton of money in the drug trade,” Boysen says. “And most of our shootings are not over turf wars about selling drugs like it used to be 20-some years ago. This is petty beefs and stuff that they get involved in.”
Through Monday (Oct. 12), there have been a total of 60 nonfatal shootings this year in the City of Kalamazoo and 11 gun homicides. Of those, clashes between the cliques have accounted for 33 of the nonfatal shootings, and seven of the fatalities. That is up dramatically from last year when there were 31 nonfatal shootings. Of them, only eight were “group involved.” And there were seven homicides. Of those, only three were “group involved.”
On Saturday, an 18-year-old Kalamazoo man became the sixth shooting victim in the last eight days in the city when he was shot in the 900 block of Clarence Street.
Kalamazoo Public Safety reported that he was sitting in a parked car when he was attacked by a man who shot at him from the rear of a moving vehicle. The teen was hospitalized with injuries that were not expected to be fatal.
“A small number of people drive a majority of our violent crimes,” Boysen says.
They are the most violent members of the 10 to 15 active street groups in Kalamazoo’s core neighborhoods, which together have an estimated 200 members, he says. “So you’re not talking about thousands of people. You’re talking about 200 people who are involved in these groups.”
Stopping back-and-forth retaliation
Public Safety is working to identify the most violent groups and arrest members who are responsible for causing the most trouble. Realizing they can’t predict when one person will decide to shoot another, Public Safety is also working to prevent the back-and-forth series of retaliatory shootings that often follow. Officers are trying to do that by building relationships with community people and using what they learn. A key part of that is their 3-year-old Group Violence Intervention program.
Coordinated by Michael Wilder, and working with Esteven Juarez, of Kalamazoo’s Urban Alliance, and others, GVI is a collaboration of community residents and law enforcement that tries to stop violence by talking to potential criminal offenders about their futures, warning them about the possible outcomes of being convicted, and providing them with resources to help steer them in other directions.
“If I have a shooting, I meet with my team and say, ‘Hey, John Doe got shot,’” Boysen says. “‘We don’t know who the suspect is, but he’s ‘group involved.’ We can anticipate there’s going to be a retaliation. We need to talk to him.”
That talk is called a custom notification. It occurs at the victim’s house or a hospital and during the session, the individual is told that his activities are being monitored. “We try to make sure he’s not going to retaliate and make sure we let him know that if he does retaliate, there’s going to be consequences,” Boysen says.
Wilder says a custom notification explains to the subject and, where necessary, his family, what charges he will face, where that puts him in terms of any past criminal record he has, and the amount of prison time the Kalamazoo County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will authorize if he’s arrested. As alternatives, the program offers resources to help him find work, a place to live, and help with any other needs.
“I talk to shooters myself and try to talk them down from retaliation,” Wilder says. “I talk to people who have been shot, to talk them down from retaliation.”
Boysen says the notification also gives those involved a valve to relieve some peer pressure.
“It’s kind of expected among your peers that if you get shot and you’re part of these groups, and you don’t retaliate, you look weak,” Boysen says. “So now, for them to save face, … they post on their social media and say: ‘Hey, I just got a letter from the chief of police. They told me if I get caught with a gun I’m going to federal prison or I’m going to do two years. I need to lay low for a while.’ It gives them an out and it calms things down.”
Perspective from the community
“You have to be proactive. You can’t always be playing catch-up,” Gwendolyn Hooker says of efforts to stop shootings.
She says she has mixed feelings about the GVI program. She thinks it could work, “But I think you have to have more community organizers that are at the ground level. I think it’s a good model and the model has worked across the country.”
Hooker, who has been involved in several efforts to improve the lives of people in Kalamazoo’s core communities, says organizations that get involved need to include people who understand what is happening and the concerns of the people Gwendolyn Hooker lost two family members this summer to gun violence in Kalamazoo.
involved. She would, no doubt, be qualified. Two of her relatives were among those shot and killed in Kalamazoo this summer. Her cousin, DeVante Coleman, 28, was shot and killed on July 22 in the driveway of his Cameron Street residence in Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood. Her nephew, Brandon Kelley, 31, was shot multiple times in the 500 block of Ada Street on the city’s North Side in the early morning hours of Aug. 25. He died of his injuries about a week later.
Hooker says she thinks the community has to “come up with a plan and look at it collectively and figure out what pieces of the puzzle that everybody is good at doing and for them to do that part.”
Not enough is being done to address the underlying reasons that young men, primarily in the African-American community, are willing to shoot one another, says Hooker. They are a direct result of traumas that Black people have endured over many years.
In a highly commercialized society in which money and status are valued, “Everybody’s not going to be equal,” she says. Marginalized and low-income people don’t have great access to the same housing, health care, and employment opportunities as others. Among other things, Hooker says, “We don’t get to go to mental health experts. Our communities are steadily being impacted.”
Attention to the core communities’ concerns is also overlooked, she says. Kalamazoo’s North Side, East Side, and Edison neighborhoods have seen the bulk of the shootings. Hooker says there’s no way that 60 shootings could occur over four months in affluent middle-class neighborhoods without anything being done. With shootings still occurring so frequently, she does not see the progress KDPS is making.
One step forward
Boysen says KDPS and its Group Violence Intervention program took a big step forward in helping to stop shootings by arresting eight young men over the last two months who they considered the most violent “group involved” shooters. Officers confiscated 19 weapons in total from those eight, including drugs and wads of cash. And they plan to continue to identify and find ways to arrest those causing the most trouble.
These are images of guns, drugs, and cash that were confiscated over the last two months by officers with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety as they arrested “group involved” shooters in Kalamazoo.
Boysen says the number of shootings rose dramatically over the summer after the COVID-19 pandemic struck and people were ordered by the governor to self-quarantine. In May and June, for instance, there were drive-by shootings in the middle of the day at LaCrone Park, he says.
Altogether, the GVI program includes a seven-member outreach team that had to stop its efforts. That team includes Pastors on Patrol, five local ministers who are known in the community, and ride along with patrol officers to try to help ease tensions between them and the community.
“People were at home going stir crazy,” Boysen says. “And that kind of hurt us. Then the other thing that happened was George Floyd.”
The nationwide backlash against police after an officer killed Floyd during a May 25 arrest in Minneapolis, caused fewer people to trust officers here and that made it difficult for GVI, Boysen says. Things worsened as more Public Safety resources were used to address protests and civic unrest that resulted from the white police officer killing Floyd, who was Black and unarmed.
“One of the things we need to do to prevent and reduce shootings is to have community support,” Boysen says, “We need to do this in partnership with the community. We can’t do it alone.”
Feeling the impact
“People are getting desensitized to the fact that at least once a day, there’s a shooting and probably somebody is going to die in that week,” says Hooker, who is also the chief executive officer of HOPE thru Navigation, a program that helps individuals who have a history of incarceration or substance abuse. Started by her five years ago, it is presently working to build tiny houses (about 410-square-feet each) on the city’s North Side to help fill the need for affordable housing among people in need.
She says, “At some point, you have to put money into these marginalized neighborhoods so that we can actually have the same resources that they have in Milwood and in Westwood. Because if there were this many shootings happening in Portage or on the West Side, we would be bombarded with press conferences, rewards (for information), and billboards.”
Hooker is part of a group of individuals and organizations concerned about the North Side called STRONG-K. It was formed after a Sept. 2, 2017 incident in which five local teenagers were killed in a fiery car crash on East Main Street in Kalamazoo Township. This year it has conducted four pop-up events – featuring food, artwork, and information – to try to deliver services to people, primarily in the North Side Neighborhood. That included getting people to participate in the U.S. Census and registering people to vote.
The group plans to meet on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, to outline plans for a rally to call attention to the need to stop gun violence in the city of Kalamazoo and hone plans to request that the city make physical changes to help stop violence on Ada Street.
“At least four murders have happened on Ada Street,” Hooker says. “That street is dimly lit. There are no cameras on that street. There’s no lighting on that street. There are some things that could help deter crime and to actually help people if a crime is committed.”
Along with lighting and better routine patrolling by KDPS, she says STRONG-K would like to see a couple of vacant areas on Ada Street be converted into green spaces that serve as grief gardens, places where neighbors can go reflect and relieve their stress.
Talking to young men with guns
Asked how he knows GVI is working, Wilder says, “It’s a process. I always explain that there’s no cookie-cutter answer to that question.”
Wilder says, “It’s not simple like that” and he does not know how to describe the progress the program is making.
“You might save one person,” he explains. “I go get him a job at Burger King and he’s working. Then we get two shootings that same weekend. So does that mean we’re losing? We got a person working who was involved in a shooting. So now he’s not shooting. He’s working and out of the way. But then we got other people shooting. So it’s like … I don’t know if ‘working,’ or the understanding of the word working is the right way to describe it.”
Wilder works as a support staff member at Kalamazoo Covenant Academy, an alternative school that helps at-risk young adults advance their education and find jobs. He is a former drug dealer and felon who turned his life around years ago and now works to help others. His GIV partner Juarez, among other things, is a founder of Urban Alliance’s Momentum Urban Employment Initiative, which trains marginalized people to help them find and keep jobs.
Rev. Gregory Jennings Sr. says he puts the success of his volunteer efforts in the hands of God. Asked how volunteers like him are received by young men who carry guns, the coordinator of Pastors on Patrol, says, “I know that my voice doesn’t carry the weight of a gun. But when I speak as an oracle of God, now his voice outweighs everything else. And I have to rely on that and I have to believe that if I can help just one person and show them something a little different and tell them they’ve got their whole life ahead of them … I believe that somebody will hear it.”
Jennings is also pastor of Progressive Deliverance Ministries – Church of God In Christ in Kalamazoo.
Boysen says he knows GVI is working because of the dramatic rise in shootings that occurred after its outreach work was halted during the COVID-19 shutdown. Its efforts were restarted in mid-August.
Breaking bad cycles
Boysen says the young men doing the shooting are also the people most at risk of becoming victims of shootings and homicides. He says he understands arguments about the need to address misconduct by bad cops. But he says he wonders why people are not more outraged about Black-on-Black violence. He says it is really the elephant in the room that people don’t want to talk about.
Over the last four years, with 2020 only three-quarters of the way done, the city has seen 129 Blacks (almost all males) injured by gun violence, he says. During that same period, only 14 Whites and two Hispanics have been shot.
Since 2017, there have been 27 Black males killed in shootings compared to eight White males.
“It’s shocking and the thing that’s frustrating for us who do this work is there should be national outrage about this – that we’re losing a whole generation of young Black men to gun violence – whether they get killed by gun violence or whether they go to prison,” he says. “And where is the outrage?”
Hooker says it is not up to the police or those outside the Black community to try to change the narrative or pick the community’s next battle.
“At the end of the day, my question goes back to what kind of community is it that we live in when we have people who kill each other?” she asks.
The answer involves complicated issues that were set in motion hundreds of years ago during slavery, she says.
Of the current rash of shootings, she says, “It makes me angry. It’s frustrating and it makes me think about what kind of community I live in. The community is only as good as the people.”
Boysen says he really wants to build more trust between KDPS and the community.
“One of the key roles of the police is to keep the community safe,” he says. “So when you have a lack of trust and we have more shootings, then people feel more unsafe which erodes more trust in the police because now we’re not doing our jobs either. So this whole thing has been a vicious cycle.”
But despite the current climate of mistrust by many in the community -- and police being sensitive to avoid being involved in the next big incident-gone-wrong -- many people appreciated the arrests that have been made in recent weeks. He says. “They knew how bad these guys were.”
He says officers no longer use a scattered approach to policing that they used years ago – stopping 10 cars in order to try to find one with an illegal gun. The community does not support such tactics, he says.
“Now we say, ‘Go get this individual here. He’s a shooter,’” Boysen says.
Of his officers, he says, “Not only did they go out and arrest eight of the people who were involved in the most violence, but they did those arrests and these high-profile search warrants using our SWAT Teams -- because these are usually heavily armed – and we did that with zero complaints.”
He said that is possible when officers are very professional and treat people with dignity and respect. “And because people who live in those neighborhoods want to be safe,” he says. “When we go after the right people, the community will support that.”