Faced with the unwanted label of being the most dangerous place in America to be a teenager, this city just north of the Mason-Dixon Line fought back against the scourge of gun violence and appears to be making modest gains.
The city hired a new police chief who had helped pioneer the use of data, and it joined forces with state officials to jointly attack the problem.
No city, relative to its size, has been so scarred by gun violence as Delaware’s biggest city, Wilmington, itself small by municipal standards with a population around 70,000.
In September 2017, the local News Journal dubbed Wilmington “The Most Dangerous Place in America for Youth.” That was just a few years after Murder Town USA, a Newsweek piece that angered city officials because they’d already taken aggressive steps to lower gun violence.
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Following a spike in shootings in 2013, Wilmington’s City Council and the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services sought help from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They convinced the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention to help study the problem.
It was no small feat since the agency had done little research on gun violence since the late 1990s. Hanifa Shabazz, a Wilmington councilwoman, now council president, led that effort by downplaying the gun angle and playing up mental health questions.
“I said there was an epidemic that’s causing a mental dysfunction in our young people. I knew that was not our nature,” Shabazz explained in an interview during a drive through Wilmington. “As African Americans, we’ve been through a lot in this country and never did any kind of retribution violently against any other oppressor. So why all of a sudden do our children have the mentality to take a gun and blow somebody’s head off?”
The CDC created a research model for Wilmington using state and local data to study 565 shooting cases. In November 2015, it issued a report on how future violence in the city could be tamped down through greater data sharing and risk-assessment tools.
CDC researchers “found that some children were acting out, and what we called behavioral issues really were … a traumatic episode. And instead of providing support systems to this child, we’re doing punitive things to that child, and sending that child out with hopelessness into society,” said Shabazz, noting teachers were unaware the child might be living in a shelter, or have incarcerated parents or have been abused.
After the CDC study, members of the governor’s cabinet formed the Family Service Cabinet Council to collectively break down information barriers. Locally, Wilmington formed a Community Advisory Council to help develop pilot programs and better outreach.
Getting agencies in sync remains a challenge. So does the lack of further federal research.
”They [CDC] are not able to support public health work anymore, which is very frustrating. We still have gun violence in our city,” said Kara Odom Walker, Delaware’s health secretary. “Those recommendations served as a catalyst for stakeholders to come together.”
Despite herky-jerky progress, Wilmington remains a test case for other cities plagued by teen violence because of its data-driven strategies being tested by police.
“Our numbers are unbiased. These numbers tell us a story that we follow,” said Robert J. Tracy, the city’s police chief.
Reeling from a renewed spike in murders in 2017, city leaders brought in Tracy from another crime-plagued city, Chicago, to change Wilmington’s inglorious reputation.
Murders fell from 35 in 2017 to a 22 last year, and the number of shootings, fatal and otherwise, fell from 194 to 79. Included in those numbers are juvenile shooting incidents (defined as 17 and under), which fell from 18 to eight, and the number of juvenile shooting victims, which fell from 19 to eight, one fatally. Nineteen of Wilmington’s 22 murders last year involved guns.
The improvement has leaders hopeful.
Tracy aggressively uses computer statistics, known as CompStat, an approach he helped pioneer in New York and Chicago. It helps police better understand — and respond to — crime patterns and creates accountability for cops on the beat and their commanders.
As a result, the clearance rate, the percentage of cases solved with an arrest, improved dramatically in 2018.
The challenge will be making 2018’s gains stick, cautioned Pastor Derrick Johnson, who served time as a young man for a homicide and whose Joshua Harvest Church seeks to break the cycle of retaliatory violence.
He said police often mislabel violence as formally gang related when in fact poor neighborhoods operate as extended families with defined rules of behavior.
“That dynamic is not like the old gang dynamic,” Johnson said.
Since 2004, the pastor has presided over 316 funerals locally for victims of violence, giving him a grim, longer view.
“From that time to this I’ve become not indifferent but calibrated to it,” he said. “However, there’s never a time I don’t cry off the scene, never a time when I don’t hold some young person.”
It fell to Johnson, known affectionately as Pastor D in inner city Wilmington, to preside over last June’s burial of 15-year-old Doris Ericka Dorsey. She died from a shotgun blast in the early hours of June 17 as she sat in her father’s car, celebrating his birthday.
She was killed just outside city limits, so she doesn’t count in Wilmington’s statistics. That doesn’t matter to Tawaina Pennewell, 46, the cousin in Wilmington who ensured the sweet girl nicknamed Lil’ Mom went out in style.
She dressed Dorsey in jeans, new sneakers, a fanny pack and dark sunglasses. The funeral ensemble was completed with lip gloss and a cellphone.
“Didn’t make it high school, not a troubled child, not anybody say one bad thing about her,” Pennewell said, while showing photos of Dorsey.
The two were killed in successive months, June and July, and blocks apart in a grim eastside neighborhood just blocks from the one-time home of Bob Marley, who preached unity and in whose honor One Love Park was named in 2014.
Marley’s first cousin, Elaine Malcom, lives in the house decorated in Jamaican colors. Pushing back her long dreadlocks, she describes an area that’s grown more dangerous with kids who have fewer parental controls.
“There is no house. They just go out and do what they want to do,” she lamented.
Makeshift memorials dot the neighborhood, yet neighbors shake their heads no when asked if they knew the boys, and most walk on without a word. Andrea Skinner stops briefly — the middle-aged woman’s eyes darting around — and then suggests she’s a hostage in her own neighborhood.
“I won’t come out here. It’s too much. I am afraid to come out at night,” she says, passing an abandoned home where a tribute to GG reads simply: “Live fast, die young.”
Asked about the boys, an elderly neighbor begs off with a sharp rebuke.
“I have to live in the ghetto after you leave. I am a realistic woman, honey,” said the grandmotherly woman, adding that she didn’t want to get “all shot up.”