As W-B's homicide rate spirals, city struggles to find solutions

Last updated: October 19. 2013 1:47PM - 81391 Views
By - rdupuis@civitasmedia.com

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WILKES-BARRE — You are more likely to die by homicide in Wilkes-Barre than in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Chicago.
There were 11 slayings in this city of 41,000 people this year through Friday, ranging from a bruised and battered 2-month-old boy to a 46-year-old woman allegedly shot to death by her estranged husband.
That makes the city's homicide rate so far this year eight times larger than New York's — even though the nation's largest city has 200 times more people than Wilkes-Barre — and double that of Philadelphia, which has a population 37 times larger.
Young adults of color are most likely to be slain. Nine out of the 11 victims were black males, the average age of all victims is 27, and all but one died of gunshot wounds.
What's driving this rash of homicides and when will it end? There don't seem to be any simple answers.
Crime experts interviewed for this story said:
• Drugs are involved in a majority of the killings.
• Victims often know their assailants.
• The city has bolstered its anti-crime unit to focus on vice and narcotics offenses.
• Analysis of crime patterns can be a valuable tool for understanding and preventing violence.
“Somehow, we need to break this cycle of violence in our community,” said Ron Felton, leader of the Wilkes-Barre branch of the NAACP, adding that the city's black residents have a role to play in reporting crimes that are decimating husbands, sons and brothers.
“We need to work with law enforcement where we can. We need to not be silent,” Felton said.
Trends, patterns
As for law enforcement, crime experts interviewed for this story say a key solution lies in supplementing routine police work with dedicated analysis of cases to detect trends and patterns: why people kill, when and where they kill, how they kill. Studying those patterns can tip police off to previous incidents and animosities that are likely to escalate.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton said that is something the city is doing.
“While it is impossible to predict when and where a crime will be committed, the city consistently monitors areas identified with higher crime rates through active investigations and Wilkes-Barre Police Records Department statistics to address these areas,” Leighton said in an e-mail.
Police Chief Gerard Dessoye also believes killings can't be predicted, and said that outsiders and drug-dealing are major contributing factors to the rise in violent crime.
“We don't know who is going to kill who,” Dessoye said, calling this year's spike “another anomaly.”
In 2007 and 2008, there were two homicides each year. The number rose to eight in 2009, including a double homicide. It dropped back down to one in 2010, then two each in 2011 and 2012, not counting two hit-and-run cases last year.
“I'm expecting a natural drop next year. I want to see a drop that's beyond that,” Dessoye added.
But before that can happen, still others insist Wilkes-Barre simply needs more police, a move city officials already have put in motion.
Crime analysis
With 210,000 people, Rochester, N.Y., is about five times larger than Wilkes-Barre, but both are aging industrial cities with homicide rates well into the double digits: Rochester's 31 killings this year translate into a rate of 14.7 per 100,000 people, while Wilkes-Barre's rate is nearly twice that at 26.7 per 100,000 people.
John Klofas, a criminal justice professor and director of the Center for Public Safety Initiatives at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was hesitant to speculate on why Wilkes-Barre has seen the number of homicides spike, dramatically pushing up its rate relative to the city's size. But his department's research into violent crime in Rochester and elsewhere could hold some lessons for Wilkes-Barre.
“In bigger cities now, the focus is very much on crime analysis — mapping incidents, understanding networks of people … that sort of thing — and that is much easier to do in smaller cities than larger cities,” Klofas said.
Except that while the work itself should be easier, Klofas also acknowledges that it requires staff dedicated to the task of intensive analytical work — a role smaller, cash-strapped departments may struggle to fill, or keep filled.
In Rochester, Klofas and RIT researchers have helped with that role, as the college's Center for Public Safety Initiatives collaborates with local police on research projects, including the creation of an extensive database on shootings in the city in recent years.
Researchers are compiling a set of 200 different pieces of information on each incident, Klofas said, from location and time of day to type of weapon, contributing factors, age, race and ethnicity.
Unpredictable crime
Dessoye reiterated his view that murder is unpredictable.
“There is no way to target, no way to target the homicides,” the chief added. He cited the Sept. 26 death of Jane Aiello, who allegedly was shot by her husband, Vito, as an example.
“There is an internal relationship that really can't be predicted,” Dessoye said.
But that speaks to one of Klofas's key points: the majority of homicides are not committed by random strangers, and there often are warning signs.
“These are usually events that occur between people who know one another. I think that's important for people to understand,” he said.
“In many cases, there are a series of events,” Klofas added. “Someone may have aimed a gun at someone else, a house may have been shot up, police may have stopped a car and found a gun in it.”
Such patterns can be seen in Wilkes-Barre.
In most of this year's cases, investigators have identified some link between the victim and alleged assailant: parents embroiled in what had been a fight between their sons, young acquaintances playing with a gun, a man allegedly firing shots outside a house during a party, an alleged case of domestic violence and a baby who died inside a home, apparently amid family members.
Random shooting
There has been one major exception this year: the Oct. 13 killing of Michael “DJ Mo” Onley outside Outsider's Bar on South Main Street, for which investigators did not have a motive as of Friday, Dessoye said.
“Homicides and the serious aggravated assaults are off the charts, but again they're a personal crime with a relationship among those involved,” Dessoye said.
With that in mind, Klofas believes the challenge for law enforcement is to analyze data for clues to predict where and when such incidents will escalate, with data analysis and neighborhood policing vital tools, he said. Keeping tabs on people who are on probation, or who have recently been paroled, is one tactic, “while others can help police identify people who are likely to be victimized” by those harboring a grudge, Klofas said.
Wilkes-Barre has made changes in response to this year's escalating bloodshed.
“The City of Wilkes-Barre has recognized that there is an increase in violent crime and crime statistics in every category will vary each year,” Leighton said, and this summer he requested Dessoye increase staffing on the department's TAC or anti-crime unit from four to six officers.
Since that was done in July, city police have teamed up with state police troopers with the vice and narcotics unit arresting multiple drug dealers and prostitutes.
“We don't know Joe is going to shoot Bob,” Dessoye said. “What we are doing is targeting the elements of crimes we believe will assist in bringing down violent crime.”
“High crime areas have been identified and our TAC UNIT and patrol officers, in coordination with (other law enforcement agencies) have made significant arrests in these neighborhoods,” Leighton added.
City leaders leaders hope those changes, coupled with Wilkes-Barre's recently-enacted “one-strike” rental ordinance will translate into lower crime, but Dessoye acknowledges “it's not going to happen overnight.”
W-B Crime Watch
Charlotte Raup, coordinator of Wilkes-Barre's Crime Watch organization, wasn't surprised to learn the local homicide rate is outpacing larger cities, only dismayed.
“Oh my God, we're only seven square miles,” Raup said of the statistic during a Thursday evening interview, squeezed in between her fifth community meeting of the week and going out on patrol for the night.
Among the problems Raup sees is a fall in the number of city police officers.
In an Oct. 8 ceremony at which six officers were promoted, the mayor, with Dessoye at his side, said the department now is at 75 officers, down from a one-time high of 91. The mayor's $42.7 million 2014 budget, unveiled three days later, calls for hiring at least 10 police officers, at a cost of $1 million.
Raup is glad to hear that, but fears the move may be too little, too late.
“You don't let it get this bad,” she said. “The horse is out of the barn.”
'Subculture of violence'
Dessoye himself cautions that more feet on the beat won't necessarily change what he sees as larger societal issues.
“I can stop street crime by putting more cops on the street but in this subculture of violence of how these people congregate, that is not necessarily going to help them. We have to get that element out of here.”
Dessoye believes that a growing drug culture persists in good economic times and bad, fed by outsiders coming into the area.
“We arrest so many people that they do not have a Wilkes-Barre address. A lot of our crime is coming from those bigger cities,” the chief said.
“We have an element in our society right now that reflects the trends of violent crime; you see this in Philadelphia and other bigger cities. It's sad that the element of society that has come to settle here have somewhat trivial differences resulting in the use of firearms,” he said.
“Do they realize that when you shoot that gun, there is a strong possibility that you could be taking someone's life?”
'Black-on-black crime'
Gino Middleton nodded gravely when talking with a reporter on South Main Street about violence in the city.
“I see it in the newspapers every day. It's sad, all this black-on-black crime,” said Middleton, 54, who is black. “I don't know what it is, that we as a people don't have the respect we should for human life.”
Middleton also embodies a paradox: he moved to Wilkes-Barre from New York's Harlem neighborhood about five months ago, partly to escape escalating violence.
“There, you see a murder in the paper every day. Every day,” Middleton said. “I came here because I thought it was safer.”
Middleton, who said he works in construction, acknowledges poverty can be a motivating factor behind violent crime, saying better job opportunities would probably help create a less violent climate.
But lack of jobs is no excuse, he added.
“Look, the person who says, 'I can't find any jobs,' they're not looking hard enough,” Middleton said. “Stay focused, stay in school, get an education, and find a job.” .
Leighton sees economic circumstances as a key factor, not race.
“Violent criminals are not limited to any specific race or ethnic group. What we continue to see is that segments of the population on the lower end of the economic scale are disproportionately affected by crime and we have continued to foster efforts to spur job creation and create housing opportunities for social and economic mobility,” the mayor said.
But the deaths and injuries among members of the city's black community are all too real for Felton.
“It bothers me a great deal,” Felton said, adding that he, too, regularly reads reports about violence that seems largely fueled by drug crime.
“We've got to run those elements that are violent in nature, or dealing drugs, out,” Felton said, adding that the NAACP is more than happy to work with law enforcement, “as long as there is no racial-profiling involved.”
“We need to get back to a place in time where our kids are not in fear of getting shot,” Felton said.
Options to violence
The basic tenets of civil behavior may not be reaching many young people, according to Andy Wilczak, an assistant professor of sociology at Wilkes University who specializes in criminology.
“The best thing we can do is try to teach people that violence never solves anything. I know it sounds simple, but it's something that we teach our kids and then sometimes forget when we grow up,” Wilczak said.
“As far as strategies to determine the root causes of why this happens, there has been an enormous amount of research done on this subject that has given us all sorts of different ideas why this happens, but a lot of these ideas have been ignored. The sad truth is that violence is much, much more complicated than it appears to be,” he added.
Wilczak sees potential in the work of organizations like the Chicago-based Cure Violence. That initiative has worked to reduce violent crime in some of that city's toughest neighborhoods through strategies like using former drug dealers and gang members to help mediate conflicts and spread an anti-violence message.
According to its website, cureviolence.org, a Northwestern University evaluation of Cure Violence conflict resolution programs reduced the number of shootings and killings in some Chicago neighborhoods by as much as 73 percent over an eight-year period.
“The best way to prevent it is to teach people that there are other options to being violent. It's a lot more complicated than that in the long run, but that's where it starts,” Wilczak said.
“Having people in the community to repeat this message over and over and over again could do a lot more to stop violence than you might think.”
He also believes it is important not to overlook the role of basic human emotions in studying the causes of homicide.
“Why someone kills someone else, it's usually about stress, feeling disrespected and angry and hopeless. The specific reasons why someone commits this crime vary from case to case but that's generally what's happening,” Wilczak said.

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