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Roanoke gun homicides up 400%, even as prevention programs show signs of hope

Published: Jul. 13, 2021 at 11:54 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Inside Roanoke’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission meeting Tuesday night, the numbers were laid out in black and white. Shootings - both fatal and not - continue to outpace numbers from 2020.

By the Roanoke City Police Department’s count, there have been eight gun-related homicides so far in 2021. That’s a 400% increase from this time last year, when there had been two. Aggravated assaults are also up, with 24 this year compared to 12 in the same period last year.

The stats also reveal the city has 11 active investigations into gun violence, six cases closed by arrest, and three closed by exception.

“A lot of work goes into identifying individuals, and a lot of that, and the success thereof, is contingent on witnesses and things like that,” said Police Chief Sam Roman, who presented the stats alongside commissioner and city council member, Joe Cobb.

“It’s sad, and it’s part of a state and national trend,” said Cobb.

The commission also heard about some tentative progress groups are making addressing the root causes of gun violence. Earlier this year, the city distributed $65,000 in so-called micro-grants of $3- to 5-thousand each.

Three groups that received a grant, including Total Action for Progress, Cultural Arts for Excellence, and Guns Down Arts Up, explained what they’d been doing with the money.

TAP’s Angela Wilson highlighted recent work, including an invitation-only symposium, where seven young people - six from local gangs - spoke openly and anonymously about violence in the city.

“What I did was I left them behind curtains, we had specific questions that we asked, and we allowed them to answer those questions,” she said. “The major message that we received from every one of them (again, that was six different neighborhoods represented there) was get the youth, their younger siblings, out of this, because they are tired. Many of them are in from generation after generation.”

“For example, one young man that spoke, he spoke about watching his uncle get shot in the head and lay there on the ground. And after, his uncle was another person. I think he might have labeled five people. And his attitude now is he was taught it’s now up to me to take care of my hood,” said Wilson. “So what we’ve learned is it’s about trying to help them change their mindset, and trying to help them change what they see.”

Wilson described several TAP programs aimed at making that change, including trips with Roanoke youth to Camp Bethel, and an educational program designed to “give them a broader vision of history and empower them.”

She also highlighted the work of Antonio Stovall, an African American Studies teacher.

“It helps them set goals beyond just the tunnel vision of their neighborhood,” she said. “This is a quote from one of his students. This young man said ‘your class stopped me from killing someone, and helped me tolerate people again.’”

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