Gun Violence in Roanoke: WDBJ7 Questions Commonwealth Attorney

ROANOKE, VA (WDBJ7) - WDBJ7 has spent the last week discussing the gun violence issue with the Chief of Police, the City Manager and the newly-formed Gun Violence Task Force leaders. This week, we sat down with Roanoke City's lead prosecutor, who told us he partially blames a societal tolerance for crime for what's happening in Roanoke.

Don Caldwell has been Roanoke City's Commonwealth Attorney for nearly 40 years. Since he first took office, crime, he said, is down.

“Well you know we have had a busy year, there’s no question about that," he said. "And if you go back 2018 as well as 2019, we’ve seen an uptick in homicide cases. Now not by any means a historic mark, I mean, we’re a little bit above average. I’ve been Commonwealth Attorney since 1979 and Roanoke was a much more violent place in the early '80s and late '80s in terms of just raw numbers of homicides committed. And as is true today, the majority are committed with some sort of firearm. So that has remained constant.”

Still, the above average homicide rate compared with with the last decade has sparked community conversation and the creation of a Gun Violence Task Force, led by City Council. Over the last 10 years, on average, police recorded six gun-related homicide incidents a year. In 2017 they peaked with 11 incidents. So far this year, seven incidents and eight murder victims.

And according to police, aggravated assault cases with a firearm have remained steadily high in the city's northwest neighborhood. Forty four aggravated assaults have been recorded so far this year.

Caldwell said he's watched these developments and WDBJ7's conversations with city leaders, all of which have left him with lingering concerns.

"To be honest with you, Leanna," Caldwell said, addressing this reporter, "the first thing I thought is, in 60 years we've totally forgotten, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' And our society has sort of strayed away from what John Kennedy said in his inauguration. And now we have people looking to the government to provide answers that they are just not capable of doing."

Caldwell says he doesn't think the city or the police are in a position to solve the violent crime problem.

"Law enforcement can't do anything about the stupid violent crime that we're having where people look cross eyed at each other after they've been drinking and they pull out a gun and start shooting."

Caldwell said it's become somewhat more challenging to prosecute cases of violent crime because witnesses are less likely to testify.

“In certain portions of the community there’s sort of a stigma of cooperating with the police," he said. 'So I think that’s another factor we did not see as much ten years ago.”

Most often, Caldwell said, victims and suspects in a crime often know each other before the incident.

“There is definitely more of a ‘I don’t want to be involved’ attitude and so people are not as forthcoming when they witness a crime.”

And while he thinks a task force won't hurt, he doesn't believe the people who need the messages for change will hear them.

"The people we need to get the attention of are not watching this newscast. The people we need to get the attention of are not going to church."

Caldwell said that whatever solution is viable, won't be an easy fix. He said he believes society has lost sight of individual responsibility.

“And controlling your temper, being respectful of others. We’ve lost in many areas I think a respect for the sanctity of human life. There are just so many sociological factors that are in place. You know when I watched Chief Jones or I watch the city manager, the police are just, or Roanoke City itself, just is not in a position to solve the problem. It’s gonna be up to the people themselves to decide that this is not how we want to conduct ourselves as a society. So that’s the issue there.”

We asked Caldwell that if, based on his belief that the responsibility to make change falls on the individual, how might the community make that happen? He said people need to realize there are consequences for their actions.

"I think that in trying to make people appreciate that there is an individual responsibility, I think we should reintroduce words like ‘shame’ and ‘stigma’ into our society. If you bring a child into the world that you’ve got no prayer of supporting, no prayer of taking care of, that you’re gonna put it off on the Department of Social Services to take care of, you should be ashamed of yourself. But we won’t say that to anybody anymore. We won’t confront people and say that’s a problem you created, you know you’re gonna have to do something to try to figure it out.”

But he said, on the whole, most of Roanoke's 100,000 citizens are keeping the peace.

"You know the positive news out of this is that Roanoke City is a city of 100,000 people and 99,000 of those people are law abiding citizens leading their day-to-day life of quiet desperation and they do not present a threat to anybody. And so yes, we have our 12, 13, 14 whatever it ends up being, homicides. But it’s such a small fraction of our community and how you address these people I’m not sure there is a definitive answer to.”

We took Caldwell's concerns to the Shakira Williams, the chairperson of the Gun Violence Task Force, at Monday night's meeting. She said the community can be assured they are willing to take the message to the community, rather than expecting the community to come to them.

That task force will host a public hearing Thursday at 7 p.m. at the city's municipal building.