‘Our Children Killing Our Children’
Ali-Rashid Abdullah, 67 and broad-shouldered with a neatly trimmed gray beard, is an ex-convict turned outreach worker for Cincinnati’s Human Relations Commission. He or his co-workers were at the scenes of all five of Cincinnati’s shootings with four or more casualties last year, working the crowds outside the yellow police tape, trying to defuse the potential for further gunfire.
They see themselves as stop signs for young black men bound for self-destruction. They also see themselves as truth-tellers about the intersection of race and gun violence — a topic that neither the city’s mayor, who is white, nor its police chief, who is black, publicly addresses.
“White folks don’t want to say it because it’s politically incorrect, and black folks don’t know how to deal with it because it is their children pulling the trigger as well as being shot,” said Mr. Abdullah, who is black.
No one worries more about black-on-black violence than African-Americans. Surveys show that they are more fearful than whites that they will be crime victims and that they feel less safe in their neighborhoods.
Most parents Mr. Abdullah meets are desperate to protect their children but are trapped in unsafe neighborhoods, he said, “just trying to survive.” And some are in denial, refusing to believe that their sons are carrying or using pistols, even in the face of clear evidence.
“ ‘Not my child,’ ” he said, adopting the resentful tone of a defensive mother. “ ‘It may be his friends, but not my child, because I know how I raised my child.’ ”
His reply, he said, is blunt: “These are our children killing our children, slaughtering our children, robbing our children. It’s our responsibility first.”
Black Victims, Black Shooters
Though the rate of gun homicides plummeted for seven years after its 1993 peak, blacks are still six times as likely as whites to be both victims and offenders.
Nationally, reliable racial breakdowns exist only for victims and offenders in gun homicides, not assaults, but those show a huge disparity.
The gun homicide rate peaked in 1993, in tandem with a nationwide crack epidemic, and then plummeted over the next seven years. But blacks still die from gun attacks at six to 10 times the rate of whites, depending on whether the data is drawn from medical sources or Police Departments. F.B.I. statistics show that African-Americans, who constitute about 13 percent of the population, make up about half of both gun homicide victims and their known or suspected attackers.
“Every time we look at the numbers, we are pretty discouraged, I have to tell you,” said Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland.
Some researchers say the single strongest predictor of gun homicide rates is the proportion of an area’s population that is black. But race, they say, is merely a proxy for poverty, joblessness and other socio-economic disadvantages that help breed violence.
Mr. Nutter, now an urban policy professor at Columbia University, spoke out repeatedly about the disparity during his eight years as Philadelphia’s mayor — and was accused of casting African-Americans in a bad light. “Some people got upset,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll stop talking about it when you stop killing each other.’ ”
Most Shootings in the Poorest Neighborhoods
Of the ZIP codes where four or more people were shot during a single encounter in 2015, 86 percent are poorer than the nation as a whole. Each bar represents one of those ZIP codes.
67% of people live in poverty
in this Chattanooga, Tenn.,
ZIP code, where 4 people
were shot on Jan. 7, 2015.
ZIP codes with higher poverty rates
Cloaking the issue, he said, only makes it easier for the country to tune out what amounts to “mass murder occurring in slow motion every day.” Both he and Mr. Abdullah say they wish some of the outrage over police killings of unarmed African-Americans would spill over to victims who die in anonymity in routine gun violence.
After a white University of Cincinnati police officer fatally shot an unarmed black driver in July, street protests erupted here, Mr. Abdullah noted. But “when we kill each other,” he said, “it seems an acceptable way of life.”
Every month, the outreach workers attend more ceremonies, outpourings of grief marked by teddy bears, high school photos, candles and scrawled tributes to the victim of the day.
“I feel so burned out,” said Steve Sherman, one of the workers. “We go to vigil, after vigil, after vigil, after vigil.”
The Frustrating Search for Attackers
From his hospital bed, one of four young men shot last May at one of Cincinnati’s most violent intersections pointed a police officer to a suspect. He gave the man’s first name. And he suggested that he had been shot in retaliation for an earlier shooting in the same area.
Officers were able to identify the suspect and confirm that his car had been shot up a few days earlier, said Police Specialist Mark Longworth, who headed the inquiry.
But “that’s where this case died,” he said. The injured victim attributed his information purely to “street talk,” not to direct knowledge that would stand in court. Hints are not evidence.
“It’s frustrating because if people would do the right thing, we could probably prevent some of these shootings from happening,” Specialist Longworth said. “But in that world, very few things are worse than being labeled a snitch.”
Nationally, nearly half of last year’s shootings with four or more casualties ended in the same way: no arrest; often, not even a suspect. At least 160 assailants, responsible for 102 murders and 635 gun injuries, were still on the streets at year’s end.
A case was more likely to be solved if one or more victims died — the situation in about half the cases. But even some double, triple and quadruple murders continue to stump investigators.
Nearly Half Unsolved
At least 160 attackers remained free
A New York Times analysis of 358 shootings with four or more casualties in 2015.
The national clearance rate for homicides has fallen from nearly three in four in 1980 to fewer than two in three today. That is partly because public attention has driven down the share of domestic violence killings, which are routinely solved, Professor Rosenfeld said.
Much of what remains are killings involving gangs, drugs and witnesses with criminal backgrounds who are wary of talking to the police. “You are left with a larger percentage of homicides that are more difficult for police to clear,” he said.
A shift in law enforcement from solving crimes to preventing them has also contributed, as has rising distrust of the police in some cities, said Charles F. Wellford, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Maryland. Still, he said, some law enforcement agencies are much worse at closing murder cases than others. Some of those same departments are worse at closing shootings with four or more casualties, too.
In Baltimore, the police have not solved any of 11 shootings last year. New Orleans made arrests in only one of eight cases; Chicago, two of 16.
Cincinnati was more typical, solving two of its five cases, at least in part.
Detective Charles Zopfi had real hopes of arresting the gunmen behind a drive-by shooting here last September. About 20 people had gathered on a warm Monday night for a cookout in a parking lot beside an apartment building. “There were kids and older people, not your usual crowd of 16- to 23-year-old guys,” the detective said.
As a car sped down the street, someone fired at least 10 bullets out a window. Detective Zopfi said he knew from experience how people respond in such situations: They look in the direction of the gunfire, and only then dive for cover.
But eight months later, he said, he has been unable even to nail down whether the vehicle was black or green. He heard that of the five victims, a 30-year-old African-American man was left paralyzed from the waist down. But that man refused to take his phone calls, then changed his telephone number.
A wounded 3-year-old named Jabarri seemed the best hope of persuading witnesses to come forward, the detective said. Sometimes, the moral outrage over a child victim overwhelms the code of silence. And Jabarri, he said, was “the cutest little boy” who had smiled beguilingly at him from a hospital gurney even after being shot in the leg.
At the detective’s request, Jabarri’s mother agreed to meet with a reporter. But when the reporter showed up at her home, she backed out, pleading a haircut appointment. “The code of silence is strictly enforced,” the detective said.
Mr. Abdullah, the anti-violence worker, talks to some of the victims and witnesses who will not give information to the police. “They are scared,” he said. “We have had cases where people found out who talked and that person wound up dead. ‘So if the police cannot protect me, why would I jeopardize my life and my family?’ ”
“It’s so much bigger than the idea of ‘no snitching,’ ” he said.
A Family’s World Implodes
Barry Washington was a neighborhood fixture in Madisonville, a racially mixed community of small, neat homes in northeastern Cincinnati where he grew up. Slim, handsome and barely 5-foot-3, he had an infectious smile and a weakness for hats, from jaunty duckbills to baseball caps worn backward.
He helped out hard-up families at the Presbyterian church, and brought household goods to the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his 77-year-old mother, Amanda. He was getting to know a son, then 37, whose existence he had only recently discovered.
Barry Washington was killed in August in a shooting at an Elks Lodge in Cincinnati. He left behind a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a mother and four grandchildren.
“An all-around good guy,” said his sister, Jaci. “There wasn’t a woman who didn’t love him, or a man who didn’t want to hang out with him.”
A jack-of-all-trades, Mr. Washington could landscape a yard, operate a forklift, mend a torn basketball. He had to revert to odd jobs after the bus stopped running last year to Amazon.com’s northern Kentucky warehouse, where he had packed shipments. But his sister said he had planned to share an apartment near the warehouse so he could resume work there.
Madisonville is neither Cincinnati’s safest nor its most dangerous neighborhood. The Washingtons had avoided brushes with gunmen, but Mr. Washington was wary even around ninth graders. “ ‘Be careful,’ ” his sister recalled him saying. “ ‘The little young kids are getting crazy.’ ”
Sometime before 11 p.m. on Aug. 21, Mr. Washington left his apartment in a green pullover, telling his niece he needed cigarettes. His mother was in bed, watching a police drama.
The next morning, Jaci Washington awoke to a blizzard of text messages about a shooting. She called her mother, who said her brother had not come home.
Soon Amanda Washington’s phone rang: a detective, asking repeatedly whether she was alone.
“Why? What happened to my son?” she demanded. “Is he dead?”
Mr. Washington had stopped at the Elks Lodge, a narrow, single-story building clad in pale green siding a 15-minute walk from their apartment. Greg Wallace’s party was underway in the basement bar, a “Happy Birthday” banner and blue and yellow balloons on the walls. Tins of muffins and rolls sat on tables covered with plastic tablecloths.
Jaci Washington at the Cincinnati housing complex where her brother, Barry, lived with her mother. “It’s like the world crashing in,” she said of his death.
Mr. Wallace and his brother Dawaun had recently been feuding with Timothy Murphy. The three men had grown up together in the neighborhood, and as adults had each been convicted of drug trafficking, court records show. Mr. Murphy’s mother, Christine Poindexter, said her son was upset because the Wallaces were selling drugs out of his father’s house.
The argument resumed when Mr. Murphy showed up at the party, and ended only when Mr. Murphy was dead and Dawaun Wallace had been peppered with nine bullets. Tests of Mr. Murphy’s blood later revealed nearly three times the legal alcohol level and evidence of recent marijuana use.
Mr. Murphy’s killer was not prosecuted, Detective Gregory said, because he appeared to have fired in self-defense. Barry Washington’s death was collateral damage — a stray bullet, meant for Dawaun.
Nine months later, Mr. Washington’s family is still reeling. His mother, a cancer survivor, is virtually a shut-in. “We loved him dearly, and with a pull of the trigger, he was gone,” she said. “That I cannot accept.”
Jaci Washington’s 10-year-old son is withdrawn and angry. Her 14-year-old daughter has nightmares. Her brother, she said, probably would have counseled her to forgive his killer. “He kept telling me, ‘You have to look for the good in everybody, ’” she said.
But she says she cannot forgive. She grasps for metaphors to capture the family’s loss. “It’s like the world crashing in. It’s like a nuclear bomb went off on my couch,” she said. “It’s like someone hit ‘pause’ in my life. I just saw him, and I will never see him again.”
Mr. Murphy’s mother is not seeking forgiveness. In an interview, she said she did not believe her son had fired a gun at anyone, insisting that the police had botched the investigation and let the real culprits go free. And she is angry with Jaci Washington for characterizing her son as a murderer at community meetings on gun violence.
Ms. Washington and her mother no longer go to those meetings. They seemed futile, they said — more broken people, describing more senseless deaths.
“I don’t want pity. I want results,” Jaci Washington said. “One more black shooting in a black neighborhood. ‘Let’s rally around.’ It’s a facade. When all is said and done, we’re still left with the grief.”