Thursday, May 16, 2002

Killings up 87% over last year

Police and others believe drugs and gangs are major reasons the city already this year has had 28 homicides

By Jane Prendergast,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Every five days, , someone is slain in Cincinnati.

        The city is in the midst of a surge in homicides — 28 victims since Jan. 1 — an 87 percent increase over the same period last year.

        The dead are mostly men, more than two-thirds African-American, 22 of them shot. They were killed in 14 different neighborhoods. They died in circumstances ranging from disputed drug deals to botched robberies to domestic violence.

[photo] Cincinnati police investigators look over a car Wednesday in which Johnathan Ferguson, 16, was riding when he was fatally shot.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        One man was killed on the stairs of his Madisonville apartment. Another was shot as he sat in a Walnut Hills bar. Wednesday afternoon, 16-year-old Johnathan Ferguson, a passenger in a vehicle driving down Over-the-Rhine's Liberty Street, was shot by someone in a baby-blue Buick Park Avenue, becoming victim No. 28. He was the youngest of this year's 28 victims.

        The killings are part of increasing violence in cities across the nation. Here, officials and beat cops are particularly concerned because summer — often a time of higher crime rates — still looms.

        And last summer was among the most violent in decades.

        “It's just terrible,” says Penny Carnes, president of the community council in Mount Auburn, where two homicides have taken place and where she has lived for all of her 48 years.

        “There's just too daggone many drugs out here,” Ms. Carnes says, “and too many guns.”

        If the pace continues, the Queen City will surpass last year's 14-year high of 61 victims. The last time there were that many homicides in Cincinnati was 1987, when 66 people were killed — 24 of them by serial killer Donald Harvey.

        So far, arrests have been made in four cases.

        Officials say most of the killings have ties to drugs, and sometimes are the result of disputes, between gangs, over drugs.

        “It's all over the gamut,” says Lt. Col. Ron Twitty, assistant police chief who oversees investigations. “They're not related, they're not in the same neighborhoods all the time.”

Gang battles over drugs

        The killings occur mostly in poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods: Avondale. Walnut Hills. Over-the-Rhine and others long known to police as hotspots for drug-dealing and other serious violence.

        The city's violent crimes squads spend the bulk of their time in these neighborhoods, often targeting gangs and drugs.

        On April 24, 24-year-old Thomas Baskin and another man argued with others inside the Queen Anne bar in the West End. As Mr. Baskin and the other man left later, they were shot. Mr. Baskin was killed; the other man wounded.

        “They basically gunned them down in the middle of the street,” Lt. Col. Twitty says. “Somebody was waiting for them.”

        A shooting May 8 in Madisonville started over a drug deal, police say. The victim survived a shot in the head.

        “We can buy drugs all day and night,” says Sgt. Rick Lehman, who directs the Violent Crimes Squad in District 4, covering neighborhoods like Avondale and Walnut Hills. “It's hard to make a dent. But we know it's what leads to a lot of other things.”

        Criminals, still emboldened by the April 2001 riots, also think they can get away with just about anything, some police officers say.

        “There are a lot of people out there who think they can do whatever they want,” says Capt. Greg Snider, commander of District 1, a patrol area that includes the high-crime neighborhoods of Over-the-Rhine, the West End and Mount Auburn. “We've seen that ever since the riots.”

        Experts cite a number of possible reasons for the rise in violent crime nationwide.

        They say the downturn in the U.S. economy may make people more likely to commit violence for money. Meanwhile, the population of teen-agers has grown, adding up to a larger group prone to crime. And many state prison populations are declining, putting more career criminals out on the streets.

        “We can point to a lot of things that seem to be going on,” says Ken Adams, a criminal justice professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

        “But some would say it is cyclical, that we've just sort of bottomed out, so to speak, in terms of the impact that police can make,” Mr. Adams says.

        In Los Angeles during the first three months of the year, 153 people were killed, up from 105 during the first quarter of 2001. Officials in Boston, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Seattle and Detroit, among others, report jumps, too.

        Cleveland's rising homicide rate — eight victims at this time last year, compared with 32 now — prompted Mayor Jane Campbell last month to call for a meeting of officers, prosecutors, suburban mayors and criminal justice experts to talk about prevention.

        “We will send a clear message,” Ms. Campbell says, “that, in Cleveland, killing our children, killing our loved ones, or any of our fellow citizens, will not be tolerated.”

Black-on-black crime

        In Cincinnati, 19 of the victims have been African-American, and half of those were 25 or younger. Most of their attackers, according to police descriptions, have been black, too.

        After killings last year left 61 dead, Chief Tom Streicher ordered a study of all homicides in the city from 1994 through 1999. It showed that 85 percent of victims and perpetrators were African-Americans.

        “We do realize it's a problem,” says Juleana Frierson, chief of staff of the Cincinnati Black United Front, the activist group behind many efforts to improve Cincinnati's racial climate.

        She says the BUF is seeking 300 “strong” black men — she mentions “doctors, lawyers, talk-show activists” — for an initiative called “Black Men Who Care” to mentor black youths and help curb violence on the streets of Cincinnati.

        The first meeting of candidates for the new initiative will be May 25 at New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine. Ms. Frierson says it will feature author Juwanza Kunjufu, who wrote The Conspiracy Against Black Boys.

        Six of the 27 homicide victims this year have been white, one Hispanic and one an immigrant from India who planned to go back home after he retired. He was shot dead April 8 in his Pleasant Ridge store, where he refused to give up cash to a robber.

        Only three of those killed were female. Two had been victims of domestic violence before their deaths. The third had long been known by police officers in District 1 and the vice squad for being a prostitute.

        Police have made arrests in four cases, including the killing of William Lucy, a 42-year-old mentally handicapped man who worked part time at a used furniture store in Price Hill. He couldn't read or write.

        Mr. Lucy's body, lying at Purcell and Warsaw avenues, was found about 3 a.m. March 8 by a cab driver.

        “We tried to tell him it wasn't safe for him to go out that late at night,” says Jim Pilot, his boss at Rachel's Place. “But he didn't always listen. Billy was a friend. He was part of the family. We miss him.”

        Three men have been indicted in Mr. Lucy's killing. Friends say Mr. Lucy was acquainted with the men accused of shooting him to death.

        “It's still early,” Lt. Col. Twitty says of the arrest rate. “Sometimes people don't come forward right away.”

        Mayor Charlie Luken points out a prime frustration of detectives: a lack of cooperation from witnesses.

        LaBrian Westmoreland, 20, was killed just after midnight April 15 at the King of Clubs bar on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills. He was sitting inside when he was shot several times.

        “The report I saw said 10 people were in the bar when the guy got shot,” the mayor says. “But when the police came, nobody admitted they saw anything.”

Police solutions

        Lt. Col. Twitty wants to increase the number of officers assigned to the homicide unit — possibly by reassigning some officers from the specialized Violent Crimes squads.

        But Chief Streicher says any moves have to be weighed against other considerations, including that the department's patrol division is busy, too.

        “On top of all the new homicides, we're starting to have the trials from last year's (murder) cases,” Lt. Col. Twitty says. “It's hard to manage.”

        The investigation caseload is heavy for the homicide unit's lieutenant, three sergeants, 13 investigators and nine criminalists.

        As Lt. Roger Wolf arrived April 15 at the Westwood apartment where a former Cincinnati officer's daughter had been killed, he said he'd been up all night on the King of Clubs shooting that happened 11 hours before.

        Last year, his staff wasn't investigating its 27th homicide until July 25.

        Mr. Luken and Councilman Pat DeWine, chairman of City Council's Law and Public Safety committee, have discussed how to bring police and community members together to talk publicly about crime trends.

        “The police could talk about where they've had problems and where they need the most help,” Mayor Luken says. “I don't have a magic wand. But if we can focus the community and the police on the problem, we can have some success.”

        Ms. Carnes, the Mount Auburn community council president, says citizens have a vital role.

        “Get out there. Call the police whenever you see anything. Don't sit back and wait for something to happen,” she says.

        Her neighborhood is home to 10 block-watch groups.

        “You can't control everything that happens,” Ms. Carnes says, “but you can make a dent.”

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