The city of Lexington is looking for a new violence prevention czar as it is faces an alarming jump in the number of homicides in recent weeks.
To date, 15 people have been murdered in Lexington. That’s coming off a record-setting 34 homicides in 2020, a 13 percent increase from the prior year.
As of April 9, there have been 30 non-fatal shootings, according to Lexington Police Department statistics. That’s roughly the same number of non-fatal shootings at this time last year. In 2020, there were 140 non-fatal shootings.
Laura Hatfield, the executive director of ONE Lexington, which oversees government and nonprofit violence prevention programs, stepped down from the position earlier this month to take a position in the city’s parks and recreation department.
ONE Lexington was created in 2017 to help coordinate and elevate violence prevention programs in Lexington particularly among youth.
The city hopes to replace Hatfield soon, said Tyler Scott, chief of staff for Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton.
“We are keeping the position as it is currently envisioned but it will likely elevated,” Scott said.
Hatfield is moving to parks to create more youth programming and activities,” which is also key to violence prevention,” he said.
At the same time, the city recently released a request for proposals to nonprofits and others on how to build better and more connected youth violence prevention programs. Those proposals are due back to the city on April 26.
Many youth programs were shut down during the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that the number of new coronavirus cases are dropping and the number of people vaccinated against COVID-19 is climbing, those youth programs are now coming back online, Scott said
There are a lot of great programs but “we need to put the effort on steroids,” Scott said. Using community centers throughout Lexington to deploy youth programming and youth intervention programs is one way to make sure programs are getting to everyone, he said.
“For it to be prevention, you have to be able to provide a lot of opportunities for it to work and to stop violence,” Scott said.
Another key position in the mayor’s office also tied to drugs and violence is also vacant.
Andrea James, who was leading Gorton’s opioid task force, resigned earlier this month. Scott said the city is trying to determine if the position should remain or if it could be absorbed by others at city hall who are doing similar work to combat the rise in opioid use and overdoses. Preliminary numbers released in February 2021 show the city had a record number of overdoses in 2020 with 209, which mirrors statewide and nationwide trends.
“We want to make sure that everyone is doing something unique,” Scott said.
Is group violence behind Lexington’s homicides?
BUILD, Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct-Action, is a coalition of 26 member congregations representing more than 2,000 people that have successfully lobbied the city on a variety of issues, including the establishment of the city’s affordable housing program.
At a rally on Tuesday night, BUILD also pushed the city to implement the National Network for Safe Communities Group Violence Intervention Program, which targets group violence through social services and other outreach programs.. BUILD has pushed the city to implement the program for several years.
“We have been working towards a solution for the violence,” said Cheryl Birch, whose son Jermaine Birch was killed in a shooting in 2009. Birch said she’s been a member of the BUILD committee for the past six years.
“We hear from our city leaders that Lexington doesn’t have a ‘group violence’ problem,” Birch said. “… We have faced so much resistance to change. The violence has continued. We want the whole community to come together, along with the mayor, police chief and other leaders. We need outside experts to help Lexington get back on track.”
In 2019, the city agreed to spend $35,000 for the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College to study group violence in Lexington. After studying 117 homicides and 221 non-fatal shootings over several years, the study determined that 34 percent of the homicides and 30 percent of the non-fatal shootings could be linked to group violence.
Group violence is not the same as gang violence. Gang violence involves a criminal enterprise that involves multiple people with official rules. Group violence can simply be more than one person, according to the study.
Leaders in the BUILD organization believe group violence has contributed to recent increases in Lexington’s homicides.
“With one shooting after another, we know that there is some retaliation that is involved,” said Pastor Joseph Owens from Shiloh Baptist Church. Owens is a co-chair of BUILD.
In cities the National Network for Safe Communities works in group violence is attributed to more than half of all homicides or non-fatal shootings.
“The above findings indicate a lower level of group involvement in homicides and nonfatal shootings; however, the continued review process which is detailed in our findings does indicate there may be more group involvement in serious violence than initially identified, “ the study found.
The city has launched that continuous review process to monitor group crime involvement, said Public Safety Commissioner Ken Armstrong. It has also followed other recommendations from the study.
Armstrong and Scott said there are others concerns with the National Network for Safe Communities program. That program typically targets and provides services in predominantly Black neighborhoods or majority minority neighborhoods.
“In some cities it has worked very well,” said Scott. “In other cities they ran into a lot of problems because the program targets minority neighborhoods and that is something we were not very comfortable with.”
Armstrong said cities across the country, including Louisville, have seen a spike in homicides. It’s a roughly 21 percent increase “and that’s in cities with (National Network for Safe Communities) and those cities without that program.”
“Some cities are seeing record highs,” Armstrong said.
However, Armstrong and Scott said they are open to learning more and haven’t ruled out the program. Armstrong said it’s too early to say what’s behind the spike in gun violence particularly among teens. It may take time for all the reasons to be known. Each homicide and shooting has unique aspects to it, Armstrong said.
“We are happy that individuals are taking an interest in this issue,” Armstrong said. More community involvement to tackle gun violence is what’s needed.
“You don’t have to work directly with us to accomplish the goal,” Armstrong said. “If you take an interest in a young person’s life, it can make a huge difference.”