Sunday, June 16, 2024

Fighting for Peace: Does a Group of Former Mayors Know Something Mayor Wade Doesn’t?

Triggered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities across the United States collectively saw a 30% increase in homicides between 2019 and 2020. That percentage was twice as high in Toledo, where poverty rates – closely linked to violent crime – are more than double the national average. Toledo saw 61 homicides in 2020, a significant increase over the 38 recorded in 2019 and a new record, surpassing the previous high of 60 homicides in 1980.

As a growing number of residents reel from the loss of loved ones to senseless violence – often carried out with guns obtained both legally and illegally – demands have grown for elected officials to act. The city government has since implemented several new programs, but some, including a coalition led by several former mayors, say the city isn’t doing enough.

Save Our Community

Since 2020, the city has tried several different approaches to reducing the number of violent crimes – particularly homicides – occurring within its borders. Among these are targeted neighborhood enforcement initiatives, a push to have police walk their beats instead of driving them, an expansion of ballistics monitoring devices (“ShotSpotter”), a program allowing owners of private security cameras to link their devices with police, and continual recruitment to the ranks of the Toledo Police Department.

One approach that has garnered significant attention is the Mayor’s “Save Our Community” initiative. Based on the Cure Violence program pioneered in Chicago, SOC sees crime as a public health issue and likens the spread of violent crime to the spread of contagious diseases. By employing public health workers called “violence interrupters” in targeted areas, the program works with at-risk community members to disarm conflicts before they escalate into potentially fatal violence.

The City of Toledo formally began Save Our Community in early 2021 by hiring JoJuan Armour, a Central Catholic graduate and former professional football player, to be the first Commissioner of Save Our Community. Armour began with a staff of three interrupters dedicated to the Junction and Englewood neighborhoods in the central city, all of whom received training from Cure Violence.

The program provided some promising early results, reducing the number of homicides in those neighborhoods from nine in 2020 to three in 2021. However, homicides in the city on the whole rose beyond the record set in 2020, ending at an all-time high of 71.

Public criticism of the program began to mount and by May 2022, JoJuan Armour resigned from his post. Though Armour has never given a public statement about his reasons for resigning, some on Toledo City Council criticized the Mayor for not supporting Armour and the Save Our Community program more.

Ultimately, the City decided to double down on the program by increasing the number of interrupters from three to eight and adding both the Lagrange area and East Toledo to its territory. David Bush, a spoken word artist with several years of experience in youth outreach, was appointed to replace Armour.

The Coalition for Peaceful Toledo Neighborhoods

As 2022 wore on, homicides continued at a high rate in Toledo. Though fewer in number than 2021, 2022 saw 66 homicides in the city proper – higher than 2020’s then-record setting 61.

Spurred by what they felt was a lack of meaningful progress, several former Toledo mayors (Donna Owens, Carty Finkbeiner, Mike Bell, and Paula Hicks-Hudson) formed an organization called the Coalition for Peaceful Toledo Neighborhoods. The Coalition began by reaching out to the family members of murder victims, but over time their work grew into putting together public events where Toledo residents could weigh in on what they felt the city should be doing about crime.

By administering questionnaires to those who attended their meetings, the coalition was able to get input from over 200 residents which were then fashioned into a 12-point plan. The plan, which can be viewed in full online at peacefultoledo.org, includes calls for:

  1. More youth programming
  2. More support for building strong neighborhood groups
  3. Increasing police presence using the “community policing” model
  4. Stricter parole and probation sentencing
  5. Support for parenting classes and conflict resolution training
  6. Beautifying neighborhoods
  7. Enhancing mental health resources
  8. Expanding the city’s Block Watch program
  9. Strengthening gun control laws
  10. Stronger protections for those who wish to report crimes
  11. Deploying more public surveillance cameras
  12. Enforcement of curfew laws to keep minors in home at night

Since the unveiling of this plan in February of this year, the Coalition has lobbied the city to adopt its proposals. However, support from elected officials has not been forthcoming.

“I believe all of those ideas are very good. In fact, they’re so good that we’re already doing most of them,” said Mayor Kapszukiewicz. Dr. Tiffany Preston Whitman, an at-large member of Toledo City Council, agreed. “A lot of what they are talking about we are already addressing and looking to build in the future.”

Former Mayor Mike Bell countered that if the city is undertaking these plans, they may not be communicating it well. “When we put those twelve points together, it was about what people thought needed to happen. The twelve points are not the twelve points of the four mayors, but the twelve points of the people at these meetings. So obviously, if they’re bringing these ideas to us, they don’t know that the city is doing them.”

Cities United & the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety & Engagement

Around the time that the Coalition for Peaceful Toledo Neighborhoods unveiled their 12-point plan, the city administration began discussing a contract with Cities United, a network of city governments that studies evidence-based best practices for reducing violence in urban areas. Council ultimately voted 9-3 to approve a $180,000 contract with the organization at the end of May.

Detractors on council echoed the sentiments of the Coalition for Peaceful Toledo Neighborhoods. “Most Toledoans believe Toledoans should tackle Toledo problems,” said Carty Finkbeiner, a representative and leading voice in the Coalition, referring to Cities United, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky. Finkbeiner believes that the contract represents lost funding opportunities for local programs like the ones his Coalition is supporting.

A man looks ahead

Mayor Kapszukiewicz rejects that argument, stating that the contract with Cities United is like other consultant contracts that the city routinely approves. “We hire consultants whenever we design a new sewer system or build a new Metropark; we should do the same with safety issues.” When asked about the price tag, the Mayor demurred, pointing out that $180,000 is scarcely more than one tenth of one percent of what the city spends annually on its police department.

Helping to implement the recommendations that will come from Cities United is Malcolm Cunningham, the newly appointed Director for the Mayor’s Office on Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. A public expert who spent three years in Rwanda with the Peace Corps, Cunningham has previously worked for the Zepf Center, the University of Michigan, and the ProMedica Ebeid Neighborhood Promise.

The new director stated that there seems to be a misconception about Cities United, with some in the public confusing it with just another version of Cure Violence. “Cure Violence is a specific intervention with high-risk individuals; it is not a coordinated system. Cities United is system-level work. It isn’t really a model when it comes to violence intervention; it’s a connection, a technical assistance that helps us get internal pieces – the system – working together,” Cunningham explained. 

Cities United will help the city develop a comprehensive five-year plan that pulls together previously isolated programs across the city – as well as developing new ones based on what evidence has been successful elsewhere. Some of those programs will be place-based, engaging victims of violence at schools and hospitals; others will seek to connect with and provide resources to the families of those who have been impacted by violence in some way.

Conflict Persists

Representatives from the city all said they welcome participation from the Coalition for Peaceful Toledo Neighborhoods in the work they are planning with Cities United. However, the Coalition remains skeptical, recently declining an opportunity to meet with the organization. When asked if the Coalition would be willing to work with Cities United going forward, Finkbeiner stated that his first question would be if they’ve read the Coalition’s 12-point plan.

Mayor Kapszukiewicz feels the Coalition’s skepticism is born more of political rivalry than commitment to making the city safer. “We’ve cut homicides almost in half in the first six months of this year. We have had a much, much safer city this year,” said Kapszukiewicz, referencing the fact that there have only been 16 homicides so far this year. “An organization genuinely dedicated to the safety of our city would lift that message up and celebrate it instead of engaging in political rhetoric.”

Finkbeiner contests the merit of that statistic. “Those numbers should never be trusted in early June. I think everybody in America knows that it is warm weather months where most violence takes place. So let’s see how we are doing in mid-September.”

When asked what the Coalition will be working on in coming months, Finkbeiner stated that they would be supporting more homegrown efforts to stop violence. One such effort is a march for peace being organized by Sisters 4 Unity, a group of four mothers and grandmothers who have lost their children to gun violence. The event is scheduled to take place between 10am and 3pm on Saturday, August 26 at Smith Park.

As the City of Toledo’s new programs get underway, residents are hopeful but uncertain. Alfonso Narvaez, a community activist in North Toledo, expressed cautious optimism but stressed that the city has to do a better job of supporting grassroots neighborhood groups. “We need to get back to basics. We know that when groups are actively engaging their residents, crime goes down. The city hasn’t been innovative in that arena,” said Narvaez.

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