‘We are at a standstill’: Columbia residents fed up with little action on gun violence

By: - April 18, 2022 11:00 am

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of the local organization Race Matters, Friends, stands outside Columbia City Hall. Wilson-Kleekamp is among many community members who have been calling for the city to take more action on Columbia’s gun violence problem (Emily Curiel/[email protected]).

Bryant Wilks was a bright and driven 17 year old in Columbia. Already a manager at Dairy Queen, he was on track to graduate high school early and attend college to study business.

But he became one of 14 people killed in the central Missouri college town in 2020, a record year for homicides.

For many years, violent crime in Columbia was low — in 2002 and 2004, no gun homicides were recorded. By 2013, that number had ticked up to four and Columbia’s leaders formed a task force to address the rising level of community violence.

But since the city’s initial action, little has been done.

The consequences have been deadly.

Forty-eight people were fatally shot in homicides from 2016 to 2021, with totals reaching 12 in both 2019 and 2020.

Columbia’s rise in shootings reflects a statewide trend: Missouri has the fifth highest gun homicide rate nationwide. In 2020, The Star began examining gun violence through a two-year, statewide reporting effort supported by nonprofits Report for America and the Missouri Foundation for Health. The project has looked at the impact of gun violence as well as prevention and solutions.

After Wilks died in October 2020, his mother Rochelle Hawkins co-founded a support group for moms who have lost children to violent crime in Columbia. She said the city has failed at taking gun violence prevention seriously.

“Columbia needs to come together as a whole to solve this problem, the police are not going to fix this problem alone,” Hawkins said. “Everybody — the city, schools, the hospitals, churches — needs to get on board.”

Pat Fowler, who represents the First Ward, Columbia’s central district that includes downtown and parts of the University of Missouri, said the city is at a standstill.

“Those kinds of profound losses and other shootings that are happening all over our city are things that we are not moving forward to address as a community,” she said.

Fowler was the only city council member of six to respond to The Star’s inquiries.

Columbia Mayor Brian Treece, who is leaving office this year after holding the post since 2016, repeatedly declined to comment on violence in the city he oversees.

Jeff Pitts, the public information officer for the Columbia Police Department, said the department is concerned about gun violence and plans to continue working on resolving conflicts to prevent violence. But he would not comment further on those efforts. Columbia Police Chief Geoff James would not speak with The Star.

Community members say the city, which has a higher poverty rate than the rest of the state, needs to invest more in social services to address the root causes of violence like poverty and housing insecurity.

They point to the availability of federal dollars to address those issues and fund some of the recommendations put forward by a city task force on community violence.

Those recommendations were first published in 2014, but the city has yet to act on many of the initiatives, including creating a violence prevention program and treating the problem as a public health issue.

Community violence report

Officials in Columbia, a town of about 126,000 residents, sprung into action after four people were shot and killed from April to July 2013.

By August, then-Mayor Robert McDavid and the City Council had requested a task force to explore crime reduction strategies and make recommendations.

The task force’s final report was published in November 2014 and included 26 recommendations focused on intervening before a violent act occurs, building trust between the police and Black communities, and improving coordination between social service programs.

“It’s a community conversation,” McDavid told the Columbia Missourian at the time. “We’re going to solve this as a community, or we’re going to fail as a community.”

With a blueprint available, many like Fowler felt hopeful about Columbia’s efforts to combat violence.

“I have watched (the city) discuss various strategies for years,” said Fowler, who has represented the First Ward since 2020 and has had a presence in the city’s council chamber for nearly 20 years.

“We all had a lot of hope when the mayor’s task force on community violence published their report in 2014.”

But for years, much of the report was ignored.

Neglecting solutions

Bryant Wilks, a 17-year-old high school senior, was shot and killed at a party in October 2020 in Columbia (photo submitted).

While the city increased funding for after-school youth programs and launched a facility to provide services for people returning from prison, it sat on the majority of the recommendations.

In 2020, the city published an update on the 2014 report. Of the total 26 recommendations, 10 recommendations had been acted on to varying degrees.

According to the update, it did not create a violence prevention program in the community or a conflict mediation program in schools. It did not organize a forum with neighborhood organizations, churches, public schools and other stakeholders to address crime. It did not expand its neighborhood watch program.

“The Columbia City Council commissioned the plan, the plan was written, and then it was put basically up on the shelf,” said Kristin Bowen, who started Columbia’s Moms Demand Action chapter in 2015. “Many of its measures that were recommended were not undertaken.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence, Kansas, a college town similar in size to Columbia, experiences significantly lower levels of violence. In 2020, the city saw no homicides and it had one in 2019. However Springfield, a city slightly larger than Columbia, experienced 26 homicides in 2020.

“We tell ourselves that we are a beloved college town. And it’s true, we have an incredible community,” Bowen said. “But there are also so many people, so many families whose lives are directly touched by gun violence. And we have to recognize that and address that.”

Fowler said not enough has been done and points to a lack of political will as one of the primary reasons.

“There’s just a lack of willingness to say we aren’t doing enough and we aren’t making enough of a difference,” Fowler said.

That lack of political will is related to race, said Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of the local organization Race Matters, Friends.

About 11% of Columbia’s residents are Black, according to U.S. census data, and the majority of the city’s homicide victims are young and Black.

“We only talk about violence when it affects downtown and when I think of downtown, I think of white property interest,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “But violence is perfectly fine as long as it’s confined to Black neighborhoods and impacting Black people.”

She pointed to two recent shootings.

Last November, five people were injured in a shooting outside a nightclub frequented by Black people; the alleged shooter, a 30-year-old Black man, was killed by police. Then, on New Year’s Day, four people were shot outside a popular college bar.

Following the November shooting, Wilson-Kleekamp said, some of the blame for the shooting was directed toward the club’s Black owner. But that criticism was not put on the white bar owner after the January shooting.

“We can blame Black people for that shooting, but when it happened a few weeks later outside a bar that white people go to, they’re silent,” Wilson-Kleekamp said.

Funding troubles

One of the task force’s recommendations was to examine the city’s social services program.

Social service funding in Columbia is less than $1 million a year, which comes out to about $7 a person, according to the city’s recent budget. That’s in a city where over 20% of the residents live in poverty, which is higher than Missouri’s 12% poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Public health services are severely underfunded in Columbia, Fowler said, which worsens conditions for the city’s most vulnerable and exacerbates gun violence.

Problems like poverty, lack of housing and unemployment put people at a greater risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of gun violence, researchers have found.

Lynelle Phillips, a public health professor at the University of Missouri, says the goal of public health is to keep communities healthy, and one way to do that is prevent gun violence.

“Gun violence contributes to illness and death, so anything that contributes to illness and death and impacts the overall population health, falls in the realm of public health,” Phillips said.

Public health officials work to change community conditions that lead to violence. To do that successfully, Phillips said, they need more funding.

But according to Fowler, Columbia lacks a sense of urgency addressing its public health failures.

“The problem is that we have less than a million dollars that we devote to social services funding in the city of Columbia,” she said. “We have been at a standstill as far as applying new funds to deal with these particular problems. And then we don’t have any coordination among these efforts.”

Violence prevention strategy

Cure Violence, a popular violence prevention method, was specifically mentioned in the 2014 report as a viable strategy for Columbia. It has been implemented in 20 U.S. cities and 17 countries.

Much like public health officials treating a virus infecting a community, Cure Violence approaches violence as a contagion that can be spread and cause greater harm to the most vulnerable. To prevent shootings and retaliation, the program relies on conflict mediation conducted by trained staff who are rooted in neighborhoods struggling with high levels of gun violence.

Brent Decker, chief program officer for Cure Violence based in Chicago, said the organization’s model has been successfully implemented in cities large and small. In order to launch a new program, the organization first assesses whether there’s political will to do so.

“Sometimes it stops right there, that’s often the most challenging part,” Decker said. “Because for so long we’ve thought about this issue from a criminal justice lens and haven’t understood it from a health perspective.”

The idea that gun violence is largely a public health crisis is nothing new, Decker says, but some cities are resistant to the idea that solutions can involve more than just law enforcement.

However, believing gun violence can only be solved solely from a law enforcement approach is outdated and reflects historical and systemic racism, Decker said.

“I think it’s really just a dog whistle for the kind of racist ideology about this issue and about who this issue affects and what solutions are acceptable,” Decker said.

For a city to really see success, Cure Violence should be one part of a larger effort. A strategic plan for addressing violence should include wraparound services that deal with housing insecurity, poverty, unemployment and other public health factors, Decker said.

While it can vary based on the needs of a community, Decker estimated that starting a prevention program can cost a city of Columbia’s size between $350,000 to $500,000 a year.

In 2020, St. Louis launched its Cure Violence program with a $7 million investment in three neighborhoods. So far, health officials in the city say the neighborhoods are on track to see violent crime reduced by half.

Community calls for action

Community members appear to support the creation of a violence prevention program.

At a February Columbia City Council meeting, five people spoke during public comment, including Rose Metro, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action. She approached the dais and called for the city to create a violence prevention program alongside other efforts to address the root causes of violence, including poverty, homelessness and racial inequality.

“Tonight … I’ll be acknowledging how gun violence is intertwined with other issues, specifically mental health, workforce development and the needs of the unhoused,” Metro said before the council. “I and others from Moms Demand have already given several public comments outlining the benefits of violence intervention programs, and the research that supports their use.”

One option Columbia has for funding a violence prevention program is through federal dollars given to cities through the American Rescue Plan. The Biden administration directed these funds be spent on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and one eligible use is for violence prevention.

Under the rules set by the U.S. Treasury Department, cities can spend the federal dollars on “evidence-based practices like focused deterrence, street outreach, violence interrupters and hospital-based violence intervention models.”

In St. Louis, Mayor Tishuara Jones pledged to spend $11.5 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan funds on violence prevention programs and youth programs. Other cities, like Akron, Ohio and Atlanta made similar plans.

Columbia was designated $25 million through the plan. The first payment of $12.5 million was sent to the city last year and the other half arrives this spring. The funds must be spent within the next four years.

Hsun-Ta Hsu, an associate professor at Mizzou’s School of Social Work, said the federal funding is an opportunity for the city to bolster public health services and create a violence prevention program.

“There really needs to be a comprehensive plan,” Hsu said. “There are evidence-based, really effective models out there and I am sure if Columbia moved resources to something along those lines, the city would see a change.”

Once a program is in place, the city needs to continue funding it to see long-term impacts, said Hsu, whose current research is on gun violence impacting youth experiencing homelessness.

Last fall, the council directed city staff to look into using part of the American Rescue Plan money to fund four issues: a process to combat community violence, a resource center for homelessness and housing insecurity, a rapid access center for mental health resources and workforce development programs. But nothing has been made official yet.

At a recent council meeting, Fowler introduced a resolution to devote all of the city’s American Rescue Plan funds toward systemic poverty, racial inequality and public health. The resolution failed on a 4-3 vote.

Wilson-Kleekamp with Race Matters, Friends said many in the community support these efforts, but the City Council has yet to commit.

“There’s a political battle right now to get that money and invest it in places where we can interrupt community violence and support public health, but I worry that it won’t happen because people on council are against that,” she said.

Heart of a mother

Wilks’ homicide remains unsolved.

Rochelle Hawkins said her grief following his death was compounded by a lack of support in Columbia’s response to community violence.

She did not find the support groups for parents who have lost children helpful.

“I just felt like I was not really able to express my feelings of loss due to the fear of stigma and assumptions,” Hawkins said. “So I knew I really wanted to find a group where I could freely express myself and feel like I’m being validated and heard and understood.”

Then Kerston Roberts, another mom in Columbia who lost her son, called with an idea to create Heart of a Mother, a support group for mothers in Columbia who have lost a child to violence. They had their first meeting in November.

“Something has to be done about this,” Roberts said. “Let’s stop talking and let’s just try to do something. This violence is totally senseless.”

So far this year, two Columbia high school students have died from gun violence.

In January, 18-year-old Roberto Lauer was killed in a shooting. Then in February, 15-year-old Audrey Doxley, who was friends with Wilks, was shot and killed. Arrests were made in both shootings.

“The city is not offering any support or trauma informed care for these kids and these families,” Hawkins said. “They are hurting.”

“The whole community is broken.”

The Star’s Humera Lodhi contributed to this report.

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Kaitlin Washburn
Kaitlin Washburn

Kaitlin Washburn covers gun violence for The Star as a 2020 Report for America corps member. She is a Missouri School of Journalism graduate and was previously a reporter covering agriculture in California.