FLINT, MI — Flint leaders and residents are calling for unity to combat a spike in violent crime during an ongoing global pandemic.
The city of Flint reported 61 homicides in 2020, up from 46 in 2019, an increase of approximately 32%, according to figures on the police department’s website.
Of the 61 homicides, 55 were labeled murder or nonnegligent manslaughter, with two listed as negligent homicide/manslaughter (involuntary), three under negligent homicide involving a vehicle, boat, or snowmobile, and one justifiable homicide.
In 2019, 39 of the 46 total homicides were labeled as murder or nonnegligent manslaughter. Most of the city’s homicides in 2020 — 49 — involved a shooting incident, according to Michigan State Police.
An additional 215 non-fatal shootings took place in 2020, an increase of nearly 100 from 2019 when 118 non-fatal shootings were reported, per Michigan State Police figures.
Flint’s crime dashboard has not been updated since Jan. 24, but it shows two homicides had occurred by that date compared to no fatal shootings during the same three-plus weeks in 2020.
Since Jan. 24, a week of violence in Flint left four dead and multiple people, including an 11-month-old child who is hospitalized in critical condition.
The United States experienced a nearly 21% increase in killings nationwide in the first nine months of 2020, according to the FBI, The Washington Post reported in December.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said he knows the increase in crime is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic as people face increased economic, physical and mental health challenges.
The city has taken multiple steps to combat crime including hiring more officers and increasing officer pay, Neeley said. The mayor also pointed out a community advisory task force he formed is working as a bridge between residents.
Officers are also taking more guns off city streets, with more than 1,000 confiscated in 2020.
Flint police officers removed 655 guns, an increase of 240 from 2019 when 415 guns were confiscated. Michigan State Police also confiscated 447 guns in 2020, an increase from 250 in 2019.
The city has also established a ban on reselling those guns at auction, which Neeley said will help create a safer city in the future. Guns taken off the streets in the city are now destroyed, he said.
To combat crime, Neeley said there needs to be a “well-rounded effort of consistency amongst all.”
“We can’t say we want guns off the street and sell guns,” he said. “You just can’t do that. It’s not consistent enough. We need strong people with a strong vision to speak up.”
Neeley said he is not exempt from seeing violence in the city. In the past year, there was a stabbing and shooting on his block.
“When we talk about these things, these things are not absent from our vision or our presence, but we have to have a total effort to clean it all up. We have to work together to better the community where our families live,” Neeley said. “There’s no geographic area on God’s green earth that’s better than another, but it’s the people who possess the land, the people who possess the property, who live there — it’s up to us. We have to clean up our streets.”
Residents who have experienced gun violence know it has a lasting impact on the city.
Born and raised in Flint, Joseph Pettigrew, 26, is all too familiar with the loss of a loved one to the pull of a trigger.
Pettigrew’s father Sidney was shot and killed in May 2018 at the Rock Fitness Center on Flint’s south side.
The gunman has never been apprehended.
Being impacted by gun violence “really shows you how short life is, knowing you can be here one day and gone tomorrow,” said Pettigrew.
“It’s almost like it’s normal behavior, especially for Black and Brown people, to die in their own communities at no fault of their own,” he lamented.
Some violence is reactionary, while other times people are caught in the crossfire, Pettigrew said.
“For example, my father was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “Being impacted by this made me realize this can happen to anybody.”
After his father was killed, Pettigrew partnered with the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence to start the Flint Youth Against Gun Violence.
Patterns are learned, he said. To resolve the issue, discussions about violence and positive role models are needed in the community.
Many people speak about violence in private but won’t speak out openly, Pettigrew said.
“There are just not enough people saying violence is wrong. It’s the same people saying it is wrong,” he said. “The voice isn’t there like it should be.”
Pettigrew has also observed the pressure to be “hyper masculine” playing a role in gun violence, another topic he argues those within the community must address.
“There’s a narrative that you have to be a certain type of human being to get street credit and you have to carry yourself a certain way and if you don’t, you’re not a man,” he said.
DeWaun Robinson has noticed the recent uptick in crime in the city too.
Robinson, 34, a member of Black Lives Matter Flint, recently launched an urban peace corp. within the organization.
The peace corp. was formed so residents can take ownership of their communities, Robinson said. So far, there are seven members from BLM who are involved in the initiative.
“We really kind of want to form this community policing initiative and that’s really taking ownership in our area,” Robinson said. “If you see crime or if you see something going on in the area, you want to protect it.”
Robinson also said the group wants to take residents under their wing who are interested in public safety.
Through a partnership with BLM Michigan and advocates, opportunities such as conflict resolution training, gun safety training for those who have their CPL, or concealed pistol license, and other training is available to members.
“We try to curb the violence taking place in our own community,” Robinson said. “We are taking on this initiative to curb the violence in our community to get it resolved for folks.”
A Flint native, Robinson, said he thinks the recent string of crime is a mix of several factors.
“We’re still in crisis mode,” Robinson said. “This is a carry over from the Flint water crisis, and now we’re in a pandemic. People have been quarantined for the better part of the year. We’ve been going through a transition.”
More and more people have left Flint, with a population of around 200,000 in the 1960s that U.S. Census Bureau numbers show has now fallen to less than 100,000, a decline Pettigrew attributes to many factors.
“It’s just the formation of a bad storm, really. With the water crisis, the housing crisis, the gun violence crisis, the economic crisis — all those things together have caused people to lose hope in their community. It’s made them lose hope all around from generation to generation,” he said.
One of the ways to address the crime and the people of the city is to boost the morale within Flint, Robinson said.
“Folks gotta value themselves and value one another,” he said, adding, “We got to find other ways on how we deal with each other.”
The death of Pettigrew’s father wasn’t his first exposure to gun violence.
Friend Sasha Bell was shot and killed during a double homicide in April 2016 at the Ridgecrest Village apartment complex in Flint.
Toron Fisher, 20, and Malek Thornton, 21, were both charged with first-degree murder and felony firearm in the slayings.
Thornton was sentenced by Judge F. Kay Behm in January to between 22 and 50 years in prison for Bell’s murder.
While people are always encouraged to call the police, many times residents with information about a crime are concerned about being identified if they speak out, Crime Stoppers of Flint and Genesee County Director Julie Lopez said.
That’s why the organization provides the option to anonymously report crime information. Crime Stoppers also provides rewards for information on cases in the city.
While many times a particular case is highlighted by Crime Stoppers, a tip on any homicide can come with a reward of up to $2,500.
“This is just a good avenue for people who are afraid, who don’t trust, or are afraid of retaliation,” Lopez said.
Since 2015, nearly 3,800 tips have been processed, 239 of which helped lead to felony arrests in Flint. The division has awarded $116,000 to tipsters in the past five years.
Tips can be anonymously submitted to Crime Stoppers via CrimeStoppersofFlint.com, on the P3 Tips mobile app, or by calling 1-800-422-JAIL (5245).
Reporter Isis Simpson-Mersha contributed to this story.
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