When Courtney White goes on sleepovers, she totes the blanket that a funeral home gave her to commemorate her big brother, who was shot to death.
The eighth-grader says she didn’t feel out of place when 25-year-old Brandon Brinkley became Wilmington’s 24th homicide of 2008. After all, at least 20 of her friends have lost a family member to violence.
Courtney, a peer leader and middle-school band member, is just one of countless children touched by gun violence in Delaware’s largest city—violence that will affect those children for years, if not the rest of their lives. For example:
- Six of the children who run track for West End Neighborhood House have a parent who was murdered.
- Four young children had to get over their father’s body to exit their Northside apartment after a gunman shot him in the face as he opened the front door on a sunny morning last June.
- At dinnertime one night last April, gunmen fired six shots into Jamar Brown as he shot hoops on crowded basketball court frequented by children.
· “If a kid lives in the City of Wilmington, they almost always either have been a witness to or in some way experienced violence,” said Phil Arendall, executive director of Clarence Fraim Boys and Girls Club.
- Dominique Helm stood laughing on the flagstone steps leading to his Brandywine Village row house when a gunman opened fire on him in September. As his teen cousins stood nearby, Helm’s blood sprayed the white trim on the front door. The 19-year-old stumbled inside and died on the living room stairs as his mother, Nicole Helm, ran to him.
Slide from a powerpoint presentation made by the City of Wilmington on gun-crime in 2003
From 1999, through the first quarter of 2002, the vast majority (80%) of the suspects in the Wilmington shootings were African American. That was fairly consistent through the years we studied with a high of 84 percent in 2001 and a low of 77 percent in 1999 and 2002, thus far. The race/ethnicity of 15 percent of the suspects was unknown. (p. 21)
Overwhelmingly in the Wilmington shootings, African Americans victimized other African Americans. In 140 of the 170 cases in which we know the suspect’s race, both the victim and suspect were African American. (p. 24)
Despite that, city police say this year is no different than any other and attribute most of the shootings to disputes between rival drug dealers.
Residents as well as state and national experts say a large percentage of them also are triggered by petty spats -- a dirty look, an elbow thrown during a pickup basketball game, an insult about clothing.
The council also said that what's happening in Wilmington this year is similar to what was documented in the 2008 report.
In both years, it said black males are by far the most likely people in Wilmington to be triggermen or victims. In 2008, 81 percent of the victims were black males, as were 91 percent of the suspects.
Young men 18 to 21 years old also are more likely to be involved in crime, it said. About 23.5 percent of the shooting victims fell within this range, as did 48 percent of the suspects.
Ninety-two percent of the cases involved a black victim and suspect. This is similar to an FBI report released last week that said the most typical homicide in America involves a young black man who is shot by another black man who knew him.
Political tensions in Delaware are flaring, as members of the state’s 19-member Black Caucus clash with officials from across the state over how to respond to the record violence taking place in the state’s largest municipality, Wilmington.
The Black Caucus, a collective of African American state and local elected officials, are urging Wilmington and the state of Delaware to take drastic measures to reverse the tide of violence. They are even recommending a comprehensive “state of emergency” in which state and local police task forces would concentrate responses to neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence.
The areas include the Hilltop, Northeast and West Center City sections of Wilmington. The end of 2010, which witnessed a fatal home invasion in the Northeast section, marked the city’s 27th killing that year and a new homicide rate continuing the city’s record-breaking trends since 2006. But, already at the start of 2011, there have been 13 homicides in Wilmington.And while Black Caucus members feel it’s high time for the state to accept the brutal realities of Wilmington life, Wilmington Mayor James W. Baker initially pleaded for caution and a holistic assessment of the root causes at play.
“Throwing police at the problem is not just where it should be,” Baker said in an earlier interview with Delaware Online. “Police are part of the issue, but we have to address the whole issue of mental and physical health, education issues, broken family issues, the broken community issues. All these things contribute to crime and we have to get people to understand that it is people that make the difference in a community where crime exists or doesn’t exist.”
However, Baker still agreed to the Caucus proposal, joining the group in renewed pressure on Delaware Governor Jack Murkell to form three multi-agency task forces responding to crime in the city. As part of a compromise, Caucus Members dispatched Baker to submit a list of combined proposals to the Governor, from the deployment of New Castle County and state police to possibly calling a “state of emergency” to bringing in the National Guard and imposing curfews.
Violence by chronic criminals pushed Wilmington’s homicide number last year to a record 25 people killed in street shootings. Another 94 were wounded.
That steady barrage of shootings in the city of 71,000 residents included several spectacular incidents, including a deadly shootout at an Eden Park soccer tournament where spectators returned fire. Three people died, including a 16-year-old boy waiting to play. Two others were wounded.
So far this year, 20 people have been shot, a pace ahead of 2012. Five have died, including two women gunned down at the city courthouse last week by one’s former father-in-law, who killed himself with his handgun.
Among this year’s injured by gunfire was a city cop who took a bullet to the jaw after a traffic stop. Police arrested the suspected gunman , but no one else has been charged in the other shootings.
Last year’s murders represented a sharp escalation of rampant violence in a city that ranked third in America among 450 similar-sized cities for violent crime, according to the most recent FBI data available.
The city’s violence played a major role in Delaware ranking sixth nationally in violent crime in 2011, with more than 5,000 such acts reported, FBI records show. In 2010, Delaware ranked fourth.
Wilmington Police make arrests in only about one-third of the shootings, a News Journal examination last year showed.
That investigation also revealed that cases are difficult to solve, in large part, because victims refuse to cooperate and witnesses are intimidated or follow the “don’t-snitch” code.
Since January 2011, shooting suspects and victims each have been arrested on average about two dozen times and racked up an average of 50 charges, the newspaper found. Some in law enforcement circles call such shootings “thugicide.”
“We need to focus on the problem and Wilmington is the problem, if we are candid about it,” Attorney General Beau Biden said. He noted that violent crime in Delaware – while higher than most other states – has fallen since 2007, except in Wilmington and a few other areas.
Former city police chief Michael J. Szczerba, who retired in January after 12 years, complained that the same men keep getting arrested but streets are no safer.
Tougher sentences and higher bail would “stop the speed of that door spinning,” he said.