The Big Four Bridge is routinely ranked as one of the most beloved landmarks in Louisville. In some ways, it is the most democratic. Much like Waterfront Park as a whole, it’s a landmark everyone in our city shares. A day at Waterfront Park provides a beautiful cross section of Louisville, with people from every neighborhood and every background enjoying a community treasure.
Unfortunately, the scene on Memorial Day of this year was much different. Flashing blue lights, yellow caution tape, and news of yet another murder.
The gang shooting on May 29 was one of several murders in the first half of the year that sent shockwaves through Louisville. In February, a bullet went through a window at a middle school in Shawnee, while school was in session. In March, 20-year-old University of Louisville student Savannah Walker was killed while attending a concert at the Tim Faulkner Gallery. Just over a week before the Big Four Bridge murder, 7-year-old Dequante Hobbs Jr. was hit by a stray bullet while in his home, reading on a tablet.
In the first six months of the year, Louisville experienced 68 murders, an all-time record for the first half of a year. Unbelievably, we have experienced more murder so far this year than we did in all of 2014. Perhaps more unbelievably, murders are still rising, up 33 percent from the first half of 2016.
This is a unique time for Louisville, and a unique surge when compared to the national trend.
From 2006-2014 Louisville averaged 58 murders per year, never having a single year with more than 71. Then, in 2015, something changed. We had our most violent year in 36 years, with 85. Last year’s 124 was the deadliest year in our history, and this year we’re on pace to surpass that again.
While many medium and large cities all over the country have experienced increases in violence over that period, to assume that Louisville’s violence is symptomatic of a national trend would be wrong. From 2014 to 2016, murder in Louisville more than doubled, increasing by 110 percent. Similar-sized cities such as New Orleans, Memphis and Richmond have all experienced spikes in homicides, but none come close to percentage increase that we are experiencing.
Lamont Washington, the spokesperson for LMPD, seemed to capture our community’s frustration when responding to four homicides in three days in June. “The first homicide and the latest one is equally serious, and a change needs to happen.”
I agree. Enough is enough and we are long overdue for changes. That’s why Pegasus Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, developed the Louisville Initiative for Violence Eradication (LIVE). It builds on the existing literature with Louisville specific research and makes tailored recommendations to address our city’s homicide spike.
The initiative seeks to implement three policy changes; strategic policing, proving new tools for prosecutors, and tearing down abandoned buildings in the areas where crime thrives.
First, we need a policing strategy that focuses on the small number of repeat offenders affiliated with gangs. It is these individuals that perpetrate the overwhelming majority of homicides and many other associated crimes. We must allow our police officers the flexibility to do their work and remove barriers that prevent them from being effective, while tailoring their mission to focus on Louisville’s most dangerous criminals. No element of the solution will be more challenging or more important.
Next, we must tear down abandoned buildings and put up new street lighting in our most serious crime hot spots. This will drive out crime while creating an environment where residents can feel safe walking to the corner store or letting their kids play outside at night.
Finally, a narrowly tailored gang enhancement law will give law enforcement a needed tool to combat the scourge of gang violence. This will allow prosecutors to seek additional penalties for individuals who perpetrate violence in furtherance of gang objectives and getting dangerous individuals off our streets.
Taking on this problem head on will be critical.
There is no disagreement that centuries of racial disparity and decades of failed urban policy has left deep scars that deserve our united attention. Public safety is priority number one for government at every level though.
Until we restore public safety to our most vulnerable communities we will not succeed in solving our most complex challenges. No amount of compassion will serve as a substitute for quality solutions.
Joshua Crawford is co-executive director of Pegasus Institute.