Experts, advocates weigh in on role of poverty, racism as Lexington responds to shootings

jmadden@herald-leader.comJune 28, 2014 

Poverty. Hopelessness. Desperation.

Those are among the catalysts for violent crimes in the city of Lexington, said Corey Dunn, a community volunteer working to reduce violence among inner-city youth.

"A lot of the times it's crimes of desperation," he said. "It all boils down to the lack of money in one capacity or another."

Lexington, a city of about 300,000 residents, is typically shielded from the violence that plagues major cities, but last weekend there were five shootings — including two fatal ones — that rattled the community.

Including last weekend, there have been nine homicides in 2014. Four of those are unsolved.

No arrests have been made in the most recent rash of shootings. Vague descriptions of the shooters were provided, and police have reached out to the public to help them crack the cases. But last weekend's shootings were different; they appeared to be random.

Last Saturday, June 21, Jonathan Thomas Price, 26, and his wife, Megan, were robbed outside Austin City Saloon in the Woodhill Shopping Center. Jonathan Price was fatally shot; his wife was wounded. Less than 24 hours later, Charles Wright, 32, was fatally shot in front of his home on Sixth Street. Three others — including a 17-year-old girl who was shot in the neck about 1:30 a.m. June 21 by a man who then stole the car in which she and a 16-year-old friend were riding — were shot and injured last week.

Crimes are easier to solve when the victims know each other, police Chief Ronnie Bastin said.

Bastin said he is confident that the community will help them solve the cases. It takes time, he said.

Police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said "we are making great progress on the open cases, thanks to cooperation from the public."

Roberts said tips have helped police to solve 100 percent of their cases in the past two years. The national average is a little more than 60 percent. Crimes are sometimes those of opportunity, she said.

Overall, Bastin said Lexington is still a safe city, and the shootings are not an indication that crime is soaring.

"The chance of being a victim of a violent crime in Lexington is relatively small," he said. "Not saying it won't, because it does. But in the large number of cases there's some form of illegal activity."

Criminal justice experts and advocates say killings and shootings are intimate crimes fueled by a set of complicated circumstances.

Dunn says shootings stem from something most people refuse to talk about, and "it's an American issue."

Dunn sums it up like this: "Society is to blame. You can't blame the shooter if he can't get a job and doesn't have a way to feed his family. You can't blame the victim if he can't get a job. You can't blame the couple who went to celebrate a birthday. You can't blame the young girls who just went out for a drive. It's not illegal to be out after 12 o'clock. But everybody's to blame. You have to blame the shooter. The victims, you say, 'Well you shouldn't have been there,' so you blame the victims. But nobody wants to look at society as a whole. Nobody wants to ask 'Why is this guy out here robbing?' It's because he can't get a job."

Poverty and opportunity

In 2011, 2012, 2013 and in the first six months of 2014 there has been a series of shootings and violent crimes in the east and west ends of Lexington. Those areas are heavily populated with minorities who are underserved.

First District Councilman Chris Ford said the crimes are inexcusable, but there's a bigger issue that is contributing to crime — 20 percent of his constituents are unemployed.

"I know we have the resources of the police, but they alone will not solve the problem," Ford said. "This is an issue about education. This is an issue about jobs. It's going to take the faith-based community ..."

Ford, who has represented the east end and part of the west end since 2011, said the unemployment issue is chronic and affects generations.

A report released by the Lexington Human Rights Commission that focused on identifying the lack of affordable housing discovered that the median household income in Lexington-Fayette Urban County is $47,000. Broken down by race and ethnicity, the median household income for blacks is about $16,000, and Hispanic or Latino median household income is around $11,000.

"In Lexington, 18 percent of the population for whom poverty status is determined had incomes below the poverty level," the report said. "However, race and ethnicity appears to have a bearing on the likelihood of having an income below the poverty level."

The poverty level for a family of four is $23,850, according to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Both Ford and Dunn said they don't think there is enough being done to help those who can't find jobs. Dunn highlights the problems that felons have in obtaining a job. More GED programs are needed, and opportunities for felons would be beneficial.

"If nobody hires felons, how are they going to get jobs?" Dunn said.

Ford said there's a problem because local government plays a limited role in job creation. He said that if government believes supporting high-profile projects like renovating Rupp Arena and the 21c Museum Hotel as the only means to job growth, then "we're in trouble."

Ford says there needs to be an effort to fill the classrooms of Bluegrass Community and Technical College with individuals from the east, west and northern ends of the city.

In 2007, the Mayor's Training Center closed when it was cut from former Mayor Jim Newberry's budget. The training center helped Lexington residents, especially the black community, qualify for and find jobs. When it was cut, Newberry said the center duplicated other existing programs. The city doesn't have anything for those who need it most, Ford said.

"We need skin in the game," he said. "Public resources. The business community, if they see the public sector, in my opinion, setting this as a policy priority such as bringing down the unemployment rate in the east end, I think we can make better progress than what we've been able to make. But it's going to take public leadership from city hall ... There needs to be a leadership role."

Policing crime

Police, experts and community leaders all say the weather plays a role in the increase of crime. Folks are more mobile, hanging out drinking alcohol, and attending social gatherings. Often, celebrations happen at parks.

Vic Kappeler, associate dean in the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, said most crimes are fueled by a variety of things, including social interactions. He compared violent crimes during the summer to the increase of shoplifting during the holidays.

What's intriguing, Kappeler says, is the way crime is reported in suburban and rural areas. Suburban areas can be just as violent as urban areas, but the way police are deployed and how situations are handled differs from inner cities.

"If you're talking about shooting someone, and that form of violence, those shootings and stabbings are going to be more likely to be in urban and densely populated areas with poor people," Kappeler said.

He added three or four crimes in one weekend is sensationalized by the media and catches the public's eye, but it doesn't constitute a major change in crime.

Lexington typically hovers around 14 to 20 homicides most years. Last year, for example, there were 19.

Kappeler says that pales in comparison to Chicago, with more than 400 murders.

"If we lived in Chicago, we wouldn't be having this conversation," he said. "It would have to be 30 shootings this weekend in a particular neighborhood before it would catch anybody's attention. If it happened on the south side of Chicago, people wouldn't care, but if it happened on the north side people would care."

The south side of Chicago is predominantly poor minorities, mostly blacks, as opposed to the north side, where affluent whites live. When asked how or whether this split occurs in Lexington, Kappeler speculated that "minority-on-white crime seems to get more media attention than black-on-black crime or white-on-white crime ... because that's what's sensationalized."

Even with the coverage of crimes in cities, the reasons these crimes happen vary.

Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said House Bill 463, the comprehensive and controversial overhaul that became state law in 2011, contributes to crime rates. The bill was intended to save more than $40 million a year in Department of Corrections costs, with a large chunk of those savings being reinvested in community supervision and counseling programs to keep prisoners from ending up back behind bars on the taxpayers' dime. About 1,000 prisoners were released because of the bill.

"As a result of that change in philosophy, through Fayette Circuit Court 65 percent of the felons are probated," Larson said. "Sixty-five percent are put right back on the street."

Two weeks ago, five repeat offenders were indicted, Larson said. As a group, they have a total of 104 felony and misdemeanor offenses, and "those rascals are still on the street."

'Put boots on the ground'

In the 1990s, policing was aggressive, but law enforcement officials have prided themselves on connecting with the community to solve crimes and patrol neighborhoods.

Earlier this year the Lexington police department canvassed the west end of town — knocking on doors, sitting in homes and talking with citizens in hopes of gaining insight on problems surrounding the community.

Last week, Mayor Jim Gray said police would expand efforts to connect with the community, to "use all resources" and "put boots on the ground."

The mayor said the city would increase police presence in the streets and cover overtime expenses to add additional officers to work the shooting cases.

Both Gray and Anthany Beatty, a former Lexington police chief who is running against Gray in the November election, have identified public safety as a priority.

"(Violence) cannot and will not be tolerated," Gray said during a news conference last week.

Beatty was critical of the number of officers on the street and a decision to end the city's home fleet program, which allowed officers to take their cruisers home. He also suggested the city increase the department's authorized strength from about 530 to 700 officers.

Gray has included money for 15 additional police officers in his new budget.

Still, Kappeler, the criminal justice expert from EKU, said policing is a reactive tool that doesn't address the real issues.

"Senseless random acts of violence can't be predicted and can't be controlled," Kappeler said. "Police don't control the conditions that lead to violence. They don't make laws. They don't fix unemployment. They can't address racism. Those are all the issues that underpin violence in our society."

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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