Louisville is on pace to top last year's decades-high death toll, with homicides up 16 percent so far this year — prompting a sometimes fiery community meeting Monday night in the West End.
As of Monday morning, there have been 56 homicides — compared to 48 during the same period in 2016, Councilman David James, a former police detective, told dozens of residents gathered at Cole's Place in Parkland.
The meeting was kicked off with a prayer from an area minister, the Rev. Vincent James, senior pastor of Elim Baptist Church and president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Coalition. He prayed for the violence to stop, saying residents "are tired of young men and women dying in the street." A man in the crowd softly replied, "Yes."
The deadly crisis was underscored when a stray bullet fired in the Russell neighborhood killed a 7-year-old boy who was sitting at his kitchen table May 22 eating cake. And four men were fatally shot this weekend. Those deaths come on the heels of Friday's National Gun Violence awareness day at the Big Four Bridge and Gov. Matt Bevin's announcement Thursday of a plan to curb violence with prayer and peace walks.
Never miss a local story.
Most of this year's homicides — 47 of the 56 — were the result of shootings. More than 130 victims were shot but survived, which is a dip from the 155 nonfatal shootings at this time last year.
At Monday's meeting, Councilwoman Mary Woolridge encouraged residents to rally behind Raymond "Jimmy" Harper, who was demoted last month from a major overseeing patrols of a chunk of the West End, to a lieutenant on river patrol.
"He was a boots on the ground person," she said. "I'm upset about it."
Several residents applauded.
One woman called for Harper's ousting, while one woman said Harper urged her to get substance abuse treatment 20 years ago. She now counsels youths, trying to lure them away from drugs and gangs — something she encouraged others to do.
Another woman praised Harper for getting out of his patrol car and getting to know residents. She said she is in support of violence interrupters, which the city is paying to go into communities to quell desires for revenge after shootings.
She said others talked about too few community centers or centers closing early, leaving young people with little to do.
One woman criticized council members for allowing that.
Some council members have publicly questioned Police Chief Steve Conrad's leadership as homicides continue to increase.
Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton told the dozens of residents gathered Monday night that she is making a Top 10 list of reasons to replace Conrad as chief.
"I don't believe the chief is listening to advice, listening to his officers, listening to the community, listening to us, the elected officials," she said.
Stephany Walton, whose grandson was killed, said she believes Conrad is doing the best with what he has to work with — drawing applause.
Walton was also critical of Bevin's walking prayer plans.
"I want to tell the governor read black history, baby, because we've been prayer walking every day," she said.
Another woman said she doesn't think the people who are shooting others are concerned about who is chief. She said she's concerned that kids are having kids. And she wants an emphasis on parenting skills and parent accountability. Several residents clapped in response.
Luther Brown took a resonating preacher's tone urging everyone to lock up guns and teach kids gun safety. He is the founder of the program, "Little Hands-Little Feet," which stresses gun safety to kids.
One man said gunmen need to be punished, for instance, if a 12-year-old shoots someone, they should be locked up. Several booed, a few clapped.
One man said there should be stiffer punishments for those who supply guns.
Resident Rhonda Mathies urged people to report crimes they know.
"If there was a T-shirt, I would wear it," she said, with others laughing and agreeing. "I'm a snitch."
Council woman Angela Leet, whose district includes St. Matthews, said she came to Monday's meeting to listen. She pointed out that two homicides over the weekend were in her district and violence is a countywide issue.
One resident, who said she is a 25-year-old artist, talked about instances of officers being disrespectful and racially profiling her.
Breon Leonard, 16, said he survived being shot but a Hispanic officer who told him he was going to investigate never followed up.
Resident Pamela Johnson, who has two relatives who have been officers, said officers treat residents in the West End differently than other areas of the city. She also complained about how the police department halted its gang unit, only recently reviving it. That happened years ago under a different chief, but Conrad only recently dedicated a task force to tackle gangs and drugs, teaming with other agencies.
Several of the elected officials have criticized Conrad's September reorganization, which disbanded the Flex Unit officers who had patrolled each of the city's eight geographic divisions. Conrad defended his actions, saying he needed to shift officers to add more investigators to the Narcotics Division. Louisville is in the midst of a heroin and opioid crisis that is now killing more victims annually than homicides and car crashes combined. Feuds over drugs also has led to several of the city's homicides.
James, head of the council's public safety committee, said he expects the council to take a no-confidence vote on the chief in June or July. The vote wouldn't be actionable but it would send a public message. Mayor Greg Fischer, who appoints the chief, has steadily defended Conrad and has challenged residents to help curtail crime.
One woman said she loves Conrad and would marry him if she wasn't married, drawing some laughs. She said it's not where you live, it's how you live.
Cheryl Belser, who didn't have the microphone, stood up and shouted that residents aren't the problem. She said police are to blame for drugs in poor neighborhoods. While walking out, she also yelled that elected officials are the problem too.
JusAustin Lane, who said he was a criminal for more than 22 years said people need to do their part to protect themselves. He said too many turn off their property lights early, which left him plenty of shadows for him to slip in and break into homes.
Tyler Trabue, 18, said there's too much talking and not enough doing. She lives in the West End and said she's concerned about youth depression. She urged the room of mostly adults to listen to teens more.
A few residents called for more black council members and police officers. One man said more officers need to live in the West End.
Councilwoman Jessica Green, whose district includes Parkland, said more residents need to teach their children that police work is "an honorable profession" and that more black residents need to sign up for the police force.
In a statement released later Monday night, Fischer said he supported those who attended the meeting.
"As many people stated, crime is a multifaceted problem that needs many solutions -- mentors, community programs to engage youth, summer jobs for teens, reentry programs and further investment in smart policing," the mayor's statement read in part. "I also appreciate the common-sense conclusions from citizens who said there is no one or two simple solutions."