November 2021

For second consecutive year, Columbus sets new record for homicides

Courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch
By Bethany Bruner
November 22, 2021

When Rachelle Knight got a knock on her door around 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 4, she saw two Columbus police officers and two detectives outside.

Knight already knew what they were going to tell her but she hoped she was wrong until the moment the words left their mouths: Her 19-year-old son, Dontreal Calhoun, the fifth of her eight children, had been fatally shot several hours earlier around 7:15 p.m. Jan. 3 in an alley on the the 3000 block of Alzeda Street.

“It’s still breaking my heart,” Knight said. “I still see that every day and every night, that moment. I still see it.”

The moment Knight remembers is a scene that has been replayed for families across the city in record numbers for the second consecutive year.

On Monday, Eric Washington Jr., 23, of the Southeast Side, was critically wounded after being shot on the 3500 block of Fremont Street around 3:50 p.m. Washington was rushed to OhioHealth Doctors Hospital, however, he succumbed to his injuries at 4:55 p.m. Monday.

That is the 176th reported homicide in Columbus this year, surpassing the calendar-year record of 175 homicides for 2020 that had been reported the previous 11 months of this year by Columbus police. That now makes 2021 the deadliest year in the city’s history.

Six hours after Washington was shot, around 9:30 p.m. Monday, 34-year-old Derrick Samuels Jr., of Milo-Grogan, was fatally shot on the 4300 block of Malin Drive, on the city’s Northeast Side.

In 2017, the city recorded the most homicides in a year with 143, surpassing 1991’s 139 homicides, which were reported at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic that saw national homicide rates at all-time highs.

Only three years later, the city passed that grim milestone in November 2020 and finished last year with a total 175 homicides.

Columbus police announced last week that the total number of homicides for 2020 had been revised to 177 after two deaths last year were reclassified as homicides. But because police reported there were 175 homicides at the end of calendar year 2020, The Dispatch is using that figure because those numbers can later be adjusted months or years later by numerous factors.

There was a lull of two weeks between the city’s last homicide — a brazen, assassination-style shooting of a man Nov. 8 outside the main entrance to a Target store near Easton Town Center — and Monday’s killing, perhaps one of the longest stretches in the city this year. But a Dispatch analysis shows that overall, the pace of violent deaths in the city has steadily increased unabated since summer 2020.

Since June 1, 2020, there have been 307 people who have lost their lives as a result of violence within the city’s limits. The vast majority of those victims have been Black men who were were shot, often by other Black men.

Of the 131 victims who died between June 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020, 83 were Black men, representing 64% of the total. Of those 83 victims, 61 of them, or 73%, were under the age of 30.

Apart from the victims in Monday’s shootings, 66% of the previous homicide victims in 2021, 120 of the 177, were Black men. Fifty-six of them, or 47%, were under the age of 30.

By comparison, there were 21 white men killed between June 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020. Five other men were listed as other ethnicities by police. Of those 26 combined victims, nine were under the age of 30.

The Franklin County Coroner’s office said 2020 homicide statistics across the county, which includes other agencies aside from Columbus police, showed 50% of victims were between the ages of 20 and 34 and 74% of victims were identified as being Black.

A study done by the National Network for Safe Communities at the John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York City found that, in the first nine months of 2020, as many as 46% of homicides were linked to a group of 17 gangs or groups involving about 480 people, many of them young men.

Calhoun’s social media pages indicate he may have had some connection to one of those groups, known as EKT.

Knight knew her son was hanging around with people involved in drug dealing, but he wasn’t involved himself, she said.

“I know he got influenced by money, and me not necessarily being able to provide the things he wanted,” Knight said. “He knew I wasn’t buying $200 Jordans and stuff like that.”

Knight said Calhoun had been enrolled at Early College Academy charter school so he could catch up on credits and earn his high school diploma. She said she did not allow her children to have any sort of firearms in their home, including water guns or toy guns, because she didn’t want that to be a part of their life.

“He was a great, awesome kid. He would make you smile before anything,” Knight said. “He would do anything, and the people that took him away from me was people that we trusted, well, he trusted, because I didn’t really know them like that.”

Rachelle Knight holds up a photo frame with pictures of her son, Dontreal Calhoun, at her home in Columbus, Ohio. Calhoun was shot and killed on Jan. 3, 2021 at the age of 19 and is one of a record-breaking number of homicide victims this year in Columbus.
Knight is now a member of Mothers of Columbus Murdered Children, a group focused on eliminating violence in Columbus. She said she doesn’t want any other mother to have to join the group.

“There’s been so many babies dying,” she said. “My son was the fifth murder of the year on the third day of the year. They’ve got to do more.”

Doing more is something community leaders like local NAACP President Nana Watson and Columbus Urban League president Stephanie Hightower are trying to do, particularly for young Black men.

“You need to teach them while you’re talking to them,” Watson said. “It’s their behavior that needs to be corrected and the only way to correct it is to show them something different and teach them another way.”

Watson said she doesn’t know where the cultural shift took place. While the COVID pandemic can be looked at as a reason for the escalation in violence, she said, it isn’t the only reason it’s occurring.

“It is my race and I don’t know why we have become so violent. I don’t know the answer to that,” Watson said. “It’s the economy, it’s hopelessness. I think they don’t know what else to do and we need to come up with the way to channel those energies somewhere else. Help them become business owners. If they’re out there doing drugs and counting money, they could run a business.”

Hightower agreed, saying more job training for livable wage jobs is needed, particularly in construction and other trades that are booming in the city. She said she has a waiting list of more than 800 people for a program to get construction training with a guaranteed job offer after training, but a lack of funding and availability to get more people involved.

She also said that addressing the mental and behavioral health needs of young Black boys and girls, particularly in non-traditional ways, may help resolve conflicts before they escalate to violence.

“When you have a baby and you need them to take an aspirin, you put it in applesauce and it goes right down,” Hightower said. “We have to create those kinds of programs where they like the applesauce, but we develop this mental and behavioral health component so we can figure out what is wrong with our babies and are then able to come up with impactful solutions for them and their families. The pandemic really has exposed the depths of the behavioral issues that exist in the urban and Black community.”

Hightower said she hoped the funding for organizations, especially those that are Black-led, will be there to help make long-term impacts in the city.

“How do we get more dollars invested so we can bring more kids in? How do we get more job opportunities for them? How do we get an atmosphere for mental and behavioral health issues getting addressed?” she asked. “We got stuff, but it’s not being funded at a level where we can really have impact long-term.”

Columbus police are also trying to do more to try and reach children, particularly those most at risk for becoming part of a cycle of violence, to provide them some hope for a future beyond what they may see on a day-to-day basis.

Chief Elaine Bryant said programs are being developed to reach children as young as fifth grade to try and help mentor them and provide them with guidance as they traverse young adulthood. She said the violent callousness of some teens and, in some cases pre-teens, is concerning.

“Most of them don’t think they’re going to live past 21,” Bryant said at the Columbus Metropolitan Club on Oct. 6. “If they don’t care about their own lives, how can you expect them to care about yours?”

The chief said she hopes programs that can help children through mentorships with officers and other community leaders, as well as programs that help deal with the holistic environment of the child, will help stop the cycle of violence.

“We have to figure out what we can do to turn that around,” Bryant said. “There’s drug addiction, there’s extreme poverty, there’s illiteracy, single mothers working three jobs … because they’re trying to keep food on the table. You can work with a child, you can give them therapy and counseling, but if you’re sending them back into that same toxic environment, what have you really done?”

In November, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, along with Bryant and Public Safety Director Robert Clark, unveiled $660 million in spending for public safety in his 2022 budget. That funding will include money for three police and three fire recruit classes, as well as continued funding for a number of anti-violence and violence prevention programs.

Columbus City Council will now consider the budget and is expected to vote on it in early 2022.

A similar strategy was implemented after the then-homicide record was set in 2017, with the number of homicides in 2018 and 2019 decreasing by 26%. But Ginther said the solution can’t only involve police.

“It’s easier to get a gun than a job in many neighborhoods,” Ginther said. “There aren’t nearly as many fist fights or knife fights — everything involves a gun. There’s not even an exchange. You have folks that the first sign of a beef, a disagreement, whatever, is to pull a gun and shoot. And those are bigger, larger issues than the police can solve for us.”

Ginther said the promising results of a pilot program regarding alternative responses to some 911 calls allows patrol officers and other police resources to be used in a more efficient way, focusing on violent crime to reduce the community impact.

“Behind every homicide statistic is a person whose hopes, dreams and aspirations will never be fully realized,” he said. “We’re less than a community because of that.

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