‘Different temperature’ on Wilmington streets: Gun homicides down sharply after 2021’s record carnage

Last year Wilmington reeled from a wave of what the mayor called street

Last year Wilmington reeled from a wave of what the mayor called street "assassinations" like the killing of Zion Davis-Shelton off North Market Street. A shrine marks the spot where he was gunned down. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The streets of Wilmington were beset by bloodshed last year, with a record 39 people killed by bullets. The carnage led the mayor to decry the street “assassinations” in a handful of neighborhoods that ring the downtown area.

This year, however, while gun fatalities in much larger neighbors Philadelphia and Baltimore are on pace to near or surpass previous records, the opposite has been true in Delaware’s largest city.

Through the first seven months of 2022, Wilmington has had eight gun homicides — on pace for 14 gun deaths. That would be the lowest number since at least 2010, city records show.

Wilmington’s per capita rate for gun fatalities was the highest of three cities last year, but this year it’s the lowest, according to a WHYY News analysis of government statistics and 2020 census data.

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For example, last year Philadelphia had 497 gun homicides — one for every 3,227 residents. By contrast, the 39 killings in Wilmington, represented one of every 1,812 residents, WHYY found.

This year, however, Philadelphia has had 283 gun homicides through the first seven months — one in every 5,667 residents. Wilmington’s eight homicides represent one in every 8,832 residents.

Philadelphia had 1,603,797 residents in 2020, according to the census. That’s nearly 23 times more people than Wilmington, which had 70,655 residents.

Shootings overall are also down in Wilmington. Through Sunday, the last day of July, there have been a total of 67 gunfire victims in the city. That pace is also well below last year, when 152 people were shot.

‘We’re making those arrests and they’re not getting out as quickly’

Police Chief Robert Tracy said that while he is painfully aware that every shooting is a traumatic event and a threat to neighborhoods, he’s gratified that the number of people killed and wounded is on the decline so far this year.

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Wilmington chief Robert Tracy (left) with Mayor Mike Purzycki, is guardedly optimistic that the current lull will last. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Wilmington has been plagued by shootings for more than a quarter century, and in 2014 a Newsweek headline dubbed the city “Murder Town USA.” 

A 2019 WHYY News documentary, “Rebound from Murder Town,” highlighted how the situation had improved dramatically by 2018 — Tracy’s second year in the post — but matters worsened steadily through last year.

While Tracy knows it’s too early to declare victory, he’s optimistic for a number of reasons as the coronavirus pandemic ebbs. Among them, he says:

  • Police are again able to attend community meetings in-person rather than over Zoom, which can help them to better re-establish or build trust with the residents of blocks where violence has been rampant.
  • A new law that makes it tougher for people arrested on gun crimes to post bail was passed in 2021.
  • The arrests of more than three dozen members of two gangs, NorthPak and MGS (M-Block Grimey Savages), on gun and other charges. Several were charged with murders and other shoootings.
  • The resumption of the Group Violence Intervention program, which began with great fanfare in 2019 but languished once the pandemic began. The program offers drug dealers and gang members job training and social services as an alternative to intensive investigation and arrest.
  • A gun crime task force that includes the chief, mayor, attorney general, and U.S. attorney. Members focus on every firearm arrest and follow the defendant through the criminal justice system.
  • Data-driven policing that aims to prevent retaliatory shootings by visiting the victims’ families and associates.

“We’re getting in front of things,’’ Tracy said.

Chief Tracy echoed Mayor Mike Mike Purzycki’s remark that street “assassinations’’ were rampant in 2021. “Everything was a little more personal out there” last year, Tracy said, in contrast with people shooting at a crowd on a corner or wounding someone in the legs or buttocks to send a message.

That led to several point-blank shootings, some of which were captured on street surveillance cameras. “They were actually looking to really do damage to each other,’’ Tracy said. “When you get that close, you end up with a heck of a lot more homicides.”

Tracy said imposing tougher bail restrictions for gun offenses is a blessing for public safety, because fewer of those arrested are now able to post bond. He said last year, one man “was arrested with a gun, released, and arrested again, within two weeks by my officers. That was giving an emboldenment that there were no consequences for carrying a firearm.”

Tracy said that through July 25, the city has already made 188 gun arrests. That’s a pace that would shatter the previous high of 309 in 2020.

“Now we’re making those arrests and they’re not getting out as quickly,’’ Tracy said. “It helps the community, and it makes sure that we can keep some of these dangerous individuals from being released back onto the street to pick up a gun and cause harm.”

‘I don’t see the same tensions’ in hard-hit neighborhoods

Community leaders and residents remain wary that the tenuous peace won’t last. But they acknowledge the atmosphere in neighborhoods such as the East Side and Northeast is at least a little calmer than in recent years.

“You can tell that there’s a different temperature out in the environment when you’re out, you know, walking the streets or driving the streets,’’ said Bishop Billy J. Lane Jr. of Christian Growth Ministries on the East Side. “I don’t see the same tensions as high as they once were. To be very honest, there were times that we would avoid going in certain areas, and we are steeped in the community and we do a lot of community services.”

Bishop Billy J. Lane Jr. says tensions aren’t as high on the street on the East Side and other areas of Wilmington where he ministers. (Courtesy of Bishop Lane)

On the East Side, a neighborhood of row homes where Lane ministers, gun violence has fallen this year. For example, last year through July, 16 people had been shot and three died. This year, there have been eight people shot, one fatally.

Lane suspects lawbreakers are getting the message and “knowing that it’s not going to be tolerated the way it has been in times past, and they just get a slap on the wrist and get away with things.”

Lane added that residents are tired of violence and have begun to cooperate with police to protect their neighborhoods.

“People have been affected by it either personally or they know somebody that has been,” Lane said. “And so now they’re just speaking up and speaking out. Enough is enough.”

In the Market Street area north of downtown, shootings have also dropped. Last year through July, seven people had been fatally shot in the general vicinity, but this year no one has been killed. Shootings are also down slightly, from 28 to 25.

Pastor Sandra Ben of Proving Ground Community Church off Market Street holds regular marches to protest violence and promote peace. She agreed with Lane’s assessment .

“When I have my civic association meetings, I’m glad to hear that we don’t have a whole lot of activity going on in an area that usually would be the hotspot. It makes people feel safer,’’ Ben said.

She said the community is working together to prevent violence.

“I think if we all keep doing what we’ve been doing and even make it more so, I think it will hold,” Ben said “I know the police are being more visible. And that makes a big difference.”

Out on the East Side this week, residents, visitors, and workers said they are happy to hear violence has abated somewhat, but remain concerned that it’s only a temporary lull, because too many people are armed.

“They need to put the guns down,’’ resident Toni Jackson said.

Darius Howell is heartened that there’s been less gunfire in an area where large-scale home construction and renovations are in the works under a new initiative using $30 million in federal pandemic relief funds.

“That’s great because now we can get the kids in the community doing something positive and staying away from the drugs and killing their own folks,’’ Howell said.

Darius Howell, who lives on the East Side, stands in front a row of new homes in the neighborhood. Howell says it’s “great” that gun fatalities are down but said more must be done to keep kids from carrying guns and using them. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Keith Brown, who has been doing construction work on Kirkwood Street, agrees.

“That’s a blessing,’’ he said. “We’ve just got to do something with these guns. Until they get a handle on the guns, everybody’s got to cross their fingers.

“Anything can happen to anybody. A bullet doesn’t have anybody’s name on it. Just us standing here, anything can break out.”

Keith Brown says it’s a blessing that homicides are down, but stresses that “until they get a handle on the guns, everybody’s got to cross their fingers.”(Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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