Day care worker Angie Davis rocked on a swing on a sunny morning this week while looking after five young children at a sprawling playground at Sixth and Pine streets on Wilmington’s East Side.
While the children frolicked and laughed and sang, Davis was incredulous that three boys and two girls, ages 10 to 15, had been shot Saturday night at the basketball court nearby.
“Terrible, terrible,’’ Davis said. “Like kids. Kids! I still don’t believe it. I don’t know if they was mad, jealous, just playing, ‘Oh I got a gun, look what I got.’”
The carnage punctuated what has been a bloody month and year in Wilmington, reversing a significant two-year downward trend in gun violence in Delaware’s largest city.
During the first 13 days of July, a total of 16 people were shot. Three were killed. With 2020 half-over, 84 people have been shot — 21 fewer than during all of last year and more than in 2018.
Mayor Mike Purzycki and Police Chief Robert Tracy have been credited with using community policing and data-driven crime-fighting strategies to reduce bloodshed in the city after a record 194 shootings in 2017, Purzycki’s first year in office.
Tracy told WHYY in 2018 that his department forged stronger ties in neighborhoods by keeping officers in one of three defined sectors. His leadership team holds weekly meetings with state and federal agencies to define hot spots and try to intervene before one shooting triggers several retaliatory shootings. And last year police started a program used in other cities where officials reach out to people at high risk for committing violence and try to work with them to change behavior.
He and Purzycki had cautioned that surges could come, and this week the mayor told WHYY that there are still too many boys and young men who are armed and willing to pull the trigger.
Purzycki pledged that police will redouble their efforts to bring peace to the streets, and said that residents and the justice system need to do the same. The mayor did not reveal what specific steps the city would be taking.
“We have young gangs of kids who are behaving in a way that is just grossly unacceptable. It’s not acceptable and we’ve got to start being more responsive to it,” he said. “We still have a frightening number of guns. I think of 128 guns we’ve taken off the street in Wilmington this year, 42% of them [from] people with prior gun offenses.”
The mayor said he’s concerned that “people are getting inured to this. They are starting to normalize this kind of behavior.”
Police have not released details about Saturday’s 10:30 p.m. shooting, except for the ages of the children who were shot. Purzycki said police suspect that two of the young people were targeted, and that “three of them were kids who just happened to be in the area” and caught in the crossfire. He said shell casings found at the scene indicated that there were at least three shooters.
Last week, a 19-year-old woman was shot to death two blocks from the park. The corner where Nakysha Richardson was gunned down has a shrine of balloons, candles, and written remembrances of her.
Shaheed Collins, who lives near Pine Street, said that violence in the neighborhood is alarming, and that he keeps his children inside.
He doesn’t know the kids who were shot and called the rising gun violence “senseless.”
“I don’t know, but I know it needs to stop,” he said. Collins added that he’s sick of neighbors shooting one another in Wilmington.
A 55-year-old man, who would not give his name, said police need to be more vigilant in the evenings, when most of the violence occurs.
“They show up right now, during the day; when dusk comes, they disappear somewhere and congregate in a lot somewhere,’’ he said.
Pastor Margaret Guy, who runs the nonprofit Stop the Violence Prayer Chain Foundation, organized a vigil at the Pine Street courts on Sunday.
She questioned why the children’s parents or caregivers allowed them to be “running around at that time of night. I believe in old-school parenting, where you know where your child is at night.”
Guy acknowledged that it’s hard for children and families because the coronavirus pandemic has led community centers to close because of lack of funding or staff.
“We, as adults in the city of Wilmington, need to stand up and go out and talk to them and let them know they are cared for,’’ she said. “Let them know they are loved.”
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