Wilmington, Del., Struggles With Outsized Murder Rate

The city of Wilmington, Del., is not large, about 71,000 residents. But its escalating gun violence problem compares to that of many larger cities. The effects on the community, in particular its youngest residents has city officials calling it a pandemic and they are seeking federal help.

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The city of Wilmington, Delaware has a problem: gun violence. It has just 71,000 residents but if its homicide rate were compared to larger cities, it would rank fourth behind Flint, Michigan, Detroit and New Orleans. This month, the Wilmington City Council passed a resolution asking for federal help. It wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of what it calls a pandemic of gun violence. Sponsors are hoping it will lead to resources for community agencies that can help bring peace to their streets.

NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: City Councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz is worried about her city.

HANIFA SHABAZZ: At this corner here, Tenth and Pine, we had a shooting and a death

KEYES: It happened on a street lined with brown row houses - some boarded up - right across the intersection from a brightly colored mural of historical Wilmington residents.

SHABAZZ: The horrific part about it is they took pictures of it and put the pictures out on Facebook.

KEYES: Shabazz's resolution passed unanimously. It says Wilmington is experiencing a pandemic of gun violence and homicides among young African-American males, and that deserves national attention. It asks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine and mitigate the effects it has on our children and youth.

SHABAZZ: I'm hoping that it would validate what we already know of the social ills and mental diseases that our community is suffering from and the trauma that they've been exposed to is causing them to make the wrong decisions that result in gun violence.

KEYES: A 2009 CDC report found that the leading cause of death for black males in America, between the ages of 15 and 30, is homicide and Wilmington's police department says over 90 percent of the victims of shootings and homicides this year have been young black males. Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams says he respects the council's request for a CDC study because he's also frustrated.

MAYOR DENNIS WILLIAMS: If you want to stop this bloodshed, let's go out into the community and do work.

KEYES: Williams is planning to put what he calls street ambassadors out into the neighborhoods. Some have been incarcerated, but Williams says they know the streets and the rules in troubled communities and they'll be able to help.

WILLIAMS: People who have street credibility can stem the tide of this violence by reaching out to these folks prior to them going out shooting somebody. These are people that can confront these folks and talk to them and they ask them, you know, look, can you settle this a different way?

KEYES: Williams says the problem is exacerbated by the proliferation of firearms as well as a loss of morality, Christian values and stability in the home. But he also thinks some of the blame lies with the police department and its chief, Christine Dunning. He's threatening a shakeup of top police brass he appointed just 11 months ago.

WILLIAMS: There will be new people put in place if things don't change. And when I say things don't change, police officers will get out of the car, they will patrol neighborhoods. They won't stay in fixed posts.

CORPORAL MARK IVEY: He's talking about the police department as he'd like to see it and he's reminding us that that's what he wants. And in a lot of cases, we are doing that.

KEYES: Corporal Mark Ivey is spokesman for the Wilmington police department and acknowledges that the top officials there serve at the pleasure of the mayor. But, he says, police are focusing on reducing violence and strengthening the city's neighborhoods. Ivey thinks there's what he calls a numbness among young people to gun violence.

IVEY: People obviously feel comfortable shooting guns at other people in public and they don't seem to worry that they're going to be caught.

KEYES: Ivey says part of the solution is getting the community to trust each other and create an environment where drug dealing and guns aren't acceptable.

NORWOOD COLEMAN: It seems very clear that we need some guidance here.

KEYES: That's Norwood Coleman. He's clinical supervisor for Wilmington's child development community policing program. It provides short term counseling for children who've been exposed to traumatic events. He says since 2007, the program has seen its referrals quadruple. Coleman says perhaps the CDC can help.

COLEMAN: We need outside eyes to be able to help us look at the situation differently and also to help us to plan how we can utilize the resources that we have here.

KEYES: Coleman says the violence confronting the city and its young people doesn't have just one victim. He points to a shooting that happened recently behind a family home.

COLEMAN: There were many other more families that expressed that their children were scared, that the parents were no longer willing to let their children go outside and play.

KEYES: City officials say they are looking for any answers to help bring down the gun violence. The council says it expects the letter to go from the state of Delaware to the CDC without delay. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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