Violence, Interrupted

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An argument between two neighbors over broken glass and garbage carts ends when a third man gets involved and fatally shoots one of the neighbors.

A 25-year-old man gets into a dispute at a bar with another man, who leaves in his truck. The truck gets stuck in the snow. The man sees the driver stranded and starts shooting, killing a third man who had stopped to help.

An online squabble about a girl escalates to in-person fighting among groups of teens watching the lakefront fireworks. One teen pulls a gun and a 14-year-old boy who had nothing to do with the original online dispute is shot in the head.

All of those situations played out in Milwaukee last year, when more than one-third — 35 percent — of the city’s homicide victims were killed during an argument, dispute, fight or retaliation.

Soon after the 14-year-old boy was shot and killed,  Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn addressed the larger spike in homicides and expressed frustration at how sadly predictable violence can be.

“We can do a network analysis,” he said. “We can give you the names of 10 people who in the next 18 months, at least six of them will get shot.

“The challenge is there is no one to parse any of this information off to.”

Several years ago, law enforcement officials and university researchers in Rochester, N.Y., realized they had the same problem: petty disputes leading to deadly violence.

So they set about reorganizing police work around the concept of disputes, attempting to link each one across the city.

Now, front-line officers and sergeants identify arguments and disputes on the streets and send the information to the crime analysis center. Analysts do deeper assessments — What is the background of those involved and their family and friends? Who has a history of violence? — to determine which arguments are likely to continue and escalate.

Each week, representatives from police, prosecutors, probation, parole and city and nonprofit agencies gather to customize a response to try to interrupt the dispute.

It’s too early to know if the strategy is working — it started less than a year ago — but it shows enough promise that the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission has recommended it as a possible tool to the Milwaukee Police Department and city officials.

In Rochester, a veteran police official feels certain it is moving the department in the right direction.

“The reason I’m confident is that from 30 years in law enforcement, I know that chasing the suspects after-the-fact is not affecting the outcome,” said Rochester Police Cmdr. Joseph Morabito.

High-Risk Disputes

Rochester has about one-third the population of Milwaukee, but the cities share some key characteristics.

In each city, roughly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty level; about 35 percent to 40 percent of the population is white; and about a quarter of the population is made up of people under 18. The cities also had comparable unemployment rates of around 6 percent as of December.

Last year, both cities saw increases in homicides and shooting victims compared to the prior year. Rochester experienced a smaller year-to-year increase in homicides than Milwaukee, which saw a 69 percent spike, with 145 victims total. But Rochester had a larger year-to-year spike in shooting victims last year — 20 percent — compared to Milwaukee, which had a 9 percent increase.

The dispute project came out of a collaboration with the Rochester Institute of Technology, where Prof. John Klofas has researched and analyzed policing strategies for 25 years, and received $200,000 in federal grants to create and implement the new program.

Klofas, who was consulted when Milwaukee created its Homicide Review Commission, had led reviews into shootings and homicides in Rochester, finding that nearly half of the homicides there were related to some sort of dispute.

During those reviews, Klofas said, one case crystallized the importance of focusing on disputes. A man thought an 18-year-old stole his grandmother’s car. The two argued and the man shot the 18-year-old. The 18-year-old survived and agreed to testify. At the trial, one day when court recessed for lunch, the 18-year-old didn’t return and the case was dismissed.

For the next month and a half, the man threatened the 18-year-old, saying he was going to kill him. The young man’s mother told him to stay inside, and he did for a while, Klofas said.

But eventually, he left the house. He was beaten, shot in the head and killed.

“Everybody knew this whole thing was moving along and in that case the legal system knew about the dispute, and noone tried to do anything,” Klofas said. “The mother knew the whole story and didn’t seem to have any resources to prevent what was a pretty predictable outcome.”

The other man involved in the dispute was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

He was the third of his siblings to go to prison for murder and had used a gun his older brother had left for him, Klofas said.

The case illuminated which disputes to prioritize — those in which one or both people involved have long histories of violence and their close relatives have similar histories. Those, Klofas argues, are the truly high-risk disputes.

At a basic level, almost every call a police officer responds to is a dispute. Someone took something without permission. Someone punched another person. Someone crashed into someone else’s car.

On a Wednesday evening in November, Rochester Police Officer Thomas VanAcker was dispatched to an argument between neighbors. A woman had found a jar of peanut butter and soiled diapers strewn in her yard. The woman’s father threw the peanut butter back to the neighbor’s house, where they assumed it had come from because of prior interactions.

VanAcker talked to both women. No, there hadn’t been threats of violence. No, there were not weapons involved. One of the women was set to move in the coming weeks. It was a minor dispute, one VanAcker judged would not continue with escalating violence.

“Call me if you keep having a problem,” he said to both.

In shooting cases, officers must complete a “Level 1” risk assessment.

In a November case, a 20-year-old man showed up to the hospital with a gunshot graze wound. He told police he intervened in a fight between a 21-year-old man and the man’s uncle. He said an unidentified third man also shot at him.

The assessment includes when and where the incident took place, a summary of the incident, who is involved (even those who haven’t been identified yet), a level of violence risk (for this shooting, it was immediate) and why the officer or sergeant believes further violence is possible.

The assessment details what actions were taken immediately: An investigator was assigned and officers were looking for the known shooters.

The crime analysis center took that information to develop a “Level 2” assessment, which has a checklist of 26 risk factors, such as if a person has a reputation for being “out of control” or is a known gang member or was recently released from prison. If the number of risk factors reaches 15 or more, it’s highly likely another violent episode will occur.

Analyst Danielle DiGaspari searched through all known contacts and associates with both the victim and suspects. In the process, she identified the likely second shooter. The tally of risk factors came to 11.

She wrote a “dispute bulletin” for distribution among the department with the incident details, including photos, names and aliases for the involved parties so officers could be on the lookout.

….Rochester police are trying to find new tools for dispute settlement  that don’t involve law enforcement.

“That’s our moving target,” said Joseph Morabito, a commander with the Rochester force. “How do we get the mind-set away from just the arrest piece, because we all are pretty good at that.”

At weekly meetings, representatives from partner law enforcement, city and nonprofit agencies brainstorm how to stop an ongoing dispute.

Last fall, Rochester officers hand-delivered letters to families of a handful of people linked to a homicide and retaliatory shootings along Portland Ave., a main thoroughfare on the northeast side of the city.

The letters and conversations cautioned parents that their “child is going to be in jail or dead,” Morabito said.

“We don’t know exactly how effective we were,” he said. “We do know it stopped for a couple of months after that.”

One woman who received a letter at home told the Journal Sentinel she appreciated hearing from officers.

“It was surprising,” said the woman, who asked her name not be used out of concern for her safety.

“I didn’t know how many times he had been shot at,” she said of her son. “I would like to know, but he’s out in the streets so much I don’t know what’s going on.”

The department also organized a session with job and treatment resources for the families, but only two parents showed up an hour after the session started — underlining the challenges and limits of what police and others can do.

‘Pathways to Peace’

Observers say Rochester’s [relatively small size offers] some advantages. Police and city officials know the landscape of service providers and can refer some minor disputes, like those involving neighbors, to nonprofits such as the Center for Dispute Settlement.

For some disputes involving people known to use violence, the police can turn to Pathways to Peace, a city-run program that uses street outreach workers to try to intervene in disputes and connect people to mentors and other resources. The workers respond to shootings — usually after calls from hospital staff or directly from the victim’s family and friends. They also attend vigils and funerals.

“They go out there and try to get in front of the situation by talking to the victim, if they’re able to talk, or they talk to the parent or friends,” said Ray Mayoliz, the city’s manager of youth outreach and violence prevention.

Pathways to Peace also offers relocation services, thanks to a trust fund from a private donor, but is selective about who gets those services because of limited resources. The program was paying for a U-Haul truck for one local man to move in November after the man and his family witnessed a murder.

“They’ve been harassed and targeted,” Mayoliz said. “They’ve been shot at, their kids have been shot at, so we’re trying to get out in front of that and get them out of the state.”

…The fact that Rochester got the program off the ground is notable, said Eric L. Piza, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“This is a lot harder than something like hot-spot policing, which requires police to identify high-crime areas and dedicate officers there,” Piza said. “That’s pretty easy for a police department to do. This in comparison is a lot more complex.”

It also is “not routine” police work, said criminologist David M. Kennedy, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who rose to prominence as the architect of Operation Ceasefire.

“It’s a really good idea and, in fact, there is known to be a lot that both law enforcement and other agencies can do about those disputes,” he said. “There’s good reason to think it will work.”

Ashley Luthern is a staff writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a 2015 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network Violence Reporting Fellow,. This is an abridged version of a story published Feb. 13 in the Journal Sentinel, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network. The full version is available HERE. Ashley welcomes comments from readers. She can be reached also at  twitter.com/aluthern 

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