Troubled Flint, Michigan explores innovative ways to reduce what some call 'contagious' violence.
On a rainy night last April, four teenagers ordered two strombolis and one pizza from a local Little Caesar's in Flint, Michigan.
But according to prosecutors, the teenagers intended to rob the deliveryman, 33-year-old Michael Nettles.
Nettles died that night, after being shot multiple times in the back.
This sort of senseless killing has earned the small, economically troubled Michigan city notoriety as —in the words of the president of the police union—a “killing field.”
The city ended 2010 with 66 homicides, surpassing its all-time high of 61 homicides in 1986. The rate nearly doubled from 2009. Six of those homicides were allegedly committed by Elias Abuelazam, a serial stabber, who terrorized Flint through the first half of the year.
Flint, with a population of just over 100,000, is not the only U.S. city with a homicide problem. But the sheer number of deaths has left Flint struggling to address the epidemic in the face of dwindling resources. Local leaders, residents and law enforcement are now hoping that community-based programs will make a difference. Their efforts are part of a growing national effort to find innovative solutions to the problem of viral violence.
The reasons advanced for Flint's troubles are familiar: economic woes, the prevalence of guns, and increasingly violent flare-ups among youth in the city, particularly young black men. But the convergence of all these factors appears to have made things worse.
“We try to say that we don't have a gang problem here, or a drug problem, but I think we have a little bit of both,” says Ira G. Edwards, pastor of Flint's Damascus Holy Life Baptist Church.
The pastor believes much of the violence involving young people arises from petty turf squabbles and the urge to retaliate against perceived insults, rather than organized gang violence.
“It's like, 'You kill my dog, I'm gonna have to kill your cat,” he says.
The Minnesota-based Center for Homicide Research, a group that tracks and studies homicides, calls the tit-for-tat violence “infectious” homicidal behavior.
The Center, which uses a staff of unpaid researchers, tracked homicide patterns based on data extracted from news reports published in the The Flint Journal between January and mid-November 2010. Their subsequent report , describing Flint's homicides as showing evidence of “contagion,” attracted wide attention.
Since the researchers did not correlate their findings with police or court data on the motives or circumstances of the killings, the conclusion may be speculative. Nevertheless, Dallas Drake, a sociologist who is the primary author of the study, told The Crime Report that the patterns unearthed by researchers suggested that homicidal behavior in Flint occurred in clusters.
“There are at least three, possibly four, clusters of homicides,” says Drake. “I don't think we've ever noticed that before in other cities. Maybe it's just time for it to be discovered.”
Pastor Edwards, who is also a member of Flint Area Congregations Together, a community group, says the cluster concept mirrors what he sees first-hand.
“One person goes and gets shot, and then there's a retaliation,” Edwards says. “And then they calm down.
A snapshot of homicides from the first half of 2010 show victims in Flint were largely young, black and male. Most were killed by gunfire, and many were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We don't know the motives for sure,” Daniel Kruger, a professor at the Prevention Research Center at the University of Michigan, says of the Flint murder epidemic. “We do know that retaliation in general is a major motive for violence. Violence begets violence.”
But Kruger says violence and vengeance are inevitably tied to rents in Flint's social fabric.
“The economic engine is basically stalled,” Kruger says. “Honestly, any approach that's really going to solve the big picture, I think, really does have to include a serious economic revitalization.”
A Blighted City
Until the late 1970s, Flint was a booming auto town. At its height, General Motors employed 80,000; now, it employs less than 9,000 in the area. As industry left, so did more than 100,000 people. Flint's population shrunk by half, bringing blight, unemployment and an eroding tax base in its wake.
Unemployment in Flint was 11.8 percent in December. The poverty rate is 35.5 percent, high even for cities in Michigan. For black residents, it is above 40 percent. One in every 186 properties in Flint was in foreclosure at the end of last year, according to Realty Trac. Thousands of homes stand empty. Many have burned. The state of Michigan is currently weighing whether to grant Flint $20 million in bonds to cover the city's budget deficit. Otherwise, Flint may face a state takeover.
Shrinking budgets in both the city and state have compounded these problems, forcing cities to make bruising cuts to both policing and social services.
The murders in Flint have strained already tense budget negotiations in the city. Last March, Flint laid off 46 police officers, 23 firefighters and closed two fire stations, after Mayor Dayne Walling failed to negotiate a new contract with the city's public safety unions.
The following May, violence exploded in Flint, with nine homicides and over 100 reported assaults in 30 days, prompting some city and state officials to call for assistance from the National Guard.
Ideas abound about how to fix Flint. The report from the Center for Homicide Research recommends the city invest in technology like surveillance cameras and license plate scanners, which could assist the overstretched police force in gathering evidence and targeting high-risk areas.
Drake also suggested the city find additional ways to attract federal resources. Flint has considered implementing Project Exile an approach to curbing gun violence that began in Richmond, Virginia in 1997. States throughout the country have followed Virginia's lead, prosecuting those caught with illegal guns under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which imposes five-year mandatory minimum sentences on those convicted.
Locals have called for the city to re-open its jail. Flint now uses the overcrowded county jail, which often cannot accommodate the number of those arrested. They have also started to participate in several innovative community policing projects.
One is called FLINT Ceasefire, a community-based crime intervention program, based on a model already operating in some 80 cities under the National Network for Safe Communities. The model, developed by Prof. David Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has been lauded for its success in reducing drug- and gang-related violence in urban neighborhoods. Under the model, gang leaders or others who have been identified as the primary sources of criminal activity are “invited” by police to a no-holds-barred session with community leaders. They are given a stark choice: cease their criminal activities and enter job training and counseling programs, or face certain prosecution.
The Flint program in particular is modeled after Operation Ceasefire, which was implemented by Prof. Kennedy and local police in High Point, North Carolina, a city nearly the same size as Flint and beset with similar problems. Since Operation Ceasefire began in 2003 the decline in violence has been dramatic.
With the help of federal grants, the FBI, and law enforcement experts from across the country, Flint hopes to see the same results with its own version of Operation Ceasefire. At the same time, the University of Michigan has teamed up with community groups and city schools to develop programs aimed at preventing a younger generation from falling into destructive patterns of violence.
Prof. Peter Hutchinson, for instance, of the University of Michigan's School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, directs a violence prevention initiative with seventh graders that started at one middle school in Flint, and is spreading through the county.
The prospects for Flint may also be improved by the city's slow, but marked, economic recovery. Downtown Flint has begun to experience a revitalization. A new condo complex downtown is filling up fast. The city has begun razing abandoned houses, and community groups are planting public gardens. The city recently got its first full supermarket.
Even though auto jobs are gone, education may become the key to Flint's future economic growth. Civic leaders say the city is developing into a college town, much like Ann Arbor. Just as a number of factors converged to push Flint into a cycle of violence, it will inevitably require many forces working together to pull the city back. But these days, the anger and frustration of city residents is actually an encouraging sign.
“The people here, if they sound angry and upset, I think that that's because things aren't improving fast enough for them,” says Hutchinson, who has lived in the city since 1973.
“They see the potential here,” he added. “We just have to find our way.”
Lisa Riordan Seville and Hannah Rappleye are freelance reporters living in Brooklyn, NY.