With four murders in a 48-hour span, Milwaukee reached a grim milestone. The city’s yearly homicide rate hit an all-time high this week with 169 murders in 2020. It’s only November.
Violence over the weekend led Milwaukee to top its previous homicide record of 165 set in 1991, when a crack cocaine epidemic plagued the city and 13 people were killed at the hands of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. A homicide on the city’s South Side on Monday evening pushed the tragic and troublesome total to 169.
In addition to the rising homicide rate, the number of non-fatal shootings in the city has taken a significant jump to 649 as of Monday.
The spike comes after Milwaukee saw four years of declining homicides after hitting 147 murders in 2015. The number of homicides fell to 97 in 2019, the second consecutive year that the rate had dipped below 100.
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“When we look at the common denominator in 2020, the impact of COVID-19 on families and communities cannot be understated,” said Reggie Moore, director of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention.
Gun purchases rose beginning in March in Milwaukee and other cities across the country, driven by fear of pandemonium tied to the pandemic, he said. The police have seized over 2,600 firearms so far this year, according to the Journal Sentinel, an increase of 23% over last year in October.
“Now you have an over-accessibility of firearms and many people may be ill-informed in terms of training and storing those firearms safely,” Moore said. “Eventually, those firearms may end up being sold or on the street. So, the consequences we are seeing may only be at the tip of the iceberg of the impact that this pandemic is having on our community.”
The pandemic has also placed increased stress on families facing food scarcity, housing difficulties and unemployment, he added.
“We know that stress can also be a negative risk factor when it comes to family violence or domestic violence,” Moore said. “You have this perfect storm of an increase in firearms in homes and increased stress within families and then you also have the volatility of things that may have ended in argument or disagreement that now, if a firearm is accessible, can turn deadly.”
Domestic violence hotlines have seen an increase in first-time callers, likely as a result of the pandemic, he said. In April, domestic violence reports were up 28% in Milwaukee. Overdoses and suicides, which Moore refers to as “deaths by desire,” are on the rise as well.
Milwaukee County also broke its all-time homicide record with 188 homicides as of Monday, topping the 174 killings countywide in 1993. According to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, the county is on pace to exceed more than 200 homicides before Jan. 1.
Milwaukee isn’t alone in seeing a dramatic increase in homicide rates this year. St. Louis has reported a 25-year high with 220 killings so far this year, and Chicago has seen 655, a 52% increase from the first 10 months of 2019. These increased rates are replicated in many more cities across the country.
The 414LIFE program, which engages violence interrupters who are trained to keep the peace, and the Milwaukee Blueprint for Peace, a community-driven and comprehensive agenda for addressing the complex factors that fuel violence in the city, had both found success in reducing the homicide rate in Milwaukee until this year.
“We’ve been working that blueprint over the last three years,” Moore said. “We saw a steady decline in homicides and non-fatal shootings and for two straight years we had below 100 homicides. There was significant progress in that regard in terms of the direction that we were heading.”
The 414LIFE program has interrupted more than 140 high-risk conflicts that could have resulted in violence since that program started in 2019, according to Moore.
Although homicides and non-fatal shootings remain largely concentrated in neighborhoods that have seen high numbers in the past, Moore also points out that violence is rising throughout Milwaukee.
“You are seeing dots all over the map,” he said.
Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission director Constance Kostelac said there are efforts going on all across the country in trying to understand the factors that are driving the increase in violence.
“It’s likely a combination of issues that are happening at the same time, but I do think there’s at least a connection to the pandemic,” Kostelac said. “I don’t know that we can say that it is a fully causal relationship but between the added stress and anxiety and the changes in activity level and the impact on employment and all the different pieces with the pandemic, that’s certainly an influential part of what is happening.”
The Commission, which operates under the fiscal oversight of the Medical College of Wisconsin, uses data from the Milwaukee Police Department to track fatal and non-fatal shootings. It recently began providing an online “dashboard” that provides up-to-date information.
Among the areas of focus for the commission are curbing domestic violence and intimate partner violence.
“We are talking about how we can work with the social networks around abusers to influence their readiness to change as well as just helping those individuals get the services that they need,” Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission program manager Michael Totoraitis said.
Another area of concentration centers on ensuring that victims and witnesses stay in touch with the court system as cases are processed.
“Back in August, two young men were charged with felony murder, but the cases got dismissed because the witnesses didn’t show,” Totoraitis said. “A lot of folks don’t have consistent phone numbers or are constantly moving so if they are getting mail sent to them or are receiving a phone call about a court case, a lot of time those addresses and phone numbers change very regularly, unfortunately.”
A small pilot project will provide people with pay-as-you go mobile phones so that minutes can be added over time and allow victims and witnesses to remain in contact with advocates at the District Attorney’s office.
The commission wants to develop a multi-layered approach to reducing violence.
“Unfortunately, COVID isn’t going away over the wintertime and it’s likely to get even worse and will be a continued stressor,” Totoraitis said. “With the sheer volume of cases that MPD is processing, they are fighting an uphill battle. We want to try and prevent cases and also have recommendations that look at some of the longer-term implications.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said on Tuesday that the past several months have been “unbelievably stressful” for many residents.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs or had their hours or pay reduced,” Barrett said. “And if you are quarantined and you are with a lot of people in a small space, that can cause problems. [The pandemic] has had a very troubling effect.”
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley noted that drug-related deaths are also rising, most likely as a result of the pandemic.
“So many people have been cooped up and have had to change their lives dramatically. It’s really taken a toll on this whole community,” Crowley said. “It’s unfortunate what we are seeing.”