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Add gun violence spike to growing list of issues plaguing Delawareans during pandemic

More than a third of people shot so far this year in Delaware occurred in the 42 days since the state lifted its COVID-19 stay-at-home order June 1.

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On the day Gov. John Carney lifted Delaware's stay-at-home order, 31-year-old Mykal Dempster was shot and killed in Dover, the first homicide in Delaware in nearly a month.

Four days later, 24-year-old Keith Evans died in a Wilmington shooting. Less than two weeks after that, 34-year-old Francis Miller was gunned down, again in Wilmington.

These are just three of the nine people killed in Delaware since the state reopened on June 1. But their names join a list of more than 50 others who have been wounded in shootings in the last month-and-a-half.

If the trend continues, Delaware is on track to record one of its most violent years. In June alone, 30 people were shot – three of them fatally. This was the most people shot statewide in any June in recent memory.

New Castle County Police investigate at the scene of shooting that left a man in critical condition in the Sparrow Run neighborhood in Bear in May.
New Castle County Police investigate at the scene of shooting that left a man in critical condition in the Sparrow Run neighborhood in Bear in May.
WILLIAM BRETZGER, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

And there's concern that July's gun violence will surpass June's, given the month tends to see a higher volume of people being caught in the crossfire. Already, 28 people have been shot statewide, and six of them have died.

FIVE SHOT IN A SINGLE INCIDENT: 'We're killing our own:' After 4 teens, 10-year-old shot, community left with questions

While some experts attribute the spike in violence, which largely began just as the state reopened, to warmer months and an increase in gun availability, some also point to a deterioration in confidence with law enforcement. This loss of trust in police has some not willing to report incidents, provide tips or be witnesses.

That could lead to people taking matters into their own hands, said Nico Bocour, government affairs director at Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence organization.

Protesters call for police reform Saturday, June 27, 2020, at St. Helena's Parish, across from Delaware State Police Troop 1 in Penny Hill.
Protesters call for police reform Saturday, June 27, 2020, at St. Helena's Parish, across from Delaware State Police Troop 1 in Penny Hill.
SAQUAN STIMPSON/SPECIAL TO DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

“You need [to see] that law enforcement is focusing their efforts in ways that demonstrate, to that community, that they are both willing to work with the community that they are serving and that their policing efforts are focused on just and effective methods," she said. 

“When there is not a lot of transparency – or when that is not clear to the community, then a lot of that trust does not occur.” 

Nico Bocour, Government Affairs Director at Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence organization.
Nico Bocour, Government Affairs Director at Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence organization.
Courtesy of Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence organization

Transparency in Delaware’s criminal justice system has long been a problem, given the release of public safety information is heavily controlled by law enforcement. That leaves residents with few ways to find out about criminal activity in their communities because police reports and arrest logs are not made public.

Law enforcement is also not always willing to comment.

In Wilmington, with 37 shootings so far since June, Police Chief Robert Tracy has declined requests for interviews. The department's civilian spokesman David Karas points to information that can be viewed online. 

"The Chief releases CompStat reports on a weekly basis with updated numbers across various crime categories; he also has worked with the mayor to establish the CrimeMapping.com platform, which provides for the public updated information on numbers and trends," Karas said in a statement. 

But these options come with deficiencies. 

CompStat is a list of numbers with no explanation of where or why incidents occurred. CrimeMapping.com allows the public to view an online map of crimes, but a review by Delaware Online/The News Journal has found some items are different than what actually has occurred and some incidents, such as homicides, are missing from the site.

For example, as of Thursday afternoon, the crime website: 

  • Does not list Saturday night's shooting of five children in the 600 block of N. Pine St. 
  • Lists the July 6 shooting death of 37-year-old Andre Hickson that occurred in the 800 block of E. 13th St., but does not say that it was a homicide. 
  • Does not list the July 6 shooting of Nakysha Richardson in the 800 block of N. Pine St. as a homicide. 
  • Lists the July 4 fatal shooting of 35-year-old Abel Rivera-Mojica, but does not mention the shooting of a second person (a 16-year-old boy). Also, the location the website lists for Rivera-Mojica's homicide is different from where police said the shooting occurred: the 300 block of N. Clayton St.
Wilmington sees spike in gun violence following end of coronavirus lockdown
After the governor's stay-at-home order was lifted on June 1, Wilmington (and many other large cities) saw a spike in shootings. 7/8/20
Damian Giletto, The News Journal

A News Journal investigation last year pointed out that the Wilmington Police Department was being less forthcoming about violent crimes. 

BACKGROUND: Wilmington going from 'Murder Town' to 'Mystery Town'

But it's not just a lack of transparency that's a driver for the shootings because in Dover, where police speak much more openly about gun violence, the city has also seen more shootings than usual.

Police there attribute the overwhelming majority of its violent crime to gang activity.

The uptick is being seen in other American cities, too, where distrust of police has resulted in protests – sometimes violent – following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May.

In nearby Philadelphia, the city recorded 34 people shot, nine fatally, over the July Fourth holiday weekend.

This past weekend in Chicago, 64 people were shot. And in New York City on Monday, 17 people were shot, a day after a 1-year-old was killed at a cookout.

These numbers leave many begging the question: What can be done to stop the violence?

Gun violence contributors 

There is no one explanation for what has fueled the gun violence across the nation, but most experts say it's a combination of factors. 

New Castle County Police investigate a shooting where three men were shot in the community of Rosegate Saturday, July 4, 2020.
New Castle County Police investigate a shooting where three men were shot in the community of Rosegate Saturday, July 4, 2020.
John J. Jankowski Jr. / Special to The News Journal

Christopher Herrmann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former gun violence analyst for the New York Police Department, pointed to several drivers.

The first, he said, is that more shootings occur in the summer months than the rest of the year – something research has long shown.

That's because “the young people who are typically involved in the shootings” are no longer in school and are more likely to be outside. While the coronavirus pandemic meant students were not physically at school for the last several months of the school year, up until recently, many were still occupied with classwork and remained indoors.

The lifting of pandemic stay-at-home orders is also a key reason Herrmann believes shootings have so drastically increased.

Wilmington Police investigate a possible shooting in the city's Hilltop neighborhood.
Wilmington Police investigate a possible shooting in the city's Hilltop neighborhood.
JOHN J. JANKOWSKI JR./SPECIAL TO DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

"If you think about it in the context of gangs and retaliatory shootings, just because you're in a COVID shutdown doesn't mean that you're not going to retaliate – they are going to retaliate," Herrmann said. "It's just with the shutdown, you're postponing all those retaliations.

"My guess is that the more the cities and states reopen, the more you're going to see those fatalities and those kinds of initial retaliatory spikes."

In Delaware, Gov. John Carney lifted the state's stay-at-home order on June 1. Up until that point, the number of shootings had remained about the same as in past years, according to Delaware Online/The News Journal data.

There were 47 people shot during Delaware's COVID-19 stay-at-home order, which was in place from March 24 until June 1.

That's just one more person wounded than the average 46 people shot during the same time period in the previous three years, which includes 2017 – the year that saw a spike in gun violence with 285 people being shot statewide, 54 fatally.

June's record number of victims changed that, putting 2020 on track to become the second most violent year in Delaware. So far this year, 153 people have been shot in the state – four more than all of the people wounded in the entirety of 2018.

Herrmann doesn't think Delaware’s reopening and the increased shootings in Wilmington – or elsewhere in the state – are a coincidence.

He said in addition to the warmer months and retaliations, "you're even getting a possibly a three-fold spike if you consider some of the protests and stuff, and the fact that police might not be around to patrol like normal."

New Castle County Councilman Jea Street agreed, saying he believes the uptick "is driven by a clear absence on the part of law enforcement to break these gangs up and get these guns off the streets."

New Castle County Councilman Jae Street poses for a portrait in his office at the Lutheran Hilltop Center in Wilmington on Wednesday morning. Street called the tension in Wilmington ‘potentially explosive’ in a letter calling for a federal investigation into the shooting of Jeremy “Bam” McDole, 28.
New Castle County Councilman Jae Street poses for a portrait in his office at the Lutheran Hilltop Center in Wilmington on Wednesday morning. Street called... New Castle County Councilman Jae Street poses for a portrait in his office at the Lutheran Hilltop Center in Wilmington on Wednesday morning. Street called the tension in Wilmington ‘potentially explosive’ in a letter calling for a federal investigation into the shooting of Jeremy “Bam” McDole, 28.
KYLE GRANTHAM/THE NEWS JOURNAL

But there are more factors at play, he said.

"It's driven in part by a failed education system, and it’s driven by economics," Street said. "Look at the (high) unemployment rates for young black men."

Street also said he believes it's a lack of caring that's driving the violence.

"Quite frankly, as far as I'm concerned, one of the reasons it’s going up here is because nobody gives a damn," he said. "As long as it's young black men shooting young black men, they're not going to spend any time, any money in that regard."

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki disagreed, saying while "historically, that's probably hard to rebut," he doesn't believe it's the driver for the recent uptick.

"If somebody wants to condemn our history of what we've done with young black men, I think that's pretty legitimate, but it's got nothing to do with what's happening today," Purzycki said. "If anything, I think people are trying harder to be better human beings."

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki views the damage in downtown left by protesters in May.
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki views the damage in downtown left by protesters in May.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

The mayor blamed a "confluence of events" – the coronavirus pandemic, social unrest and "the persistent problems with too many guns out on the streets, too many repeat offenders out there" – for the spike.

"You look at the social environment, the economic environment, and then of course this COVID malaise and that's just the best explanation I come up with," he said.

'These aren't random people that are getting shot'

On a recent Saturday night, five youth — two 15-year-old boys, a 14-year-old girl, a 13-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy — were playing at a set of basketball courts at North Pine and East Sixth streets when they were all hit by bullets.

STORY: Four teens and a 10-year-old shot in Wilmington's East Side neighborhood Saturday night

Precise details about what exactly happened that night are hazy, but several East Side residents said the kids were caught in the crossfire from a gunfight between people in a car and a truck.

A family member who asked not to be identified gave a slightly different account, saying the group was on their way home from the park when the shooting happened.

While the incident sparked outrage from the community due to the children's ages, East Side residents said the fact that there was yet another shooting wasn't surprising.

That's because gun violence hasn't slowed during the pandemic "in the same way that the pandemic has slowed down so many other facets of our life," said Sarah Stowens, Delaware chapter leader for Moms Demand for Gun Sense in America, a national organization that lobbies for stricter gun laws.

Sarah Stowens is the Delaware chapter leaders for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Sarah Stowens is the Delaware chapter leaders for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

According to a New York Times analysis of crime in 25 large American cities published earlier this month, overall crime is down 5.3% compared with the same period in 2019, and violent crime is down 2%.

Homicide, however, is up.

Of 36 cities examined – the Times looked at homicide in the first 25 cities, then gathered homicide data from 11 additional cities – 29 of the 36 cities reported increases in the number of murders compared to the same time last year.

"Gun violence is intersectional with racism in our country, with food insecurity in our country, with low income in our country," Stowens said. "Because other things have slowed down, we are seeing this highlighted gun violence epidemic, but really the epidemic is as bad as it ever has been."

Herrmann echoed Stowens, saying the current uptick in violence "isn't a different problem" than what has been occurring for decades.

"These aren't random people that are getting shot or people in nicer neighborhoods getting shot," Herrmann said. "This is an ongoing problem in the traditional high crime neighborhoods that just happens to be getting worse right now."

Dover Police Sgt. Mark Hoffman said his city's shootings reflect this. He said the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in Dover can be traced back to gangs or drugs, a consistent theme for the city.

In a way, Herrmann said, "that's good news" because "at least it's not different or new."

Additionally, he said, given that the drivers of the problem are the same, cities can implement proven strategies and methods to reduce violence.

"Even if we stop selling guns, there are just way too many guns out there – the FBI did 4 million background checks [for firearms purchases] in June," Herrmann said. "So you have to try to deal with the people that are actually shooting others, and this goes back to the Ceasefire and Cure Violence concepts."

People line up outside StarQuest Shooters and Survival Supply on Concord Pike in March.
People line up outside StarQuest Shooters and Survival Supply on Concord Pike in March.
WILLIAM BRETZGER, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

Gun sales have been surging since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to empty shelves at Delaware gun stores.

DELAWARE GUNS: Delaware gun sales break record for 2nd time during pandemic after police protests

After seeing a record number of background checks for firearm purchases in March, Delaware hit another gun sale record in June, background check data collected by the FBI shows.

The protests in Delaware have largely been peaceful, but recent gun buyers and gun shop owners say the surge is due to protests that turned violent and led to looting at the start of last month.

Given there are so many guns – many are legally owned, though a percentage also end up on the streets illegally – cities must now turn to other methods, like the ones Herrmann referenced, to curb the violence.

A myriad of solutions

Wilmington has tried various initiatives to reduce its shootings, beginning more than a decade ago with the HOPE Commission, a committee created by former Mayor James M. Baker and once chaired by Purzycki. It was charged with examining the root causes of violent crime in the city’s most violent areas.

The city also participated in Blueprint Communities, a program that helps develop communities with private industry, elected officials and local residents.

Most recently, the city has turned to a method developed by renowned criminologist David Kennedy called the Group Violence Intervention program.

RELATED: 'This is the norm': As Wilmington gun violence becomes routine, residents are fed up

Developed in Boston in the 1990s, the program promises social services to potential offenders if they stop committing violent crimes. Those services can be anything from therapy and housing assistance to a subsidized job, food stamps or Medicaid.

David Kennedy, Profesor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, speaks at a press conference last year where a new program was unveiled to reduce gun violence in Wilmington. Chief of Police Robert Tracy (back right) looks on.
David Kennedy, Profesor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, speaks at a press conference last year where a new program was unveiled to... David Kennedy, Profesor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, speaks at a press conference last year where a new program was unveiled to reduce gun violence in Wilmington. Chief of Police Robert Tracy (back right) looks on.
Damian Giletto/Delaware News Journal

But there’s a caveat: If the violence continues, prosecutors won't hesitate to charge those responsible for it.

Purzycki said last week that the program continues, though the coronavirus pandemic has "slowed everybody down a little bit."

"I can't give you any statistics on successes thus far, but I think generally across the board people still have a lot of confidence in that process," he said.

Hoffman, too, said Dover has been working with community leaders and organizations to try to curb the violence, given that "these issues can't be solved with an arrest alone."

"These issues require assistance from a variety of resources to include housing, education and employment opportunities, faith-based organizations, mental health resources and more," he said.

But Joey Harrison, a longtime Wilmington resident and anti-violence activist, said the communities that experience the gun violence must also step up.

Locations of Delaware shootings this year

City officials, he said, can only do so much if the community doesn't care.

"The same way we do this stuff with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter … we have to have that same Black Lives Matter (mentality) when it comes to us," Harrison said. "If it don't matter to us, what are we fighting for?

"It has to be, 'This happened in my neighborhood, this is wrong.'"

Tanya Lea, a Wilmington native who has lost friends and family to gun violence, said fixing the gun violence epidemic begins in the home.

She said parents must "be a role model for our kids.”

"We aren't raising our children, the streets are raising our children and the (music) videos are raising our children," she said. "We can protest in the streets and we can sign petitions and we can vote – we can do all that. But if it don't start in your house, it's not going (to stop)."

Send story tips or ideas to Isabel Hughes at ihughes@delawareonline.com or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_. Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, eparra@delawareonline.com.

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