In a year marred by gun violence, St. Paul residents are left asking why so many young people keep pulling the trigger — and what to do about it.
Melissa Johnson, who recently lost her own son, lamented to neighbors Tuesday night that teens are “killing over nothing.”
“It’s too close to home,” said Johnson, who wore a sweatshirt depicting her son’s likeness with wings.
Johnson was among more than 200 people who jammed into the gymnasium at Rice Recreation Center for the second of three community forums about the city’s near-record-breaking homicides this year.
Turnout was so high that organizers opened another room for overflow seating. The final meeting is scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
Mayor Melvin Carter hopped on a chair and gave a short speech, saying that he tires of attending funerals and wakes of those killed by guns. He asked for the community’s help brainstorming solutions to curb the violence.
“We need to blaze a new trail,” Carter said, adding that it’s clear the old strategy isn’t working.
In the most recent homicide, Daniel Olvera, 20, was fatally shot as he sat in his car at Rice and Wayzata Streets on Sunday night. No arrests have been made in that case.
Olvera’s death marks the 30th killing in St. Paul this year — the most in 25 years. That tally includes a fatal police shooting. A record 34 people were killed in 1992.
Thomas Berry, 42, condemned the spike in violence but said it’s important to keep the numbers in perspective.
“As bad as it is now, it’s been worse,” he said, referring to the ’90s. He attributed much of the blame to recurring cycles of poverty.
Berry escaped the street life 20 years ago after getting shot for a second time.
“I didn’t want just to survive anymore, I wanted to live,” said Berry, of the Black Civic Network, an organization dedicated to strengthening black families.
He says he never expected to live past age 21, but having a child was a reason to turn his life around. Other teens don’t always hit that critical juncture.
Melody Her, 17, said she’s troubled by frequent images on social media of her peers flaunting firearms.
“It breaks my heart,” said Her, a senior at Community of Peace Academy, a charter school on St. Paul’s East Side. “There’s no awareness of how serious this is.”
Carter and Police Chief Todd Axtell have characterized the recent wave of shootings as an “anomaly.”
Axtell’s detectives have become so burned out by the pace of the killings, he said, that several officers from the local FBI Safe Streets Task Force are being temporarily reassigned to help the homicide and special investigations units.
The FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Marshals Service all plan to provide extra resources to the city.
Homicidal violence is often concentrated in areas of high poverty and is “tragically and unfortunately unpredictable,” Axtell said, adding that more than half the city’s homicides have been gang-related.
At the forum, the mayor mostly nodded and listened, promising to take everyone’s suggestions back to City Hall — where he said he’ll submit a supplemental public safety proposal for the 2020 budget.
His staff hopes to have that in the hands of City Council members by the end of the month.
“Because this can’t wait,” Carter told reporters after he spoke to the crowd.
“I’m really blessed to be in a city where a gym full of folks is willing to come out and not just be frustrated in their own homes,” he said. “We together can build — and will build — the St. Paul we desire and deserve.”