'Shots fired' reports come from all over Cedar Rapids
'It's not safe for my kids to grow up in a community where they have to watch their back'
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CEDAR RAPIDS — On a steamy July afternoon, Ashley Coleman's children cool off in Redmond Park's splash pad.
As the kids play, it's hard to believe the idyllic park in the middle of the Wellington Heights neighborhood was where two people were injured by gunshots less than a month before, a crime Coleman and her family narrowly missed. They had left the park just 20 minutes before the shooting, she said.
“It scares me,” Coleman said, watching her children play while sitting at a nearby picnic table. “I'm nervous to bring my kids here. ... It's not safe for my kids to grow up in a community where they have to watch their back.”
For the second year in a row, gun violence has gripped Cedar Rapids. While the number of shooting incidents through the first six months of 2015 is down slightly from the same time period last year, the recent escalation of gun violence shows things could get worse before they get better.
Cedar Rapids saw 17 shootings in July 2014, the most of any month.
According to data provided by the police department, there were 41 shootings in the city from Jan. 1 through the end of June 2015. By the end of June 2014, police had responded to 47 shots-fired incidents. The city would record 93 shootings in 2014.
“Looking at the statistics, any decrease is pleasing,” said Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman. “However, I would like to see more. And, unfortunately, in the last (few) weeks, we have seen an increase that has greatly concerned me.”
Indeed, the rash of shootings started June 27, when police responded to a shooting at Redmond Park, 1545 Third Ave. SE. The next night, a woman inside an apartment complex at 5001 First Ave. SW was grazed by a bullet in a drive-by shooting. A 4-year-old child was in her home at the time, police said. Since the beginning of July, police have responded to at least eight confirmed reports of shots fired.
Not gangs, per se
Police said the shootings at the end of June and at least two of the July shootings are related to an ongoing dispute between a dozen to two dozen individuals. Jerman said the rival factions are not gangs in the traditional sense of the word.
MAP: All shots fired incidents in 2014, 2015
“What makes them kind of different from the criminal gang relationship is their alliance with each other is not as strong as traditional gang alliances are,” he said. “One day, they are aligned with this one group, and then we get information that one or two of them are now aligned with the rival group.
“Labeling them a criminal gang is not the issue,” he added. “The issue is these two groups are choosing to engage in this level of violence.”
Jerman said police have heard different stories of what prompted the latest rash of violence. One is a dispute over a woman, the other is an argument over money. Either way, it boils down to an issue of respect and disrespect, Jerman said.
“Whatever the reasons are, these types of actions are totally unacceptable,” he said. “They're illegal, and the persons who are committing these acts of violence, I believe, do not recognize the dangerousness of their actions.”
Throughout the city
According to police department data, four of this year's shootings happened in the 300 block of 16th Street SE and three happened in the 1500 block of Third Avenue SE, streets that flank Redmond Park. Shootings, however, have occurred throughout the city.
Despite having a sense of who is involved in the shootings, the randomness of the shootings has made it difficult for police to predict where the next retaliation will occur, Jerman said.
“That is what builds our concern and frustration because even though we do have some ideas of who is involved, they are able to travel throughout the city,” he said.
The shootings in late June exemplify how random the violence can be. The Redmond Park shooting was in southeast Cedar Rapids. The retaliation the next night was in southwest Cedar Rapids.
“I wish it was as easy as receiving information to be able to predict where these incidents are going to occur,” Jerman said. “It's very, very difficult — if not impossible — to predict when these people are going to retaliate and where.”
Further complicating the investigations has been a lack of cooperation from witnesses and victims, police said. People who have firsthand knowledge of the shootings — including the victims — are not giving information to police, which prevents authorities from making arrests and taking cases to court. Instead, victims are taking matters into their own hands, Jerman said.
“When we do get called to the scene or to the hospital, the victim does not want to speak with police,” Jerman said. “And then we're hearing from others that this person, he's going to take care of it his own way.”
That's not to say police haven't had some success. Seven people have been arrested in connection with shooting incidents this year, including two who face charges of attempted murder. Additionally, in June, the Cedar Rapids Safe Streets Task Force announced the arrest of an additional 10 people on federal gun charges.
And some members of the community are doing their part to help curb gun violence. When students in his confirmation class talked about their middle school being placed on lockdown because of a nearby shooting, Dan Baldwin, the pastoral intern at Cedar Rapids' First Lutheran Church, 1000 Third Ave. SE, decided to take action.
“The fact that having a lockdown from a shots-fired event in the neighborhood was normal to them was not OK with me,” Baldwin said.
In January, Baldwin began reaching out to police, gun safety advocates and representatives from the city's religious communities. They formed a committee and, in the following months, organized a vigil to call attention to gun violence in the city.
“I think that there were a lot of people who were aware there were acts of gun violence happening, but I don't think there was an awareness of quite how widespread it was,” Baldwin said. “As far as what's behind it, I think a lot of people are in agreement that a lot of what the violence stems from is mistrust and hatred.”
Baldwin said 170 people from all walks of life attended the vigil last week, well over the 50 to 100 people the committee had hoped for.
Jerman said police will continue to be proactive in their efforts to catch those responsible for the gun violence. He noted that in the past year, patrol officers alone have seized 89 unlawfully possessed weapons.
He asks that gun owners protect their weapons, noting that police have taken several reports of guns stolen from vehicles, including ones that were unlocked.
Jerman also pleaded for people to come forward if they have information about the shootings.
“If they know information, please provide it to us,” he said. “We've got several investigators (who) will take the information and apply it to these open cases. Perhaps the information that's provided is the missing piece that can establish the probable cause and identify the person involved. I don't think anybody in this city wants to accept any level of violence, so we all need to work together to eliminate it.”