The number of homicides involving a gun remained relatively high in Columbia this year, consistent with a steady rise statewide.

In 2020, there were nine homicides involving firearms in Columbia. Last year, the number was 12, while there were 16 in Boone County. Although this year’s number is lower than last year’s, 2019 was the worst year for homicides in Columbia in the previous five years. The number in September 2019 alone was six, and those homicides occurred in just 12 days.

The number of suicides by gun in Boone County was not yet available for 2020. However, Missouri’s suicide rate is increasing. And in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death in people ages 10-34, according to a suicide fact sheet from the Missouri Institute of Mental Health.

The rise in gun deaths in Columbia coincides with a steady increase in gun deaths in the U.S. that began in 2015. Between 1999-2017, Missouri’s increase in firearm deaths was 64.1%, the second-highest increase nationally.

According to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall gun death rate from 2010-2019 increased 17% in the U.S., according to a joint review of the CDC data. The review found that in that time span, firearm homicide rates increased 26% and the firearm suicide rate, 12.5%. Increases in both of these rates contributed to the overall change during the nine-year period.

The data show that 37% of the total gun homicide victims were Black teens and men ages 15-34, although they only make up 2% of the U.S. total population. Black males ages 15-34 had a gun homicide rate 17 times higher than white males in the same group.

Indicators suggest homicide rates have risen significantly in 2020, although final data will not be available for several months.

In July, University of Pennsylvania law and economics professor, David Abrams, recorded crime trends for more than 25 major cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The overall crime rate appeared to have decreased. But shootings and homicides in some major cities actually increased. One of those cities was St. Louis.

In St. Louis, there have been 210 homicides compared to 194 in 2019, putting the state on track to have its deadliest year on record according to a news release from the governor’s office in mid-October. Kansas City showed similar results, closing in on last year’s number.

“We know we have a serious problem with violent crime that must be addressed,” Parson said in a news release on Oct. 14.

Interrupting the ‘cycle’

Various factors could be contributing to the rate of shooting crimes in Columbia, said Police Chief Geoff Jones. A lot of what he sees is what he called gang-related violence, often shootings between people who know each other that precipitates more violence.

“There’s some type of dispute or altercation that’s occurred and one side will shoot at the other,” he said. “Then the victim today becomes the suspect tomorrow, and that just continues.

“That’s the cycle we have to interrupt,” he said.

Internally, the police department has taken actions Jones thinks will have a long-term impact on bringing down the number of violent crimes, including homicides.

“Right now, the way that we’re investigating shootings has been very successful in bringing those homicides to a clearance or the most positive outcome we can have as law enforcement, although it’s never a positive outcome,” he said.

The department investigates each shooting crime, talking with the people involved to get more information.

“It’s all interconnected when we’re solving crimes and focusing on people who are suspects and victims in shootings because they’re often both at different times,” he said. “We can reduce that circle of violence that occurs.”

But that’s only one strategy, he said.

The department relies on outreach and partnerships with local organizations to attack the problem. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made that difficult. Meetings have been postponed and progress in building relationships with the community and other programs has been slow. Still, Jones is optimistic about the possibilities.

Drugs and weapons

For his part, Irwin Schneider, president of Columbia Neighborhood Watch, tries to help residents understand how to fight crime in their communities. He suspects drug trafficking is a major factor in Columbia gun violence.

“Most of the shootings are usually between people who know each other or are conducting some kind of illegal business. I think the majority of shootings fall into that category,” Schneider said.

He also blames the availability of weapons for the increase in shootings, and not all weapons are obtained legally.

He said one of the factors Neighborhood Watch emphasizes is the importance of getting to know neighbors, so it’s easier to discern if something unusual is going on.

“Maybe you’ll know if something unusual or suspicious is going on in your neighborhood,” Schneider said. “And that’s where it could possibly help with things like shootings because if someone sees some things going on in their neighborhood and they’re recognizing that this is not normal, they’ll possibly report that before there’s a shooting.”

Schneider said the best thing to do it report any suspicious activity to the police. The more people report unusual activity in their neighborhood, the more likely police are to be able to act and investigate before shootings occur.

“If they don’t know about it, they can’t do anything about it.” Schneider said.

This year’s protests over police brutality after the police killing of George Floyd may have brought distrust of police out into the open. But Schneider said he thinks most Columbia residents in the Neighborhood Watch program feel comfortable reporting activity to the police, trusting that they’re helping control criminal activity.

So what exactly are the police doing to get the number of homicides down?

Toni Messina, communications and outreach supervisor for the Columbia Police Department, said the department is using three strategies.

The first is treating each shooting as if it were a homicide. The Columbia Police Department uses immediate and intense follow-ups to show they will not tolerate threats to the safety of their citizens. They establish relationships with the community to get more people to report information, whether anonymously or by witnessing the event, to help identify the suspects involved. Detectives investigate each shooting making sure to cover all areas of concern and rapidly identify those who commit homicides.

The second strategy is following all leads from the community, which is why Schneider said it’s so important to report any information. CPD gets information from witnesses, victims and will bring in resources to enhance investigations into these homicides.

“After a string of homicides last year, a task force of local, state and federal agencies was established to reduce gun violence and increase efficiency and manpower during critical incidents,” Messina said. The partnership includes the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; MU Police; and the Boone County Sheriff’s Department.

The Columbia Police Department uses a third strategy that depends on relationships within the community and organizations, including the neighborhood watch program and Columbia CrimeStoppers. This relationship is built on having a trusted, consistent officer presence to monitor the neighborhood.

“An officer who is in tune with residents, businesses and organizations can encourage them to share information that leads to arrests and which might help prevent future violent crimes,” Messina said.

  • Staff Photojournalist, Spring 2021 Studying photojournalism Reach me at hestvp@umsystem.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

  • I'm the public safety and health editor at the Missourian and a professor in the School of Journalism. I'm experienced in directing investigative projects. Call me at (573) 882-1792 with story tips, ideas or complaints.

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