By Anthony Raymond
This year in the city of Grand Rapids, homicides are up nearly 59% already with shootings fueling almost all of the homicides. The Collegiate sat down with Sgt. John Wittkowski of the Grand Rapids Police department to discuss this upward trend. Wittkowski began the meeting by sharing that another shooting had just occurred. According to WOODTV8, a man in his 50s was shot in the stomach at 9:40am while walking on the intersection of Diamond Avenue and Logan Street SE.
“This year has really been a year like no other,” said Wittkowski. From the time period of Jan. 1 through Aug. 1compared to the same period in 2019, murder has increased 66.7 percent.
Compared to the high murder rates in the early ‘90s due to the crack cocaine epidemic specifically in 1993 when there were 34 homicides, this year’s homicides are different according to Wittkowksi. He explained that the violence this year can be attributed to people being “sort of cooped up and stressed out” due to the pandemic which has created anxiety that’s “sort of spilt over into the violence that we are seeing, mainly because people have this pent up aggression.”
As a result, Wittkowski points out that the inability to properly cope in a non-violent manner, the high amount of guns on the street, and the anonymous, impersonal nature of drive-by shootings all play a role in the number shootings and homicides occurring.
When it comes to guns, Wittkowski mentioned the fact that there are more guns than people in the United States which can lead to guns that can end up in the wrong hands. When asked about the percentage of those shootings involving illegally possessed firearms he did not know the exact percentage but affirmed that, “For certain a majority of guns used in these types of incidents have been obtained illegally.”
When it comes to drive-by shootings, Wittkowski explained why there is no common area of occurrence. However, he notes that these shootings are rarely random acts of violence but nevertheless they can end up with innocent bystanders being struck and/or killed.
“Because you’re dealing with a vehicle, and because you’re dealing with this transient nature of violence,” said Wittkowski. “It’s happening all over the place and it’s happening all hours of the day and night.”
The civil unrest stemming from the deaths of people including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, mixed with the uptick in Grand Rapids shootings and homicides has culminated into a stressful situation for local law enforcement. Wittkowski admitted that when the riot took place in May that the GRPD was “definitely ill-prepared.” Now he says that with the help of the department’s full-time Behavioral Health Specialist, peer support team members, and their employee assistance program, officers are becoming more proactive and equipped to deal with not only the on-the-job stresses but also the everyday life stressors officers face.
“I would say it’s informally daily and it all starts with our frontline supervisors” said Wittkowski when asked about the frequency of checking in on officers. “They have been trained and educated to ensure that they are involved in their officers lives.” He said that the frontline supervisors are there to be involved and not intrusive by identifying if their officers “behavior is not normative” and then asking questions.
Wittkowski said citizens can call the Silent Observer phone number if they want to remain anonymous when reporting crimes.
“We really want the citizens to be proactive,” Wittkowski said. He gave the example of a truck speeding down a neighborhood road abnormally fast. “Maybe that truck is on the way to a shooting or just committed a shooting. Hey, call that in.”
Compared to last year, GRPD’s budget has been cut by a little over $1.1 million dollars. With some calling to defund the police mixed with increased COVID spending, this could potentially impact high crime areas. Wittkowski said this could lead to “a redeployment of officers” and said that “the main focus of any police department is the patrol function.” With increased cuts there would be less physical police attention to calls where there is no crime or injury involved.
As far as the safety of the Grand Rapids Community College Community, Wittkowski said that students should exercise “diligence, observance, and situational awareness” and emphasizes that even if you’re someone who hasn’t been a victim of a crime, you should not be complacent and ignorant to your surroundings.
Gabe Schiedel, a 22 year-old student from Grand Rapids reiterated that message when asked if he changed the way he does things in Grand Rapids. “Be on the lookout.” The Collegiate then spoke to another student and asked what she thinks as a potential cause of the shootings.
Katherine Nyenhuis, a 30-year-old from Grand Rapids, said, “People (are) feeling unbalanced by the weirdness of this year.”
When it comes to dealing with mental health calls, Wittkowski said GRPD is dressing down officers to create a softer appearance to reduce anxiety that a “cop vibe” might give off to someone having a mental health episode. This Wittkowski says, creates a good first impression that can help de-escalate the situation.
Alex Roman, an 18-year-old student from Wyoming said, “A lot of the times it’s mental health and a lot of the times it’s plain violence… maybe someone with a grudge.”
Wittkowski said he believes a lack of education mixed with past disenfranchisement can lead people to turn to violence.
“A lot of this gun violence we’re seeing today, this is the result of kids not having the proper outlets to engage in normative behaviors,” said Wittkowski. “If these kids can’t even read at a fourth grade reading level, if they have no prospects for job attainment, if they’re not productive members of society, well, it stands to reason that they’ll go in the opposite direction.”