Shots Fired: Understanding Gun Violence in Mansfield
This is the second installment in a nine-part series focused on gun violence and possible ideas to address this issue in Mansfield. These stories will run on consecutive days, starting Oct. 8 and running through Oct. 16.
MANSFIELD — The teenage boy looked at Richland County Juvenile Court Judge Steve McKinley without blinking.
He told the judge he was going to keep carrying a gun when he was back on the city’s streets. The teen didn’t care what penalty the judge may impose — including being sent away to the Ohio Department of Youth Services for the next 18 months.
The juvenile offender told the court he needs the firearm for his own protection in a community that has seen eight homicides in 2023, the highest number in more than a decade.
But McKinley said be believes carrying a gun is more than self defense for the teenager — and for the increasing number of young adults arming themselves in Mansfield.
“I think a lot of times it is a youth that wants to be the alpha — a youth that may even be up for looking for conflict. And when I come into conflict, I’m going to make sure that I come out on top — that I’m the alpha dog,” the judge said.
“I think it’s just a desire to show that you’re powerful and strong and not scared of anybody. So I think that’s a little bit of the psychological dynamic that’s going on,” McKinley said.
Reasons may vary from one case to another. But one thing is clear. Like cities across the state and the country, Mansfield has an increasing gun violence problem:
Consider these numbers from the city:
— Eight gun homicides in the first eight months of 2023, including seven in the first five months.
— MPD had recovered more than 10 guns per month this year through July.
— Reports of “shots fired,” either by calls to 9-1-1 or by increased use of ShotSpotter technology, were up almost 80 percent in the first half of 2023 as compared to 2022, averaging more than one per day.
— On average, during 2022, police handled more than one gun-related incident per day.
— Halfway through 2023, Richland County Juvenile Court alone is on pace to have seen more than 70 gun charges since 2021.
‘It doesn’t leave me shocked anymore’
Mansfield police Chief Keith Porch grew up in Mansfield, graduating from Mansfield Senior High School. He has worked in local law enforcement for nearly three decades, the last four as the MPD chief.
The rising gun violence — including a late-night shooting incident Aug. 27 that killed one and wounded three others during a post-baby shower celebration — doesn’t shock Porch.
“Given the history of recent violence that we’ve had within our city, and not only within the city, just what’s occurring around the state, it doesn’t leave me shocked anymore,” Porch said.
It’s not just around Ohio, which during an average year sees more than 1,600 residents killed with a gun.
It’s around the country. More Americans died of gun-related injuries in 2021 (48,830) than in any other year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the fact Mansfield is no different than other cities of comparable size doesn’t make it easier to swallow.
If a rising tide lifts all boats, to some, this feels like a nationwide whirlpool.
Local residents feel the tipping point. They are demanding a stop to the violence, as they did in July during the Kay Day Peace March.
During that event, long-time funeral director Pam Williams challenged young people in the city.
“Our job as funeral directors was to bury our old, to bury our sick. It was not to bury our youth,” Williams said. “I would like to present the youth with a challenge that when you’re presented with a situation, I challenge you to go back in the day, to say, ‘I’m not going to make this move. I’m gonna stay here.’
Williams, one of several speakers after a march down Park Avenue West, drove a hearse to lead the march. There was a sign on the vehicle that read, “Put the Guns Down, We don’t want your business THAT bad.”
‘We’ve lost those redeeming social skills’
Like the police chief, attorney Rollie Harper is a product of Mansfield. A son of the city’s former police chief, Lawrence “Bunk” Harper, he will become the city’s law director in January.
Harper, a former juvenile court magistrate, won the Democratic Party primary in May and is unopposed in November. During the campaign, Harper said he considers “the city’s social problems to be my own.”
“I know this city well, and the community knows me. I see the moral and civic dimensions of our local issues and I want to be a part of the solution. I plan to do that putting forward informed and moral civic judgements, and then taking actions to create solutions,” Harper said.
During a coffee at Relax It’s Just Coffee recently, Harper said young adults and teenagers have lost the ability to communicate face to face.
An overreliance on electronic communication has led to the loss of interpersonal communication.
“When I was a kid, we had rotary phones and party lines and the way to communicate with somebody was directly,” Harper said.
“I think what’s lost in the computer age (is) when you have a computer in your hand every day, it’s really easy to type stuff up and say horrible things that you would never say to somebody’s face.”
Harper said when he was younger, those face-to-face disagreements could lead to fistfights. Afterward, the two combatants often emerged as friends again.
Today, those disagreements too often end in gunfire.
“We’ve lost those redeeming social skills that you develop and you’re supposed to develop during those school years by interacting with people and figuring out how to do that,” he said.
“You have to learn how to interact with people. You have to be able to problem-solve. If you don’t, then what you’re going to do is what is happening right now,” Harper said.
Jason Bammann, the MPD assistant chief, echoed Harper’s words.
“These kids are quick to turn to guns to solve their disputes. They are shooting each other over disrespect,” said Bammann, who has been with the department since 1999. “It’s not like you stepped on my turf or are selling drugs in my area.
“It’s literally because you scuffed my new tennis shoes or I heard on Facebook that you were saying this about me. Life is just meaningless to some of these kids anymore,” Bammann said.
Richland County Prosecutor Jodie Schumacher has worked in various locations around the state before coming here as an assistant prosecutor in 2016. She said the local community is seeing the same increase in violence being noted around the state and the country.
“I don’t know that Richland County is unique because every other locale in which I have worked has had similar issues. I think everyone is seeing an uptick in (gun) violence.
“All of us are kind of scratching our heads and wondering, ‘Is this generational? Is it just a shift in society? Is it a demonstration of how stressed a community is?’
“I shouldn’t say community. It’s about citizens, how stressed they are, and how quick they react (to a problem) without know how to deal with conflict,” Schumacher said.
When she speaks with defendants after an arrest, Schumacher said she notices a difference.
“I think there is an understanding … once it’s too late,” she said. “Maybe it’s because they have missed their target in the past or it wasn’t a fatal shot. ‘I’ve pulled this trigger 36 times and I haven’t killed anybody yet.
“I have to imagine it’s similar to some of the individuals arrested for DUI. They have driven drunk many times previously (without being caught).
“I think young (defendants) appreciate it because I see it on their face. I think once they are caught and those consequences are being enforced,” Schumacher said.
The perfect storm?
The downward spiral in attitudes and behavior have combined with two additional factors.
There are more guns on the streets than ever before, partly thanks to a new law in 2022, and a local police department that remains understaffed.
State lawmakers approved Senate Bill 215 last year, which Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law on March 14. The law allows any “qualifying adults” to carry a concealed handgun without the need for a concealed handgun license and without any required training classes.
That includes guns inside cars.
“It just seems like everybody has a gun on,” Bammann said. “As long as you are over 21 and are not a felon, you can stick a gun in your waistband.
“Apparently they are well versed in the law. Because they are doing it.”
An officer making a car stop is much more likely to find people in the car who are armed or have a gun(s) stuck between the seats.
“Our officers are coming across a lot more armed citizens, maybe some individuals that shouldn’t be carrying a gun … but the law allows it. They are carrying them for the wrong reason, but they are allowed to do so.
“Our office interaction with armed people has increased exponentially,” Bammann said.
The increased gun violence comes at a time when the Mansfield police department’s staff levels continue to run below authorized levels. In July, the city had 78 sworn officers, but it’s budgeted for 87.
According to Bammann, FBI standards show a city the size of Mansfield should have 102 sworn officers.
Staffing is tenuous and recruitment remains a challenge. In March 2022, Mansfield City Council approved pay raises and retention bonuses for the police department in an effort to combat short-staffing and recruitment efforts by other law enforcement agencies.
But during the most recent Civil Service test offering in Mansfield, just 28 people registered for the exam. Among those who passed the test, just three went on to successfully compete the physical.
Assuming they pass background checks, they would eligible to attend the police academy in February 2024.
Staffing limits what strategies the department can employ to combat the rising gun violence.
“Right now, we’re strictly a reactive police department,” Bammann said. “There is not a lot of proactive (policing). We have got a lot of officers who would love to be proactive, work in the communty.
“But they are running from call to call. Pretty much every night, we are at minimum staffing levels. It prevents us from being proactive and I am a firm believer that proactive policing is what keeps crime down.”
To support our work, please consider becoming a member of Richland Source by following this link.