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Community members and leaders consider the causes—and what can be done about it

(Somerville Wire) – This summer, Somerville residents have seen that gun violence continues to be a serious public safety issue. According to Somerville Police Chief Charles Femino, the SPD has received over 45 separate reports of shots fired that resulted in 14 confirmed shooting incidents and the recovery of roughly 100 shell casings, since January 2021. Community members and political leaders have expressed their concern, noting that in some neighborhoods, residents have been afraid to leave their houses late at night, but they also acknowledged that many who would consider moving to a different part of town economically cannot.

Ben Echevarria, executive director of the Welcome Project, said that the warm weather in the summer may contribute to the occurrence of gun violence. On August 9, multiple shots were fired on Myrtle Street, and some vehicles were damaged. On July 5, a 16-year-old girl suffered a gunshot wound when she was shot at Jacques Street and Grant Street. SPD responded to several shots on Canal Lane on May 19, although no victims were located. While these incidents represent only a few cases that came up in recent months, SPD has said that many of these situations have occurred in or around the Mystic Housing Development and in East Somerville.

“There’s COVID, there’s summer, there’s gang activity. Those are sort of the normal cocktails,” said Echevarria. “ … I think [the rate of incidence] is up, but at the same time too, I think it’s expected. Boston and other areas are seeing an uptick too in violence. We’ve had a year of people locked in, hot weather, and nothing to do. We talk about the need for programming and things like that, as well.”

Stephenson Aman, who is running for City Council, said that in some cases, the violence may have occurred as an extension of road rage, where an exasperated driver fired at someone. He also said that gang activity may lead to incidents, with people living in the Mystic Developments and North Cambridge harboring rivalries. He also mentioned that some younger people engage in “spinning,” when they go out looking for a random target, like a person or a car, usually out of boredom or “to get their stripes.” Echevarria said that there are larger, systemic reasons why a person may decide to engage in gun violence.

“At the end of the day, when somebody pulls out a gun and uses it, it’s a mental health issue. Somehow, you devalued somebody’s life enough that you think it’s okay to take it away,” said Echevarria. “There is a mental health component to it, but there are other factors: living environments, education, despair, economic factors, where people want to get ahead, and the way the system’s designed, they’re not allowed to get ahead. We know this, just from a job front—your zip code, your name. Simple things can discount you from jobs. … Unfortunately, education and just the fact that you’re poor, it’s harder to overcome things.”

A resident of the Mystic Projects, Angie Mejia, said that she knows of people who have wanted to leave the neighborhood for security reasons but for financial reasons are unable to.

“I know people who are like, ‘it’s not safe to be here. I want to leave,’” said Mejia. “But obviously economically, some of them can’t. My mom said, ‘it’s getting unsafe to live here.’ If she could, she would leave.” She added, “People are feeling unsafe to go outside at night. Before, you could just sit outside and enjoy the weather. Now people are like, they don’t want to stay outside. If they could, they would leave. But the worst part is the reputation all the people get in this area. [People] assume, you’re from there, you’re part of the problem.”

According to Femino, the SPD has implemented a multi-faceted approach to address the issue of gun violence, including a saturation of the geographic areas where the incidents occur the most. “The strategy of saturation patrol allows for high visibility and is supplemented by directed patrols and additional uniformed and undercover officers patrolling the affected areas,” said Femino. Denise Molina Capers, the City’s director of Racial and Social Justice, said that the City will continue to hold Community Safety Meetings, with the intention of giving residents a voice at the table, when it comes to how the City will address problems like gun violence. So far, community members have said that they would like to see more youth engagement and development, as well as community-based violence intervention and prevention efforts. Others said that they would like to see more of a community policing presence.

“One of the major roles that the RSJ Office plays is to make sure that the community is heard, especially the marginalized community members that are often not heard due to inequities across economic, political, social and cultural dimensions,” said Capers. “[We must] make sure that we are being transparent and we are communicating with the community, that we’re giving them a space to voice their concerns.” With regard to upcoming meetings, she added, “A major piece of what’s going to be discussed with the community is the reimagining policing process, the civilian oversight process, and engaging the community in other aspects of the work the RSJ Department is tasked with doing. One of the pillars of reimagining policing has to do with building trust and legitimacy between the community and the police department. Community policing is a major element of building that trust and legitimacy.”

Aman said that society’s culture around guns leaves a negative impression on youth, something that he would like to see changed.

“It’s unfortunate that our young people are stuck in this bubble, where guns are cool, and ‘I’ve got to be a tough guy so I can go shoot this kid, just to look cool,’” said Aman. “They’re throwing away their entire future.”

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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