PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As the pandemic raged in Providence in 2020, so too did gun violence.
The number of people shot in the capital city more than doubled from the year before, with 73 gunshot victims in 2020 compared to 35 in 2019, according to the Providence Police Department.
The increase in shootings came with a spike in homicides: 18 people were murdered in the capital city in 2020, according to Providence Police statistics, an increase from the weighted average of 13 over the previous five years.
Of those 18 murders, 14 were shootings, three were stabbings and one involved a suspect hitting and killing a victim with his car.
Among the lives lost were 27-year-old Dante Mann, a rapper who had been filming a music video when he was shot on Gallup Street in October; 19-year-old Nazzique Hernandez, stabbed inside the Providence Place mall in September; and Cristofer Reyes Navarro, 27, found dead of a gunshot wound in Roger Williams Park in March.
“2020 was an atypical year in so many ways,” Col. Hugh Clements, the city’s police chief, told Target 12. “COVID-19 changed the way that we lived and the way that we worked. I think social displacement played a factor as to how people operated their mode of life, their daily activities.”
Clements cited the economy, the effects of the pandemic and the increasing availability of guns as contributing to the increase, which he hopes his officers can reverse in 2021.
He noted, for example, that two large tranches of guns — one from a man who stands accused of falsely reporting stolen guns he actually sold illegally, and another from a burglary — made their way onto the streets in 2020.
Clements said officers have been recovering those weapons one by one, including one that was found last week.
Plus, officers were told to spend less time pulling over cars or stopping pedestrians in an effort to decrease unnecessary face-to-face contact with citizens because of COVID-19.
“There was less interaction personally,” Clements said.
The year did not start out violent.
The first homicide of 2020 wasn’t recorded until March, when Reyes Navarro was found in the park.
By that time, the pandemic was well underway, and most Rhode Islanders were remaining inside their homes, only leaving to go to work, the grocery store or other essential tasks. In late April, Target 12 reported violent crime was down by 53% during the pandemic thus far.
But the violence picked up over the summer and fall. There were five murders in August alone, all using guns.
Cedric Huntley, the interim executive director of the Nonviolence Institute, says his staff saw people coming out of the spring lockdown and into a summer of unrest feeling “frustration, anger and trauma.”
“When people are threatened, when people feel unsafe, and especially in the community, there’s an emotional reaction,” Huntley said. Add an increasing availability of guns to the mix, and it becomes a deadly combination.
He noted that the usual crowds of people hanging out outside across the city are mostly gone, with interactions moving online. It makes it harder for anti-violence workers, who typically try and connect to young people at risk by doing outreach on the streets.
“Social media, Facebook, all those mediums they use to communicate,” Huntley said. “Sometimes when they use those mediums they don’t always use them in a positive and productive way.”
But nailing down a solid reason for why violence increased last year? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Huntley said.
He noted that the uptick was not just in Providence; the Institute’s victim services unit responded to help 320 victims of violent crimes at Rhode Island Hospital last year, compared to 165 in 2019. (The number includes violence victims statewide and some from Southeastern Massachusetts.)
In the end, 2020 was the deadliest since 2014, when there were also 18 homicides, according to the FBI’s uniform crime reporting database. Clements notes the homicide rate used to be higher — there were 30 people murdered in 2000 — but the numbers had been decreasing over the past decade.
While shootings and homicides were up in 2020, many other crimes saw decreases, in part because of a change in how police operated.
Drug offenses, for example, dropped by 48%, though that doesn’t mean drug sales, purchases or usage were way down.
Part of it is the pandemic disrupting the market, Clements said, changing the way police have known drugs to get to dealers and how dealers serve their customers. But officers also decreased enforcement intentionally as they attempted to limit in-person interaction for safety reasons.
“We pulled back on a lot of our interactions with car stops and pedestrians and a lot of our workforce had to transition into COVID policing,” Clements said. That included at one point using officers to enforce a ban on people entering parks and playgrounds, and later in the pandemic shutting down bars and nightclubs not following strict safety guidelines.
Burglaries were down by 10%, as people stayed home and provided less of an easy target for break-ins. And some person-on-person crimes such as robberies were also down, while aggravated assaults — which would include stabbings — remained steady from the prior year.
The plan for 2021 includes targeting those known to carry weapons and be “hot,” Clements said, or known to be likely to pull a trigger. But he said increased staffing will also be key, as the police department is slated to add 50 officers to the ranks by the end of 2021, provided the funding for the academy is approved by the Providence City Council. (At last check, a majority of councilors and Mayor Jorge Elorza were in favor of holding the academy.)
The recruits have completed two testing phases and are due for oral interviews and background checks before 50 are selected to join the academy, set to begin in late May, Clements said. Once graduated, the new officers will join the patrol division, allowing the department to “backfill” other divisions that are short-staffed.
While Clements said he doesn’t think Providence needs a dedicated homicide unit to investigate the increase in murders, he said he does want to add 10 detectives to the division this year by promoting officers from within. A detectives exam will be held later in 2021, he said.
“When there’s a crime stat, a number, we can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s a victim attached to that,” Clements said. “We’re optimistic that we can reverse this pattern.”