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Who Is Responsible For Reducing Gun Violence In Cincinnati?

June 12 started as a normal summer day for Marcella Thompson and her kids. They planned on watching the new Disney movie Cruella and decided to make it special.

"We had just got back from Sam's Club, Walmart, a number of places just getting little movie buckets and things of that nature, pajamas and stuff, just so we can be cozy and have a family movie night," Thompson said.

Eight-year-old Marcellus "MJ" Whitehead asked to walk down the street to a convenience store with his older brother to meet a friend and get some snacks.

They were in the parking lot of Reem Market in East Westwood when gunfire erupted. Three people were hit: an 18-year-old, a 6-year-old and MJ, who was hit twice — once in his head and the other in his leg.

Thompson says he was already in surgery when she got to Children's Hospital that night.

"We were informed that MJ will not make it through the night," Thompson remembers. "At that moment, I felt like my life was crashing, and I felt like it was over. I just asked myself why, why my baby?"

MJ did make it through that first night. He's still on a ventilator with severe brain damage.

A Hot Spot For Gun Violence

MJ strong sign
Credit Becca Costello / WVXU

The area around Reem Market is a hot spot for gun violence. People complained about it at a public safety forum in Westwood a couple weeks ago. Council Member Betsy Sundermann says it's one of her top priorities.

"I've talked to the law department for the city about starting a nuisance case on the market," Sundermann said. "And that could probably help us get their liquor license taken and all kinds of things like that."

Emal Rab has owned the market for nearly a decade, and worked here as a clerk before that. He says he's at the end of his rope.

"The police asked me to put in a fence, I put in a fence. The police asked me to put in a nicer camera, I put in a nicer camera," Rab said. "Whatever they asked me to do, I did it."

Rab says he calls the police all the time, mostly to report people loitering near the store when he suspects they're dealing drugs.

"But they go on the corner — that's not my authority," Rab said. "If I call the police, the police [are] like, this is a sidewalk, we can't do nothing about it."

One of Rab's employees quit right after the shooting because he didn't feel safe. Rab doesn't feel safe either, but he says his customers need him.

"I was closed on Sunday [after the shooting]," Rab said. "Everybody calls me, hey, why are you closed? A lot of the elders over there, they can't walk to Quality [Market] for two miles, or they don't want to walk to Shell — they don't feel safe."

An Issue Of 'Values' Or Lack Of Resources?

More than 220 people have been shot in Cincinnati so far this year — about 20% under age 20, prompting renewed calls for a focus on youth violence and resources.

Still, the number of people shot is down 25% compared to this time last year, when Cincinnati was part of a nationwide spike in violent crime during the pandemic. But shootings are up 18% compared to 2019.

shooting victims graph
Credit Courtesy Cincinnati Police Department
This chart shows shooting victims in Cincinnati since 2008.

Police Chief Eliot Isaac announced more patrols on the weekends, but warns that’s not sustainable given an officer shortage.

CPD has confiscated nearly 800 illegal guns just this year. And soon the department is launching a new Gun Crime Intelligence Center, with half a million dollars in the city's capital budget dedicated to getting the center ready to go.

Mayor John Cranley singled out youth violence in his response to a Fourth of July shooting at Smale Riverfront Park that left a 16- and 19-year-old dead, and three teens injured.

"I have asked the city manager and the police chief to convene the manager's advisory group to examine causes, evaluate resources, and ultimately create a plan to address youth violence," Cranley said. "Kids are turning to violence to solve their problems, retaliating and shooting when they feel they have been wronged."

Cranley says outside of law enforcement, the city is doing all it can, citing the latest increase in human services funding in the budget. He says communities need to focus on personal responsibility and teach better values.

However, police data shows the number of youth injured or killed in gun violence has remained steady over the last several years. And community leaders say the values are there – it's the resources that are lacking.

'That Dividing Talk Is Killing Us'

Credit Becca Costello/WVXU

The most recent meeting of the East Westwood Community council began, as usual, with president Rodney Christian leading a prayer.

"Father God, once again we thank you for getting to our destination," Christian prayed. "We know there's some people did not make it to their destination — that's why we should be so thankful coming into the door and being able to have a seat among our brothers and sisters." 

Christian pushed the small crowd to step up in a big way, addressing parents directly.

"Your children's children gonna be living in hell if we sit here and ignore it today," Christian said. "You ain't talking about bringing us together, I don't want to hear it. We've got to squash that dividing talk. That dividing talk is killing us — it's killing us."

Christian is the type to lead by example. He helped build a basketball court here, right next to the church where the council gathers for meetings. He wants the city to put as much effort into East Westwood as he and others have.

Marcella Thompson agrees that families have to take responsibility. But says communities like hers need more police resources like ShotSpotter and security cameras. 

"If you spend money on other things, spend money on things to save lives, that could prevent situations from happening," Thompson said.

Thompson says she can't live in East Westwood anymore, constantly driving past the place where her child got hurt and their lives changed forever.

For now, she's just praying MJ will be able to come home soon — wherever home ends up being.

A GoFundMe has been set up to support Thompson's family. 

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.