New City Paper project will track summer gun homicides | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

New City Paper project will track summer gun homicides

"There's a chance of it being a pretty bad summer."

ShaVaugn Wallace, a pregnant 18-year-old; Clayton Brunson, a 27-year-old father of one; Kaamil Arnold, a 36-year-old shot and killed on the Fourth of July; Tina Crawford, a 34-year-old witness in a federal drug case; and Deondre Kenney, a 15-year-old who was found shot to death in a car. These are just some of the lives lost between May and September in Pittsburgh over the past few years.

In the city, rising temperatures in the summer months tend to correlate with an increase in gun homicides. Over the past decade, according to an analysis of homicide data by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July and August topped the list for the months with the most homicides.

Now, community activists are predicting this summer could be even worse than previous years. Since May 25, three shootings have occurred in the city, and activists say the growing trend of violence spawned from disputes on social media and the lack of summer youth activities could drive this season's gun-death rate above last year's.

"I don't want to speak it into existence, but there's a chance of it being a pretty bad summer," says Taili Thompson, executive director of Youth Opportunities Development, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth. "We just have to get out in front of this stuff."

This summer, City Paper will launch a new project to shed light on gun homicides in the city. CP's Summer Gun-Homicide Report, which can be found on, will take a closer look at the lives behind the numbers: Who are the victims and perpetrators, and how are their communities being impacted?

Through his current work with youth in YOD, and his former involvement with One Vision One Life, a now-defunct violence-intervention organization, Thompson has seen the trend of increased violence during the summer for many years. He says this trend is tied to scarce employment opportunities for youth during the months they are out of school.

And in recent years, Thompson says, youth violence has been increasing as a result of social-media sites like Facebook and video-sharing sites like YouTube, where arguments escalate to brawls in Pittsburgh's neighborhoods.   

"Social media plays a significant part," says Thompson. "We've had an increase in violence over the last two or three years and I attribute that to social media. Some of these things that have happened, we've seen them coming. If you take social media away, some individuals wouldn't even know the other person doesn't like them."

Richard Garland, a visiting professor in the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and former executive director of One Vision One Life, has been monitoring the growing impact of social media as well. For nearly a decade, he worked with One Vision, intervening in disputes between local gangs. But he says what's happening on the Internet is different.

"Social media is killing us right now," says Garland. "I call them ‘Internet gangsters' now, because you can post a lot of stuff on the Internet and think you won't be threatened because it's the Internet, but it catches up to you."

And activists say violence is also promoted on these websites through videos of fights and pictures of teenagers holding firearms.

"I talk to these kids, and it's always about social media, what someone said on Facebook," says Amber Sloan, another activist working to curb street violence. "What happens is these kids will make Facebook pages and ... there are guns all over their page. Social media is out of control. They actually plan to meet up and fight over Facebook."

For its part, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police says it routinely monitors social media. And with the help of a community-policing grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, public-safety spokesperson Sonya Toler says the bureau is working to "improve its ability to use data to predict hotspots and work with the community to prevent crime."

"The main focus of the Bureau is to decrease violent crime no matter what time of the year it occurs," Toler writes in an email. "To that end Chief [Cameron] McLay has reassigned some detectives back to uniform patrol so as to have more of a presence in the areas where homicides are more likely to occur. In addition, the Bureau has put a concerted effort into building and improving upon relationships with communities. Policing works best when police and community work together to deter crime."

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By Mars Johnson