During a Facebook Live discussion Wednesday, five community leaders discussed the root causes of a growing number of homicides in Topeka and how the trend — with support from both grassroots organizations and elected officials — could be reversed.
When Shanta Trice, spokeswoman for Mothers of Murdered Sons, realized Topeka had reached a record 30 homicides last year, she said she felt disbelief and fear.
“What’s going to change that?” she asked. “We’ve got to figure out something to change it.”
So far this year, there have been three homicides in Topeka.
“We’re talking to mothers who are in turmoil because they lost their son over something so senseless. There’s nothing worth taking a life over,” said Trice, who has lost two family members in homicides.
She believes improvements start with reaching young people.
“It’s about our youth,” Trice said. “I personally think the earlier that we start, the better.”
Jim McCollough, executive director of the Topeka Center for Peace and Justice, also said the focus should be on youth.
“I think our feeling is, we didn’t to this point overnight and we’re not going to get past this point overnight,” he said. “We feel we need to start at a young age working with kids when they’re dealing with problems, dealing with conflict.”
McCollough said the center has initiated programs to address bullying, restorative justice practices within area school districts and victim-offender mediation.
Community organizer Curtis Pitts said the city needs youth programming that goes to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. He also said change has to come from a grassroots level.
“When we have the people who are at the root need of our community not being able to create the programming that’s necessary for themselves, then you’re going to continue to have these outbreaks of violence throughout our society,” Pitts said.
Trice said there’s also a lot of division in Topeka which Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen, pastor of First Congregational Church, described as “silos.” People live in economic and neighborhood silos and an invisible line runs down Kansas Ave., he said. But every homicide is a loss to the entire community.
“How do we define community and what does that actually mean?” he asked. “My understanding of community is that whatever happens to any part of that community affects everybody and that therefore the solutions need to be of concern, potential solutions, to absolutely everybody in it. You don’t create silos like we currently have.”
Schlingensiepen called on local and state leaders to come together to analyze the problem and develop a strategy.
“I think we also need our city and county leadership to say, ‘We really want to tackle this issue and all of the tributaries to the things that are happening that are leading to the homicides,’” he said.
Michelle McCormick, director of the YWCA’s Center for Safety and Empowerment, noted several homicides last year were a result of domestic violence.
“In each of those individual circumstances, there is a ripple effect of people who were impacted by each of those deaths,” she said. “And in my work, I see that unresolved cruelty creates more cruelty in the world and so my concern is how is the impact of those homicides going to impact people for a long time.”
McCormick said the a coordinated response to domestic violence is the best model.
Local efforts have gone up and down in past years.
“We have begun the process of re-engaging our city leaders to get involved in that multi-disciplinary team and we really hope that we’re going to see some more significant engagement in that,” McCormick said.
She added that one challenge advocates face is that most state laws consider domestic violence a misdemeanor which means it isn’t always taken seriously.
Several participants also expressed concern about state gun laws.
“It’s way too easy to get guns and there is something incredibly and seriously wrong with our whole culture,” McCollough said. “Not just Topeka, but our whole culture that is allowing big money to make it so easy for these kids to have lethal weapons.”
Schlingensiepen said gun sales stand in relationship to people’s fear.
“Our fears are being deftly exploited at every political level these days,” he said.
Pitts said Topeka has historically been at the frontline for fighting for justice noting Washburn University’s roots as a school that included freed slaves and Brown v. Board.
“Topeka has a heart we’re not tapping into,” Pitts said.
Several people posted comments during the Facebook broadcast, bringing up mental health services, the role of gangs and the need for more youth services and activities.