For the past two years, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has partnered with other media organizations on Precious Lives, a wide-ranging effort that examined the causes and consequences of gun violence on Milwaukee youth.
Precious Lives included stories in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and 100 weekly radio episodes, produced by 371 Productions, which aired on WUWM (89.7 FM) and WNOV (860 AM). The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism produced investigative reports examining the roots of gun violence and potential solutions in Milwaukee and statewide.
The final radio episode aired in December, but efforts to address this critical challenge facing our community will continue. The Journal Sentinel will continue to focus on youth violence and other critical problems facing Milwaukee, with in-depth reporting that highlights problems and potential solutions.
As part of Precious Lives, reporters from the Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism asked more than a dozen community leaders a key question:
What is your pledge to do in the coming year and the future to help address the problem of gun violence in Milwaukee, especially as it pertains to young people?
Here are their responses:
Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee
In order to curb gun violence in Milwaukee, we need to focus on preventing criminal access to firearms. I will once again be introducing legislation that would make purchasing a gun (straw purchase) for someone who is not legally allowed to possess them a felony.
We also need to look at legislation to prevent habitual criminals from legally being able to possess firearms. Legislation is needed to stop human holsters, people who hold guns for felons to prevent the felon from being charged for possessing a firearm. State aid is needed to fund expanded ShotSpotter coverage in high crime-areas. Finally, we need an increase in the number of gun courts to handle crimes related to firearm violations.
Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee
After four years in the Legislature, I have grown cynical about the likelihood of passing meaningful legislation that will impact Wisconsin gun laws. … Regardless of majority party will on gun-related policies, I am dedicated to turning toward two important collateral policy areas: the juvenile justice system and economic development in Milwaukee’s central city.
First, the juvenile justice system, especially the Department of Corrections and Lincoln Hills School, need to be reformed. Evidence shows that a regional model for juvenile incarceration works far better than one large institution hours away from the state’s population centers. Reformed juvenile justice may reduce the recidivism rate of juveniles, which equals a reduction in crime. Improved fairness and restorative programming matters to how youth perceive the juvenile justice system, which can also result in a reduction of crime.
Second, creating the needed investment on a scale and duration that can truly transform the economy of our state’s largest city will bring added stability to families and added hope to young people that there is a reachable future.
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee
As a neighbor, father and public servant, I understand that we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to prevent gun violence and make our communities safer.
Looking into 2017, I’ll continue to be an outspoken champion for public safety measures that would close the loophole so every gun sold is subject to a background check — this ensures guns don’t fall in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. We’d reinstate the 48-hour cooling off period for buying handguns. We’d limit the size of ammo magazines for assault weapons. We’d limit firearm access of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill. We’d prohibit those on the FBI terrorist watchlist from buying guns. And we’d require a gun lock to be purchased with every gun so parents are more likely to lock their gun and keep their children from accidentally finding it and causing a tragedy. Safer community legislative proposals like these are vital for protecting lives. Introduction and debate of them will be critical components of an important, community-wide discussion of public safety.
Rep. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee
In 2017, I pledge to be an agent for peace and safety in our community. Experiencing the unrest in Sherman Park firsthand this summer, it is clear that we are a community that is suffering — economically, environmentally, politically, and socially — and too often that suffering begins with senseless gun violence. I am committed to advancing policies at the state and local level that will restore safety to Milwaukee’s neighborhoods and offer support to traumatized children and their families so that ongoing cycles of violence and abuse can be disrupted.
We must enact common-sense safety requirements that keep guns out of the hands of criminals, allow local governments to determine their own gun safety needs, and devote more resources to treating the trauma and hopelessness that is the root cause of this public health crisis.
(Note: Johnson was elected to the state Senate in November and will be sworn in as a senator Tuesday.)
Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee
This session, I plan to reintroduce my gun violence prevention package, which includes mandatory insurance on firearms.
Especially as violence pertains to young people, we need to admit that a large-scale incarceration of youth at Lincoln Hills isn’t working and we must overhaul our state’s juvenile corrections entirely. That means it is time to end the Department of Corrections supervision of troubled youth and transfer all of juvenile corrections to the Department of Children and Families.
Furthermore, we need to get rid of institutions that don’t work, like Lincoln Hills, and double down on those that do work, like the Grow Academy and bring a Grow Academy to Milwaukee.
Finally, we must acknowledge the correlation between lead poisoning and violent crime and get to work immediately to get the lead out of our environment.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester
There is no simple solution to the Milwaukee crime problem. As outlined in the Assembly Republican agenda, we are looking to expand worker training, improve schools and address issues that may impede a person’s ability to work, like drug addiction.
However, we also must examine the judicial system to see why these dangerous criminals are not getting the tough sentences they deserve.
Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee
It is important to think about the root causes of gun violence in the city when we seek solutions. Employment stability and strong family support are all intertwined. Addressing the critical need for better mental health services, especially AODA treatment, can lessen the incidences of gun violence. If we continue to build a more vibrant, economically and socially viable Milwaukee, we will begin to see the rates of gun violence decrease.
In certain cases, year-round public schooling and/or residential educational and treatment facilities that are 24/7 will be needed in acute cases of absentee or totally dysfunctional parenting. …Firearm safety training should also be expanded. Knowing how to properly use, care for, and store your firearm is essential in decreasing the level of gun violence in Wisconsin.
Milwaukee area leaders
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele
Too many young people in our community feel hopeless — they lack economic opportunity, they’re hungry, they’ve experienced trauma, and they’ve seen their neighborhoods neglected for years.
What we are focused on at the county is how to empower people so that they never feel like turning to a gun is their only way out. We continue to expand job training and placement opportunities and to transition services — like mental health care, alcohol and drug abuse treatment, and domestic violence prevention efforts — into the community, where they are more accessible. When we lift people up at an early age, it makes a big difference.
Health Commissioner Bevan Baker
In public health, we know that the life circumstances and community conditions that make violence more likely also make good health less likely. That is why I pledge to advance our citywide Community Health Improvement Plan, called MKE Elevate, with a focus on creating shared priorities around the social and economic factors that drive healthier, safer neighborhoods.
MKE Elevate, being developed in tandem with our violence prevention plan, will call on every agency, business, nonprofit and individual to find where our work, passions and investments can align to support good health, safe neighborhoods, and healthy futures.
We cannot begin the marathon without a map of the course. These plans will be a guide. Finding our way will not be easy or fast, but we owe it to our city to try. I pledge to give it my all.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett
One-year-old Bill Thao, 5-year-old Laylah Petersen, 9-year-old Za’Layia Jenkins and 15-year-old Melanie Johnson; young innocent Milwaukeeans shot and killed. Innocents harmed and senselessly murdered, often by gun violence, rock me to my core.
Devonte Hayes, 19-years-old, and Norman Howard, 18-years-old; two Milwaukee teenagers who used firearms while committing several carjackings and sentenced to prison. Two teens have been charged with the murder of Melanie Johnson.
Youthful, criminal offenders, falling through the juvenile justice system cracks. Some reoffend without fear of consequences.
The vast majority of our young people are on the right track. But we do have too many young Milwaukeeans who are crime victims and young Milwaukeeans who are perpetrators.
That’s why I have insisted on implementing new approaches including a comprehensive community centered plan to prevent violence.
Over the past year we reconfigured and empowered my Office of Violence Prevention so that we take a holistic approach to public safety. I pledge to continue that work and the work of placing Milwaukee teens into summer jobs.
Our Police Department now has a total budget greater than the entire city property tax levy, and that’s a reflection of our commitment to provide the resources and personnel to reduce crime.
Protecting our children, offering hope in their lives and ensuring that real consequences for criminal behavior are in place are key to the future of our community.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm
The District Attorney’s Office will continue to support the strengthening of families through our collaboration with Sojourner Family Peace Center. The office will continue to support neighborhood development through our Community Prosecution Unit.
We will work with the Office of Violence Prevention to better coalesce the community efforts underway that intend to stabilize the lives of our youth, particularly those most at risk for engaging in criminal behavior.
And with the assistance of the MacArthur Foundation, we will better identify young people suffering from mental illness and trauma in order to steer them into the community resources that can most effectively treat their condition.
Terron Edwards, men’s wellness coordinator at Walnut Way Conservation Corp.
Our Men’s Wellness Program here at Walnut Way will continue to specialize in building spaces where men can feel safe to grow and thrive. Our project will also continue to make visible community impact by creating opportunities for our men to take active leadership roles here in Lindsey Heights.
Through our Peace Project, which includes intergenerational programming and activities for neighborhood youth to gain a greater social circle and deal with trauma caused by violence; our ongoing neighborhood peace summits to facilitate resident involvement in solutions to violence; and our ongoing trainings to enrich and prepare our participants, we will continue to enrich our neighborhood through its greatest resource — its neighbors.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn
Residents of Milwaukee and the Police Department need to continue to work collaboratively to change the culture surrounding violence in our city. We are not only combating violence but apathy as well. Young people need to realize there are other options besides violence to resolve disputes.
Camille Mays, founder of Peace Garden Project MKE
Peace Garden Project MKE is working on several city lot renovation projects that include creating community gardens and adding peace-inspired art. In addition to Peace Garden memorials, I have secured two lot projects for next year and anticipate a total of 25 lot projects by the end of 2017.
I will include youth in the projects to teach them skills and foster a sense of pride when they are involved in creating art and design for those spaces. I will discuss conflict resolution, and how they can make a positive impact against gun violence by promoting peace and unity in our community among their peers.
Reggie Moore, executive director of the Office of Violence Prevention
The City of Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention will continue to work alongside the community to identify the most effective strategies to prevent violence. The process has begun, with hundreds of residents, youth and stakeholders involved. By summer, this community-driven plan will launch.
We will expand our partner-driven trauma response work and launch our efforts to strengthen youth access to behavioral and mental health supports through youth development and employment.
None of this we can do alone. We commit to working with individuals, groups and agencies who share a vision of making Milwaukee a safe city for all.
Carmen Pitre, executive director of Sojourner Family Peace Center
Sojourner remains committed to transforming lives. The accessibility of firearms is a major public health concern, especially in domestic violence incidences as it can lead to intimate partner homicide. We are especially concerned about youth exposure to violence, which is why we work closely with others to address it. In addition, our partnership with Guns, Grief and Grace in America is a collective effort to create a readily available tool kit of resources to encourage dynamic and inclusive community conversation as it relates to gun violence.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the Sojourner 24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 414-933-2722. All calls are confidential.
Editor’s note: Some of the responses have been edited for length or clarity. Gov. Scott Walker did not respond to requests for comment. These comments were compiled by Ashley Luthern and Mary Spicuzza of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff, with contributions from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.