Gun Violence Spreads in Cedar Rapids

May 3, 2012

Gun violence in Cedar Rapids is at an all-time high.
Police say they’re not sure what’s behind the massive spike.
And the violence is spreading to parts of town once considered safe.

Wellington Heights is not one of those parts of town. You could say it has a bad rep in Cedar Rapids,
thanks to some of the highest crime rates in the city. But lately, things are getting worse.

A woman who didn't want to give her name for fear of becoming a target ticks off what she's been hearing about in her neighborhood: “There was a shooting on that corner, uh last week, there was a shooting on this corner last week, there was a shooting eight times on a house right at the end of the corner," she says. "And that was just last week.”

The woman says she just ducked into her front yard to spray paint an old grate. But she says even that’s taking a risk.

“I’m out here, I look, I see, is there anybody around? I want to spray this, I go back inside and lock my door.”

There have been 19 reports of “shots fired” in Cedar Rapids already this year. While that doesn’t compare with the kind of violence seen in major cities, it’s already more than all of last year’s eleven shootings. And it’s a major spike from 2010, when just 5 shootings were reported.

Police say there’s no simple answer as to why this is happening now.  

“And that’s the frustrating part for us. We can’t come down and I can’t give you a laundry list of five things," says Sgt. Cristy Hamblin, the public information officer for the Cedar Rapids police. "There’s so many different factors into the reasoning behind each of those incidents of gun violence.”

Interim Police Chief Tom Jonker declined to be interviewed for this story.

But here’s what police know: These shootings aren’t random; they’re targeted. The victim and shooter often know each other. Many of the victims are black men in lower income neighborhoods. Sometimes drugs are involved, sometimes not. And police believe the violence may be connected to non-residents, people from larger cities like Chicago or Des Moines.

But perhaps the most consistent trend? Hamblin says witnesses aren’t talking.
“Take the one that we had last week, in which we had 30 people standing outside, and we had shots fired," Hamblin says. "In that case, everybody saw something a little bit different – reported that they saw something a little bit different. And even the victim in that case isn’t totally cooperative with us. And that’s where it’s gonna take the community to step up and say, you know what, enough is enough.”

Meanwhile, the violence is spreading to areas that haven’t seen shootings for years – if ever. Jessica Zmolek is a student a Kirkwood Community College. Last month she got a text message telling her there’d been a shooting in her apartment complex.

“So I called my friend back and I was like, what do I do? I’ve like never been in this situation," Zmolek says. "And he was like, well go home. And I was like, well, that’s what happened! And he’s like, well don’t go home!”

Police have arrested just four people in connection with shootings this year.  They admit those stats aren’t great. But they say they’re reaching out to community leaders in churches, schools, and other organizations to get people involved. They’re spreading the word about an anonymous tip system that lets witnesses send encrypted text messages to police.

In the rough parts of Wellington Heights, residents like Donna Pratt say there may be one upside: she says as violence spreads across town, she’s seeing more people get angry about the issue.

“When it happens in their neighborhood, they’re gonna really start caring a lot more. What those people don’t realize is that when it happened here, it’s their neighborhood, it’s their city," Pratt says.

"It should have mattered to them a long time ago.”

 Yet police say to truly stop the violence, they need people in all neighborhoods to speak up and reach out.