Columbus contends with an increase in gun violence

Andy Downing

On Sunday, June 11, artist Julian Dassai was in the midst of a leisurely afternoon at the Downtown Columbus Metropolitan Library. Flautango, a long-running acoustic trio that specializes in traditional Mexican folk music, had just finished an hour-long set, concluding with signature song “Cielito Lindo,” a beaming, boisterous number. Dassai, seated on the top floor overlooking the library's atrium, had returned to reading Cormac McCarthy's “All the Pretty Horses.”

“The music was beautiful, and it was super peaceful to the extent I was consciously thinking to myself, ‘Man, this is absolutely beautiful. This must be the most peaceful place in Columbus at the moment,'” said Dassai in an early July interview. “Then all of a sudden, ‘Pop! Pop! Pop!'

“I've shot handguns before, and I knew immediately what it was. … Based on the faces of all the people around me, the thought was somebody was going on a rampage in the library.”

Fortunately, the shooting, which happened just after 3 p.m., was not the start of a larger incident, but rather the culmination of a dispute — triggered when someone accidentally bumped into the suspect, Joseph W. Steward III, who was charged with felonious assault, according to police reports. The victim, John Thrasher, was shot in the ankle, escaping through an emergency exit and making his way to the basement, where he was discovered outside the security-operations center. Thrasher was then transported in stable condition to OhioHealth Grant Medical Center for treatment.

The shooting, which took place at 96 S. Grant Ave., is the first in the 23-branch library system's 143-year history, according to director of marketing Gregg Dodd. Citywide, however, shootings have become more commonplace this year, with multiple new victims surfacing each week. The same afternoon as the library shooting, three men were wounded by gunfire near Eastland Mall on the Southeast Side. One Sunday in early May, three people were killed in three separate shootings; two others were injured. On a Tuesday in April, six people were wounded in shootings across Columbus; a seventh was killed. In the early morning hours on Easter Sunday, nine were shot and wounded at J&R Party Hall, an event space in South Linden.

Killings this year are at a three-year high, already numbering 77. In comparison, Columbus logged 106 homicides in 2016 and 99 in 2015. Overall, the city, which ranks 14th in the U.S. in terms of population, had the seventh-highest murder rate in 2016, with 12 people killed for every 100,000 residents.

Though murder rates have trended downward in the U.S. for decades, in more recent years larger cities such as Chicago and Cleveland have experienced an uptick in homicides.

According to Ohio State University professor of History and Sociology Randolph Roth, this surge can't be traced to something tangible, such as poverty (“High unemployment doesn't necessarily increase murder rates”) or the current spike in the opioid drug trade (“The heroin trade, while growing, has been largely non-violent for some reason”), but rather something far less tangible and more difficult to measure.

“What's happening, I think, is when trust breaks down and people have less faith in institutions, they go around with a great deal of anger. And this is really what drives homicide rates among unrelated adults. It's different for domestic homicides and murders of children, which follow different patterns,” said Roth, who, alongside the late Eric Monkkonen, co-founded the Historical Violence Database, a collaborative research project studying “the history of violent crime, violent death and collective violence.” “But the types of shootings between people we're talking about — friends, acquaintances, strangers — it's a pattern that goes back hundreds of years. When people lose faith in government, and their sense of kinship with people beyond immediate family and friends breaks down, murder rates can go up.”

Police Chief Kim Jacobs agreed with aspects of Roth's hypothesis. In a late-July interview in her Downtown office, Chief Jacobs noted the growing heroin drug trade has not been particularly violent up to this point. She also agreed that there has been a more palpable sense of anger motivating a number of incidents, including the library shooting.

“A lot of people think gangs and drugs are a reason for violence, but I know a number of cases we have where it's just people who don't deal effectively with their own anger. Instead of punching somebody or yelling at them, they're grabbing a gun,” said Chief Jacobs, noting the Columbus Division of Police confiscates more than 2,000 illegal guns a year, in addition to the 6,000-plus service calls officers attend to each year that involve a firearm. “Anger and emotional responses are being accompanied by violence more now in the form of guns instead of something much tamer like we might have seen in the past.”

In a 2016 National Institute of Justice report titled “Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise,” Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor and onetime president of the American Society of Criminology, further explored the theory advanced by Roth, examining urban centers with relatively large African-American populations that had ties to controversial police use-of-force incidents because, as Rosenfeld writes, “The police are the front line of government in disadvantaged urban communities.”

“Lack of confidence in the police among African-Americans predates the recent police killings in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York and elsewhere,” he continues. “But it is likely to be activated by such incidents, transforming long-standing latent grievances into an acute legitimacy crisis.”

In his report, Rosenfeld noted a spike in the murder rate in Cleveland following the police-shooting death of Tamir Rice, as well as in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police-shooting death of Michael Brown, though he stops short of drawing a direct correlation between these events, noting the rise could be a combination of numerous factors, including but not limited to the drug trade, mass incarceration and shaken public confidence in established institutions. “[Perhaps these] are not competing hypotheses so much as interacting components of a broader explanation,” he writes.

“When we look at homicide as a society, we tend to look at the event itself when events that led to it are actually way up the causal stream and way back in the psychology people are bringing to that encounter,” Roth said. “I'm pretty sure the guy who bumped into someone at the library was surprised to get shot. But it's not just bumping into strangers. When these moods happen, you're more likely to kill your best friend. You've played cards with them for years and then —pow! — this happens.”

Wayne Crawford, a custodial employee at OSU, had taken the bus Downtown from his home in Whitehall, grabbing a seat at a terminal in the library's second floor computer lab to fill out free sweepstakes entries on the Publishers Clearing House website. After an hour of tooling around online, Crawford heard what sounded like firecrackers going off somewhere nearby. Almost immediately, library patrons started darting past him in a scene he described like “running with the bulls” during a mid-July interview. Snatching up his phone and leaving behind his charging cord and sunglasses, Crawford took off for the emergency exit.

“With everything going on these days, I thought it was a fanatic with a gun, so my first impulse was to bolt out of there as fast as I could,” he said. “I'm 57 years old. I never thought I could run that fast.”

In the stairwell, Crawford and another man helped up a woman who had slipped and fallen, and the three quickly made their way down toward the exit, following a trail of blood later revealed to be from the shooting victim. “When we made it out,” he said, “the police were already moving in full force.”

CPD responded to the library shooting promptly, according to library security manager Kevin Smith, who estimated the first officers arrived on the scene less than two minutes after shots were fired. (The suspect, Steward III, surrendered to a pair of library security guards and was taken into custody shortly after police arrived.)

Though the police are at the forefront of efforts to stem rising gun violence citywide — CPD public information officer Denise Alex-Bouzounis said the department has shifted additional patrols to high-crime areas, as well as pushed for increased community policing and block watches in affected areas — city officials have embraced a multi-pronged approach to confronting the increase in killings.

“One loss of life is one too many, and the Columbus Division of Police is working closely with residents in neighborhoods where violent crime has increased,” Mayor Andrew Ginther said in an emailed statement toAlive in response to an interview request. “The best way to battle crime is to prevent it in the first place, so we are also expanding collaborative, community-based programs.”

Columbus Recreation and Parks director Tony Collins said in the last 18 months there has been a greater push behind programs such as Applications for Purpose, Pride and Success (APPS), which was created in 2011 and designed to reduce crime and violence by offering mentorship programs and conflict mediation, in addition to addressing risk factors in young people aged 14 to 24. “I wake up every day worried about the kids we're serving, so I do think there is more urgency,” Collins said in a late-July phone interview. “But it's important to say that this isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. It's a long game.”

Other efforts, which are heavily focused on traditionally underserved neighborhoods such as the Hilltop and North Linden, include School's Out, a program designed to fill the gap during those times classes are not in session, and Cap City Nights, a series of free, family friendly summer festivals designed to foster better community relationships in specific neighborhoods. The final Cap City Nights event of the summer takes place Saturday, July 29 at the Glenwood Community Center in the Hilltop.

Chief Jacobs stressed the importance of taking an approach to violence that extends outside of traditional policing and is focused more on mental health education.

“Long term, I think education is something we need more of, and not just math, reading and science, but life skills and ways to deal with difficult problems,” she said. “If you were abused as a kid, how do you find a path to a happy, healthy life? Because I don't think some people know. There's no modeling going on, and if you've never seen normalcy, if you will, about how people deal with anger, how are you ever going to learn it?”

Rodolfo Vazquez, flautist and bandleader of Mexican folk trio Flautango, arrived at the Downtown library shortly before 2 p.m., where he conferred with library officials before setting up the band's gear on the east side of the building's atrium. After playing for an hour to a crowd slightly subdued by the beautiful weather (Gregg Dodd estimated roughly 100 visitors were in the library when the shooting took place, in addition to the “35 to 45” staffers typically scheduled on a Sunday), Vazquez chatted with audience members and casually gathered his things.

“I was putting my flute in my case, and I heard three really loud bangs. … I was so flabbergasted that kind of sound would happen in a library,” said Vazquez, who went on to describe the distinct odor that accompanied the burst — a flinty, metallic scent like nothing else he had experienced.

While Flautango guitarist Sean Ferguson bolted for the exit, instrument in hand, Vazquez and vocalist Maria Andrade initially froze until a patron ushered them into the women's bathroom near the rear of the first floor. There, the two huddled with “five or six others,” including a man who grew increasingly upset as the minutes ticked by, confident whoever had been shooting would come for the group next.

“He was very agitated and kept saying, ‘Oh, my god. He's going to look for us in the bathroom,' and everybody was trying to calm him down,” Vasquez said. “I texted my son and daughter just to let them know we were OK. I said, ‘We're waiting for the police to show up, but we're fine.' We waited in there for 15 or 20 minutes until we heard someone say, ‘This is the police. Come out with your hands up.' And we came out with our hands up. I had never done that.”

In the days following the shooting, library officials adopted new security measures, extending the no-weapons policy to include toy guns and approving the purchase of new security cameras expected to cost in excess of $500,000. The library will also enlist the services of more off-duty police officers, and it has already hosted a live-shooter refresher course for staffers, instructing them on the “run, hide, fight” method of dealing with an attack. At the same time, the library did not want to adopt any restrictive new policies, or to overreact to a single incident by incorporating security measures that might impede upon the slogan etched above the Main Library entrance: “Open to all.”

“We want to ensure we are safe, and we believe we are safe, but we want to have that access and that comfort level of our customers being able to access our locations freely,” said Dodd, noting that “everything was under review … but there have not been drastic changes, such as [the introduction] of magnetometers.” “AEP (American Electric Power) is the public utility for power, and some would say we're the public utility for information. [Openness to all] is what our library system represents. And we don't ever want to lose that.”

After getting his bearings and surveying the situation, Julian Dassai reverted to the lessons absorbed from his mother while growing up in Athens, Greece. “She would teach us from a young age, when you're sitting somewhere, know where the exit is,” Dassai said. “This is a thing that generates a certain paranoia in you, but she was a single mother with no money raising two kids in a foreign country, so she was consciously doing things to try and keep us safe.”

In short order, Dassai, who said he emerged as de facto leader simply by speaking up and saying, “We have to get out of here,” led a group of six or seven people through an emergency exit and down three flights of stairs to an exterior door near the parking garage entrance on the north side of the building. Once outside, he was unsure if the gunman or gunmen might emerge from the same exit at any given moment, so he counseled the stragglers milling about to keep moving until they were blocks away.

Within minutes, Dassai was sitting at home in his apartment, where the reality of the situation finally set in, lighting him up with an anger that has subsided only slightly in the weeks that have passed since the shooting.

“When I moved here from Greece, the library was the first place a family friend took me in Columbus: ‘The first thing we're going to do is get you a library card, and the second thing we're going to do is set up a bank account,'” Dassai said. “I remember walking into [the Main Library Downtown] — we don't have public libraries like that in Greece, or at least we didn't when I was growing up — and seeing that ‘open to all.' The mentality of that, to me, that's more sacred than a shooting in a church.”