After 18 people were killed in South Bend during the summer of 2012, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D.) declared the city "unacceptably violent" and announced a data-driven anti-violence commission to combat the problem.
"We have to send the message that one violent crime in our city is one too many. We cannot tolerate another summer like last summer," Buttigieg said during his 2013 State of the City speech.
Composed of a group of community leaders and overseen by Police Chief Ron Teachman, the South Bend Group Violence Intervention sought to use both community and law enforcement methods to reduce gang violence and provide offenders—especially young people—a "moral" alternative to a life of crime. Buttigieg also said the city would double the number of mentors reaching out to at-risk youth through the SBGVI in the next three years.
The SBGVI first met in April 2013 and began by assessing the specifics of gun violence in the city. Expectations were high, with Buttigieg promising to seriously address the problem, which had resulted in 78 people injured or killed in shootings the previous year.
"The community will not tolerate this anymore. There will be serious consequences if you do not change. We have help for you if you're willing to change," Buttigieg said before the meeting.
The day after the commission's first meeting, the trial for one of the most gruesome crimes of the previous summer concluded. Eighteen-year-old Damontray Lovelady pleaded guilty to fatally shooting 16-year-old Jhaelon Johnson as he was walking down the street. The two high-school students had been "beefing" and exchanging gunshots for several months prior. While driving through a neighborhood in early September 2012, Lovelady spotted Johnson walking with a group of friends, hooked a U-turn, and shot him in the head.
"These acts of senseless violence are unacceptable, and all of us in the community must recommit to preventing future tragedies," Buttigieg said in a statement at the time. "Everyone—from police to parents, from teachers to elected officials—has a role to play in making young lives better and making our community safer."
Johnson's death was the 13th of the summer that claimed 18 lives—twice the number killed in 2011 and triple the number in 2010. Of the people killed in 2012, six were teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19. It was Buttigieg's first year in office, which was marked by his firing of the popular black Police Chief Darryl Boykins, in what became a racially charged intra-civic battle.
As the summer of 2013 unfolded, Buttigieg sought to restore a semblance of stability to the city. In June, he accompanied the SBGVI to New York City to receive training from crime-reduction expert David Kennedy, whose work influenced the formation of Operation Ceasefire in Boston during the 1990s. Buttigieg credited his 2011 book Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America with helping him craft his own anti-violence plan.
South Bend's strategy called for police to profile social circles where crime seemed most likely to occur and to crack down on the most violent offenders. As for other members of those circles, police were instructed to round them up and deliver a clear message: end the violence, or else. These meetings, called "call-ins," would be hosted by mentors and according to Buttigieg, data showed that mentor guidance had helped reduce violence in other struggling cities like Chicago.
"It's really a key moment of the strategy because that's where you lay it all out," he said at the SBGVI's second meeting, in reference to his faith in the effectiveness of call-in meetings.
But progress was slow. A double-header of deadly shootings in late July claimed the lives of two women, Dominique Jackson and JaRina Bailey. South Bend residents began speaking out that not enough was being done to deal with crime ravaging the city, especially in the black communities where violent crime was not subsiding.
"Our young generation is angry," community leader Rev. Cory Gathright Sr. told television station WSBT with regard to the violence. "They're angry about not being able to find jobs. They're angry about not being able to pay their rent or their house notes. They're angry about not being able to provide for their children."
Buttigieg responded to the shooting with a statement that renewed his calls for people to apply the methods he prescribed in his anti-violence strategy: "This kind of unacceptable violence is exactly why I started the Anti-Violence Commission, to apply a highly effective group violence reduction strategy," he said. "We're partnering with local, state and federal law enforcement, prosecutors, social services, education, health, and faith leaders to reduce group-related gun violence."
Two weeks later, shots rang out at a prayer vigil where over 100 people, including Buttigieg, had gathered to remember the victims of the July shootings. No one was injured, but many present used it as an opportunity to criticize Buttigieg’s anti-violence commission, which he had been promoting just as the shots were fired.
Responding to criticisms doubting the SBGVI's effectiveness, Buttigieg said, "We're not going to be thrown off our purposes by some incident like that," according to WSBT.
"Every time people get upset about violence in this community, there's been a big gathering, a task force or something, a lot of headlines, and then it goes away," Buttigieg added. "We're taking our time to do this right because we have to get it right this time."
Buttigieg deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in 2014. In his absence, ongoing tensions between black officers and white leadership in the police department cracked when four black officers petitioned South Bend Common Council to remove Teachman from office for allegedly creating new positions for which he would not allow minorities to apply. They also criticized Buttigieg in his absence, saying that he allowed Teachman to "run amok" in the department, rendering it ineffective.
Shortly after Buttigieg's return to South Bend, scandal rocked the SBGVI. In October, Issac Hunt Jr., one of the mentors tasked with lecturing at-risk youth about not committing violent crimes, was arrested on charges of domestic battery and unlawful possession of a firearm. Hunt had pushed his wife to the floor, beat her, and threatened to shoot her, according to police reports.
Hunt, a reformed felon, had been instrumental in pushing Buttigieg’s anti-violence strategy, counseling many young people with a "help us help you" message.
"We work with them one on one in their peer meetings to be able to help these young men identify themselves so that they can break away from the organization," Hunt told WSBT several months before his arrest.
The incident was a blow to the SBGVI, but Buttigieg assured the concerned public that a bad mentor doesn’t mean bad methodology.
"Isaac Hunter [sic] did a lot of great work as part of that initiative, but that initiative is bigger than one person, we've always said that," Buttigieg told WSBT. "I'm very confident that the coalition of community members will continue to pull together because it’s just too important."
"Everybody involved in this initiative will come together, we'll have conversations, and we'll figure out how to make sure the initiative can carry forward," he said.
It was a rocky road in the beginning, but the SBGVI has continued its push to end violence in South Bend. While crime overall is down this year, injuries or death from shootings has held steady: 78 people, the same number as 2012.
The South Bend mayor's office did not return request for comment.