A deeper look at gun violence in Columbus: local leaders reflect, react, ask the community for help

Crime

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Shootings during the day, shootings at night,  and sometimes multiple shootings in one weekend; the city of Columbus has experienced an influx of gun violence this year, reflected in the rising homicide rate. 

Columbus is on its way to mark 60 homicides this year. With less than three months left in 2021, the Fountain City has already surpassed last year’s total of 44 homicides. 

Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan and his deputies have responded to every single homicide. They’ve seen firsthand the devastating impacts of each name added to the list. 

“I went to the apartment complex, I knocked on the door at about 2-3 o’clock in the morning,” Bryan said. “The lady wanted to know ‘who is it?’ I said ‘It’s Buddy Bryan.’ I didn’t have to say Muscogee County Coroner. She knew exactly who I was. She started screaming in hysterics because she knew I was there to let her know that her son was dead.”

Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson says the influx of crime in Columbus is a microcosm of what’s been going on across the state and country — he said this was evident upon talking to mayors of other hub cities in Georgia. 

“I’m focused on Columbus, I’m not saying I don’t care what happens elsewhere, but they’re saying the same things,” Henderson said. “They’re having trouble finding police officers, they’re losing police officers, they’re seeing their violent crimes escalate.” 

Mayor Henderson says he applauds the responsiveness of officers and sheriffs deputies — despite the shortage of staff that impacts their ability to get from call to call. 

 The relationship between communities and law enforcement has changed in the past year and a half. Cases of police brutality on the national scale have impacted community involvement and engagement with law enforcement. 

“There’s a hesitancy to open up and trust some of the officers with information where they want to stay anonymous,” Henderson said. “They will keep your confidence. If you give them the tools that they need to be able to stop some of these murders from happening, then you’re going to be able to have a direct input of what goes on in your neighborhood.”

In early October, Columbus PD participated in its first-ever “Faith and Blue” weekend. The purpose of the event was to build a stronger relationship between law enforcement and citizens through the reach of local, faith based organizations. Muscogee County Sheriff Greg Countryman said this event was necessary to bridge the gap and restore the public’s trust. 

“[We need] to build a bridge,” Countryman said. “But when you build a bridge, you build it from both ends.” 

Whether the recent shootings are drug related or sparked by disagreement or disrespect — a majority of this violence is between people who know each other.

“A lot of the time these parents know that their child is carrying guns, they know that they’re selling drugs, they know that they’re hanging out with the wrong people, they know that they’re in a gang,” Bryan said. “But let one of them get killed… first thing they’re going to say is he was a good boy, give you the shirt off of his back… and I’m sure he was. But still those influences. My daddy always said you need to watch who you hang around with.”

Sheriff Greg Countryman says he and his team are working to get guns off the streets and out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.  

“I believe since January I believe that we retrieved and seized probably about 160 to 170 guns,” Countryman said. “If you look at our website you see that we’re taking guns off of the individuals if not daily at least a few times per week. Because we’re not going to apologize for being aggressive on crime.”

Beyond law enforcement, a community-based program is additionally working to find solutions. Cure Violence is a data-driven violence prevention program that addresses violence as a public health epidemic. Cedric Hill, a member of Cure Violence, says when looking at violence through the lens of public health, it is easily comparable to COVID-19. 

“If a person is exposed to COVID, not only are you at risk of having COVID, but you are also at risk of spreading COVID to other people,” Hill said. “If we look at violence through that lens. If you’ve experienced violence or if you’ve seen violence at some point in your life, You are now at risk to be a person that perpetuates violence.”

Cure Violence utilizes people called “interrupters,” or people who have a history with criminal activity or gang history. Cedric Hill Sr., a Cure Violence founding member, says these interrupters use their experience to make an impact on those who may be at risk of following on the same path. 

“People we’ve seen in this community have taken it upon themselves to rehab their own lives,” Hill said. “It’s them that we say it’s your past that will help us redeem the community from people that are in situations like you were in. That you can teach them how to come out.”

Mayor Henderson is calling on the community to be a part of the solution. Making tangible steps toward starting or joining neighborhood watch groups, keeping firearms out of parked vehicles at night, and utilizing Columbus PD’s anonymous tip line are all ways that people can be involved in making Columbus safer. 

“The only way it’s going to stop is if the neighborhood says ‘I’ve had enough.’ We’re going to make sure we communicate and share information… if we see something we say something. We’re going to partner with our law enforcement.”

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