MILWAUKEE, WI — Clarence Harris had spent nearly four years turning his life around before he was killed in a triple shooting in Milwaukee’s northwest side.
“He couldn’t get rid of his drinking problem and drugs, but he wasn’t a troublemaker,” Harris’ brother Alvin Braden Jr. told Patch. “He tried to help people out.”
Braden described his 52-year-old brother as an upbeat, happy-go-lucky man who had taken a downturn when his mother died in 2009. Harris had quit drinking over three years ago, and he was taken in by a younger man and found a job washing cars.
Alongside Harris, Anthony Thompson, 26, and Tyrias McKinney, 39, were found shot to death in their apartment near North 54th Street and West Mill Road on Sunday. Milwaukee police haven’t identified a shooter.
The three killings added to a total of 52 homicides in Milwaukee from January to March 2022, data from the Milwaukee Police Department showed. From January to March 2021, there were 25 homicides in the city.
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The city of Milwaukee had 194 homicides in 2021 and 190 homicides in 2020, police data showed. This was a spike from previous years; in 2019, there were 97 homicides.
“Criminals in Milwaukee feel emboldened because they feel there are no consequences,” former alderman and mayoral candidate Bob Donovan said at a forum March 16.
A shrinking police force and a strained relationship with the district attorney’s office added to Milwaukee’s safety concerns, Donovan added.
“Milwaukee was once the best place in America with the highest quality of life for African Americans. That’s no longer the case,” acting mayor and mayoral candidate Cavalier Johnson said.
Creating family supporting jobs would help stabilize peoples’ lives and, in return, stabilize neighborhoods and ultimately lower the rate of violence, Johnson said.
Pandemic, Policing And Milwaukee’s Poorest Neighborhoods
The spike in Milwaukee’s homicides was fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and diminished relationships between police and communities, mirroring a trend seen across other American cities since 2020, according to experts.
Social unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder drove up skepticism and tension between some communities and the police, which may have driven some people away from going to the police to settle disputes, criminal justice and criminology professor for the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Ted Lentz told Patch.
“It’s obvious the pandemic has affected everything, crime included,” Lentz said. “It would be a surprise if it didn’t affect crime, especially homicides.”
As social and work lives were reshuffled under the pandemic, people found themselves under more stress, spending more time away from work or school or dealing with social isolation, Lentz said. The additional strain from all three can create risk of more violence.
“If people aren’t recognizing the police as a place to turn to feel safe or settle disputes, they may take matters into their own hands,” Lentz said.
On March 20, a 15-year-old was among a group of young adults arrested near North 77th Street and West Lisbon Avenue after they shot at each other and crashed their cars head-on, police said. A 16-year-old was shot near North 52nd Street and West Villard Avenue on March 8 and died after being taken to a local hospital.
Unstructured times for young adults, who are out of school more often and spending more time with their peers under the pandemic, put those youths at higher risk for violence, Lentz said. This matches trends from the 1980s and 1990s that showed people ages 15-24 were exposed to violence the most.
Activist Vaun Mayes told Patch his group, Community Task Force MKE, has seen more incidents with teenagers and domestic violence since March 2020. More guns on the street have made increasing homicides a reality, he added.
“Young people have extra time to get into incidents when time gaps like work and school are taken away,” Mayes said.
In addition, young people have had less access to mentors and positive engagement when youth programs have to halt or limit their services because of the coronavirus, he added.
Milwaukee’s Black and brown neighborhoods were already dealing with problems due to historical segregation before the first COVID-19 cases, and the pandemic had ramped up conditions that led to more violence, Lentz said.
“Black and brown people haven’t had a ‘normal,’ but can recover when COVID-19 goes away,” Mayes said.
The Community Task Force deals with violence prevention, domestic violence, sex trafficking and missing people — all with minimal police involvement, Mayes said.
The model usually involves people credible in the community without the threat of being arrested, and it appeals to high-risk people such as young adults and those who are facing homelessness.
Offering mentorship and connection to stable housing prevents violence, Mayes said. “Police shouldn’t have to respond to all crises,” he said.
Whether the minimal policing model works or not depends on how quickly violence rates go down and how involved people are in their communities, Lentz said. Improving trust between police and communities — and getting more resources to communities that bear the brunt of violence — would help them fare better during the crime wave, he added.
For neighborhoods and police to work together, the police would also have to earn trust back from people after their perception changed from recent events, Lentz said. Because of how much has changed since the coronavirus pandemic started, a one-size-fits-all approach to curbing violence wouldn’t work.
There may have been witnesses to Clarence Harris’ shooting on Sunday, but because no one was talking to the police, his brother’s killer hasn’t been identified, Braden said. If people wanted to curb violence in Milwaukee, they would have to cooperate with law enforcement more, he added.
“People may have seen something, but they’re not talking,” Alvin Braden said. “If they’re not talking, these guys will do anything. A lot of people want to clean Milwaukee up, but they’re just scared to talk.”