MILWAUKEE — The death of a teen in 2019 set off a chain reaction of events that, Milwaukee Police say, sparking 50 retaliatory shootings.
“I’ve been on the job for 25 years,” Inspector Paul Formolo said. “I can’t remember a time where this many shootings have been linked together in this short amount of time.”
TMJ4 News is leaving out the names and other identifying factors of the victims involved as to not interfere with MPD’s investigation.
Among the 50 retaliatory shootings, there have been nine homicides, none of which have been solved, and 27 non-fatal shootings and 14 shots fired investigations. Formolo says their team has tied all of these acts of violence to two groups feuding. But he says, what makes it difficult, it’s just two groups. No affiliations to any sort of gang or clique.
“Allegiances are constantly changing,” Formolo said. “Those traditional or legendary street gangs had a hierarchy. They control a territory. This is completely different. There is no hierarchy, there is no claiming of territory. Today they may be with group A, tomorrow with group B.”
“Our city is experiencing a great deal of violence and a great deal of hurt,” Arnitta Holliman, Director of the City of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention said. “We are aware there are a number of shootings that have happened that have been retaliatory and our office and 414Life has been working to stop retaliatory violence.”
To better understand how something like this could have gotten this out of control, Holliman points to the core of why a person decides to retaliate after a traumatic experience.
“The reality is, if we don’t help heal the harm that has been caused to the person who has lost a loved one, maybe another teenage friend to gun violence, they’re more likely or more at risk of perpetuating that cycle,” Holliman said.
While grief is a natural human response to the loss of life, how it’s handled can greatly vary. That reaction is what Police and OVP say can be the motivator of getting payback.
“Misappropriated or misdirected grief,” Holliman said. “When someone loses a loved one, especially when they are young, it is unexpected and it is tragic. Grief can be extremely difficult or complicated, particularly if no one has ever been brought to justice. It can be complicated. It’s normal to want someone to blame and to hold responsible and, unfortunately, what we have seen, some of these acts are in retaliation to shooting or killing a loved one and then responding with the same kind of harm to other people.”
OVP and 414Life try to get involved in these situations before they happen. At 414Life, they have violence interruptors who go into sometimes contentious situations, to try and stop the violence from continuing.
It can be an impossible task to help people in pain get through their grief without hurting others.
“There is something about street justice that’s different than any other type of justice,” Holliman said. “Sometimes, no one is ever brought to justice. So it may, in some instances, give people some sense of control of what’s happening, where they felt either helpless or out of control or not able to stop a loved one from being harmed. This is, in some instances, a way that people reclaim some of that control, obviously in an extremely harmful and unhealthy way. But if we’re understanding just our human response in terms of wanting to have that person’s life justified, avenged or whatever, that may be a piece of it.”
Police believe a rift between them and the community after George Floyd was killed could be a factor in the increased distrust in law enforcement. That distrust, Formolo says, leads to fewer tips, which are crucial towards solving crimes.
“We’re not getting a lot of information we need from the streets, the community,” Formolo said. “We had issues with police legitimacy and that goes back to us not getting information. People aren’t comfortable coming to police with information that can help us solve crimes or put interventions in to help reduce crime or prevent it from happening all together. Couple that with the pandemic, especially with youths in our community, losing that social structure they once had, going to school, participating in after school activities like sports, that has a role in what we’re seeing here. We don’t solve shootings and homicides like you see on TV because we found some magically placed piece of evidence. Most of our homicides and shootings are solved by information from the community. We’re not going to accomplish things by ourselves.”
Formolo says they do go over homicides and non-fatal shootings every single week to try and identify situations which could pose a retaliatory risk.
“There is some predictive analysis that can tell us, most likely, this is going to be retaliatory in nature,” Formolo said. “Those with the highest likelihood for retaliation, those are the ones we try to take a deep dive into. What are the root causes? What are the intervention points? What can you do to prevent the next shooting from happening?”
Intervention is where groups like OVP and 414Life jump in. They try to fill the gaps where police can’t. At Children’s Wisconsin, Project Ujima is another violence intervention program. For the last 25 years, they’ve worked with families of crime victims to provide support, both mentally and physically, to help stop potential retaliatory violence.
“We just take a look and try to figure out how we can navigate it and offer support to every single one of these families that are suffering,” Brooke Cheaton, Manager of Project Ujima said. “We respond to the emergency room for youth victims immediately when they’re seeking treatment at the hospital and then follow them for up to 18 months afterward.”
Cheaton says it’s proven to be successful. Of all of the people they have seen, only 4 percent come through program again.
And the number of people going through the program are on the rise. The program has seen an increase every year since 2018, but 2021 has seen an incredible spike. Through September, 211 people under 18 have been admitted to the program. That’s more than any of the three prior years.
“Their emotional mental processing and even physical healing is completely different,” Cheaton said. “It is extremely necessary for us to meet them where they’re at. There is so much going on in our community right now that this is a community effort. It’s not just the victims. It’s not just their family. It’s not just our team. This has to be a collaborative effort.”
A multi-pronged effort can be seen by the efforts through OVP, MPD, 414Life and Project Ujima, among others. Holliman says one of the biggest things they can do is to show compassion and just listen to their pain.
“There are no magic words to tell anyone to make them feel better in any kind of loss,” Holliman said. “But one thing is listening, listening, listening. Listening to their pain and frustration. Listening to their concerns and validating those feelings, even when maybe the initial response is wanting to harm someone. It’s listening to what’s really deep down and getting to the root of that. Which really, it’s ‘I love this person. I miss them. I won’t have this relationship with them in the way that I did before and that hurts.’ Speaking to those deeper issues, sometimes, is helpful.”
Holliman says the difficulty can be when they have to combat a mentality of vengeance. The ‘eye for an eye’ mentality after losing a loved one to violence is a reality these intervention groups have to combat; especially when the living feel it’s a way to honor the dead.
“It may be helpful to just talk to them about the pain they’re experiencing and figure out, is that really something they want someone else to experience?” Holliman said. “Understanding the depth of that pain. It’s having a conversation with them about the life that that person lived and what would be most honoring.”
The work from these groups will be crucial towards stopping a growing tragedy. In the last 10 years, the number of teenage children being killed has more than quadrupled. While four were killed in 2010, 19 died all of last year and 16 were killed as of Nov. 4.
“It speaks to the depths of pain, frustration and anger,” Holliman said. “It’s also surprising in many ways that this has been allowed to continue because the reality is, when we talk about - it’s all hands and deck and everyone is responsible for preventing violence in our community. That means there is someone connected to these two teens that know what’s going on and they haven’t stepped up or they haven’t stepped forward. They haven’t stepped in. That is what we are asking and requiring from each of our neighbors to do, so there is not another 49 people who are shot or murdered because of one or two people.”