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Addressing drug use key to combating recent homicide spike, experts and community members say
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Addressing drug use key to combating recent homicide spike, experts and community members say

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A map of the nine homicide incidents in Rapid city this year. One of the homicides had two victims. Look at the text of the online story to navigate the map and learn details about each incident. 

Betsy Running Shield decided to take action after recent gun violence and a homicide spike in Rapid City. 

The 37-year-old's nephew was the victim who survived the Sept. 5 Hemlock Street shooting while her son’s friend survived being shot in the head at the same house on July 31. She knows some of the homicide victims and alleged perpetrators as well.

Running Shield, a mother of three, decided to attend community meetings to address the violence and is encouraging everyone to try to help their loved ones struggling with drug and alcohol use.

“Addiction is huge part of why things are happening here," she said. “As a parent and as a grandma we should be doing something because all these problems start in the home.”

Other community members, the police department and a criminal justice professor all agree that addressing drug use and other underlying social issues is key to combating the recent homicide spike and all violence in Rapid City.

Rapid City has had 10 criminal homicides this year with seven of them occurring in just over one month, between August 3 and Sept. 6. At least one other death is being investigated as a possible homicide.

This year is the highest number of Rapid City homicides since 2012 beating out the nine recorded in 2015, according to data from the police department. This year's spike is not part of an upward trend in killings, which have fluctuated between two and 10 between 2012 and 2020.

Eight of this year’s 10 homicides have a connection to drug use or distribution said Captain John Olson, who oversees criminal investigations at the police department. The victim and suspect in each killing knew each other, but none of the homicides are connected, he said. 

Olson said methamphetamine is the drug that's most often linked to violence in Rapid City but sometimes heroin and cocaine are involved.

“Bringing firearms into situations involving these drugs is a recipe for violence and victimization,” he said.

Olson said it’s hard for law enforcement to directly prevent a shooting or assault since they usually happen behind closed doors and police are only called after the violence occurs.

"Doing drugs or acquainting yourself with people who choose to do drugs significantly increases your chances of being involved as either a victim or as an offender of violent crime," he said "This is why it is imperative that the community works together to address the substance abuse issues that affect those in our community."

“It takes early intervention in order to prevent the cycle of violence associated with substance abuse,” Olson added. “If a friend or family member is caught up in the cycle of substance abuse/drug addiction, intervene and work to get them the help they need.”

Community response

Erick Bringswhite, founder of the I Am Legacy Native American cultural and community center, has hosted three meetings about recent deaths in Rapid City.

Bringswhite, a former gang member who spent time in prison for gun crimes, now works on youth and criminal justice issues. His center, located at the mall, hosts weekly events and provides free counseling for people of all ages.

The first meeting was held at Lakota Homes after two men died there, Bringswhite said. State investigators are looking into the Aug. 11 death of a man that police say died after he set himself and his home on fire while police are investigating whether 22-year-old Brandon Wounded Arrow died by homicide or suicide on Aug. 19. The two other meetings were held at I Am Legacy. 

Bringswhite said youth, adults, elders, church leaders and gym groups attended the meetings to talk about the “violence and unprecedented level of fear” while also brainstorming solutions.

There’s a “very high rate of substance abuse and availability here,” Bringswhite said. "It's not a law enforcement issue, it’s a community issue."

Bringswhite said people who are emotionally struggling turn to drugs to self-medicate, then may cycle in and out of jail, and then may engage in violent crimes. He said many of these people are afraid to seek help so community members need to learn to recognize when others are struggling.

“Nobody is beyond a second chance … nobody is a lost cause,” he said.

Bringswhite said he’s planning on hosting more meetings in different housing areas to learn what community members need. He also thinks adults need to show more support and create more programming for youth so he’s holding a meeting and meal for young people on Saturday near the skate park.

Woyatan Lutheran Church is hoping to open a youth cafe while the Modern Warrior gym is offering free classes to young people and those struggling with addiction, Bringswhite said. 

Running Shield — a full-time, unpaid caregiver for her disabled parents — is raising an 11-month-old grandchild in addition to her 13, 15 and 17-year-old children. She said one of her sons got in a fight in school but the youth diversion program helped inspire him to keep out of trouble.

“I got lucky,” my kids like to stay home and be safe, she said. 

Running Shield said she attended Bringswhite’s most recent meetings because it’s sad to see young victims and perpetrators and think about the children who will be raised without parents because they’re either dead or in prison.

“There’s pain on both sides,” Running Shield said.

Running Shield said she agrees that family and community members need to help those who are struggling with drugs, anger or mental health because right now there’s a stigma that makes people afraid to ask for help or confront a loved one. 

But she also said treatment programs need to be made more available and affordable — that people should be able to receive treatment before it's ordered by a court. Running Shield said she called three inpatient programs for a friend last year that cost up to $12,000 for those without insurance.

“I know people who would love to go to treatment but they don’t have the money, they don’t have the insurance,” she said.

National context

“That’s a lot of homicides to happen in a short amount of time for a city that size,” Tom Mrozla, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Dakota, said when told about the seven recent killings.

Mrozla said the entire county, mostly in larger cities, has been seeing an “extreme deviation” in homicide numbers this year, especially since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd.

The murder rate remains low compared with previous decades but homicides are up 24% this year in the nation's 50 largest cities, according to an Aug. 2 analysis by the Wall Street Journal. It found that shootings and gun violence also increased while many other violent crimes decreased.

The homicide spike is so new that researchers are still trying to learn what’s behind it and whether levels will stay the same, increase or go back to normal, Mrozla said. 

But he said some experts think the killings are linked to stress and economic insecurity caused by the pandemic.

“When stresses add up and many are unemployed, people may turn to illegal means to support oneself, Mrozla said. “When you turn to the underground you might have to maintain that new sort of lifestyle supporting yourself (and) that might increase the likelihood of trying to use violence.”

Mrozla said some experts also think the lack of trust in police and the recent uprisings may be behind the recent spike.

People “maybe want to take the law into their own hands with street justice,” he said.

Mrozla said he recommends the Rapid City Police Department look at the “focused deterrence” model which identifies repeat offenders and connects them with services as a last chance before there’s serious punishment.

He also said governments and the community should “fix those underlying issues” causing crime by funding mental health and drug addiction programs.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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