The Roanoke Police Department. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Cities across the nation are beginning to let out a sigh of relief as their homicide counts are finally decreasing by almost 10% in the first half of 2023 following a pandemic surge, according to a report released in July by the Council on Criminal Justice. 

Except Roanoke.

The city is suffering from a homicide rate that reached a historical high of 23 deaths, with the most recent shooting taking two lives on Sept. 17. 

“The fact that we’re at the highest level since the ’70s, is, it’s just kind of sickening, actually,” said Vice Mayor Joe Cobb. “And everyone’s feeling a level of frustration, and figuring out, how do we stop it? But the challenge becomes, how do you? How do you preempt someone getting mad at somebody else?”

On a recent two-day long retreat with the city council, the group identified community safety as the city’s No. 1 priority, Cobb said.

“We’re in an epidemic of gun violence and a lot of the contributing factors to that, especially in Northwest Roanoke, if you look at the social economic conditions, they have not changed,” said Brenda Hale, longtime president of the Roanoke branch of the NAACP. “If anything, they have gotten worse since the pandemic.” 

In a study done for the Roanoke Police Department titled “Gun Violence and the Pandemic,” Isaac Van Patten, a former criminology professor at Radford University, examined three different hypotheses to provide some explanation for Roanoke’s spike: a reaction to the pandemic, racial tension surrounding the murder of George Floyd, and an increase in firearms sales during the early months of the pandemic.

The report acknowledges a “momentary, non-significant jump in the level of gun violence” in the months after Floyd’s death and a dip in local gun sales as the pandemic hit. The only significant evidence found was in favor of the first hypothesis — the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The COVID pandemic was an unprecedented deprivation of personal liberty intended for the benefit of the country as a whole,” stated the report’s conclusion. “It required people to sequester themselves in their homes and closed most businesses and places of employment. People’s normal access to social support systems was severely curtailed. Such an event, with its broad based impact could not but engender major social consequences.”

Van Patten’s research also indicated that violence not involving guns has decreased overall in the city during 2023. The study showed that on Sept. 25, 2022, the city had seen a total of 388 such incidents so far that year. On Sept. 25, 2023, there had been 349 violent incidents for the year. 

Authorities say that the majority of the gun violence has erupted from what began as simple interpersonal disagreements. Van Patten believes that younger people in the city are now more prone to escalate everyday disputes into deadly acts of violence.

“It’s almost like in that short eight weeks [of lockdown] we forgot how to relate to one another,” said Van Patten. “We forgot how to be patient with one another, we forgot how to be polite with one another.”

This short fuse seemed to be behind Roanoke’s latest homicide, which took place at a house on Melrose Avenue. According to a news release from the police department, “there was a gathering at the house, and at some point several individuals became involved in a verbal altercation that escalated to a shooting.”  

Interpersonal aggression spiraling into violence is not new to the city, according to police spokesperson Caitlyn Cline, but the rate at which it is occurring this year is unusual. In response to the high frequency of homicides, the department held its first ever community forums to hear residents’ concerns and perspectives in August. Around this time, interim Chief Jerry Stokes also reached out for help from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new Operation Bold Blue Line, an initiative through which Virginia State Police help local departments in “targeting offenders in areas that are prone to gun violence,” said Cline. 

“A lot of people don’t feel empowered,” said Cline, speaking on behalf of Stokes. “I think they see this gun violence and violent crime and think they can’t do anything, but it’s the small things that they can do, that anyone can do, that really help us. If you see something happen, talk to us about it. We cannot do this without the community communicating with us. You see it happen in your neighborhood, call us and tell us what’s going on. I know there’s a stigma. I know you might feel like you’re scared or in danger. We can help you with that, too. We have resources, we can help you feel more comfortable doing that.”

Stokes stepped up as interim police chief in July when former Chief Sam Roman accepted a position as an assistant city manager after serving as chief since spring 2020. At the end of the month, Danville’s current police chief, Scott Booth, will take over as Roanoke’s chief. Booth’s focus on community policing and building relationships with youth and leaders in the area has helped to significantly reduce Danville’s crime rates during his five and a half years in the city. 

“I think that there’s a community that’s hungry for some change,” Booth said of Roanoke in an interview with Cardinal News’ Grace Mamon. “I think there’s a good department that is ready to be trusted and empowered. And my leadership philosophy is that I work through others. It’s not about me, it’s about what the team can do. I’m excited to go and do what we did here in Roanoke.” 

Another reason the city has seen these squabbles rapidly turn fatal is due to the easy access to firearms, Van Patten said. 

“I’m a gun guy, big pro-2A and all that stuff,” he said. “But the problem is guns on the street. Plain and simple.” 

Cobb, who’s chair of Roanoke’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission, expressed a need for more measures to restrict an individual’s ability to acquire a gun.  

“It’s very difficult because while one would argue that Virginia has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, we still are seeing too many homemade Glocks with parts coming in, ghost guns, 3-D printed guns, rifles, assault rifles that were never intended to be owned by civilians,” he said. 

The commission endorsed some gun safety measures, such as buying and distributing 500 gun locks through Roanoke public schools and working with the nonprofit Groceries not Guns to host three gun buyback events.  

The Roanoke nonprofit Total Action for Progress has taken on more and more cases since COVID as both interpersonal violence and domestic violence rapidly increased during and following 2020, according to Stacy Sheppard, director of housing and human services and domestic violence services for TAP.

“We’re doing probably two to three times as much work with the same amount of staff and limited funding,” said Sheppard, who’s also a member of the Gun Violence Prevention Commission.

“So it’s tough. It’s tough, the work that we’re doing. You have a community that is suffering, not just financially but emotionally. Also, when you have that, then the staff also has to wear some of that vicarious trauma. Then you also have staff that are suffering too and it’s tough work for what we do, and there needs to be far more resources.”

* * *

The lingering effects of the pandemic are only part of the story; then there are the lived experiences of those who say that this violence is years in the making and it has already cost too many lives for people to finally take notice. 

“Even 20 or 30 years [ago], we were dealing with gun violence, even then in the Black community — nothing was being done,” said city councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds, a Black woman who was born and raised in Roanoke.

“And if you leave something alone long enough, it’s going to get worse. As long as it was, as I say, ‘not in your neighborhood,’ there was no need even for the government to look at. No one was listening. And now we’re here at the brink. It calls for attention and we are now doing that.”

The city of Roanoke sustained deep wounds that have never fully healed from a painful history of redlining, segregation and urban renewal. 

The Roanoke Police Department’s most recent gun violence statistics report, updated for the Gun Violence Prevention Commission, shows that in the 22 homicides that had occurred to that point in 2023, 18 victims were Black: 17 were Black men ranging in age from 16 to over 55, and one was a Black woman in the 50-55 age range. 

In a report from April 2023, the commission identified “the root causes of gun violence in the City of Roanoke as income inequality, poverty, underfunded public housing, under-resourced public services, lack of opportunity, and perceptions of hopelessness, social connectedness, and easy access to firearms by high-risk people.”

There were 51 cases of aggravated assaults or homicides where a victim was hit by gunfire from Jan. 1 to Sept. 17 of this year; 37 of these took place the northwest quadrant of the city, a predominantly Black area. 

A painful tale etched into the streets and buildings of Roanoke tells the story of how urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s saw thriving, historic Black neighborhoods in the Gainsboro area demolished for the construction of Interstate 581, the now-Berglund Center, housing developments and the Coca-Cola plant. 

More than 1,500 Black homes, churches and businesses were seized and razed by the city, which received more than $40 million in federal funding for the redevelopment, according to a 1995 Roanoke Times article. Despite claims that they would be able to rebuild on their old land, Black residents were left with empty promises and significant debts in order to relocate their families. Over the years, most would wind up in public housing blocks in the northwest side of town, where they would raise children and grandchildren who had no knowledge of the community that was once their own.

A 2017 article in Scalawag magazine updated the situation a dozen years later: “Roanoke remains a highly segregated city, not just by race but also by class. The lines blur, of course, but longtime residents know that rich Whites live in southwest, poor Whites live in southeast, Blacks live in northwest, and northeast is more of a melting pot.”

Hale recognized the harm done to kids in the area when they are constantly flooded with scenes of poverty and bloodshed. Even when her community is faced with such suffering, Hale refuses to despair and encourages everyone she encounters to not lose “hope because I do believe that you just have to keep working hard at it.” 

“In our [NAACP] Youth Council, we asked them one time, ‘How many of you have had family members either hurt, maimed, or killed by gun violence?’” she said. “Every hand in the room went up.”

Despite the violence, Roanoke’s leaders are able to find some silver linings. Sheppard called attention to an increase in partnerships among nonprofits as well as new programs starting up to combat the violence. Cobb outlined initiatives to organize neighborhood watches, join forces with Appalachian Power to repair streetlights and sponsor more mentorship opportunities for young children. One such program, Neighbors United, will partner with residents, churches and local businesses to focus on the area of the city that has seen the highest rate of homicides and gun violence. The group plans to do regular community check-ins and collaborate on addressing concerns expressed by those living in the area.

“We’re putting some things in place to more quickly address blighted properties, vacant cars and blight, so that we have fewer depressed areas in the city that can contribute to a hopeless feeling or a lack of beauty,” said Cobb. “So it’s got to be a combination of prevention, intervention, response, and justice. Those are already pieces of our framework. But I think anything we can do to bolster those is going to help.”

Income inequality, mental health issues, racial disparities and gun violence are not unique to Roanoke but permeate every city in the country. Roanoke’s smaller population and close quarters could have an amplifying effect on all these factors, causing them to unleash the wave of unprecedented violence in 2023. 

However, if one were to walk down the sidewalk along the 1200 block of Melrose Avenue, where the city’s latest double homicide took place only a couple of weeks ago, a much different scene unfolds than the mental images that crime statistics may produce. 

Friends from out of town catch up on front steps, calling out to a passerby they haven’t seen for too long. The warm temperature and clear blue skies summon residents out to their porches, where they tell a visitor that they have lived in this area for 20 years and feel completely safe and at home.

Darren Wiggins, 37, has spent the last decade living and working in Northwest Roanoke. He owns and operates the shop Jersey Water Ice at the corner of the block. His reality contradicts what police reports and politicians might say about the area; he’s not concerned about his safety, his neighborhood customers are always nice and respectful and while, yes, the recent nearby violence is disturbing, he finds shootings in churches and schools even more so. 

Wiggins recognizes that Northwest Roanoke has its problems, but it will take city leaders and nonprofits putting “boots on the ground,” visiting residents and businesses like his to initiate conversations regarding reforms and get a true grasp on what the community needs.    

Until then, he’d simply invite you in to try some water ice.

Emily Hemphill is a freelance journalist from Elliston. She received a bachelor's degree in political...