An ‘uptick’ in gun violence in Holyoke has leaders, community members seeking solutions

  • Guns seized during a police raid of a converted Main Street firehouse in Holyoke in August 2020. HAMPDEN DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2021 5:18:52 PM

HOLYOKE — A shooting Wednesday night at a home and car on Homestead Avenue marked the 71st time this year police have been called to respond to “shots fired” in the city.

In addition, police have responded to 10 calls this year for “shots fired with injury,” and there have been another 61 “gun calls” made this year, according to the Holyoke Police Department.

“It’s definitely an uptick,” Police Capt. Matthew Moriarty said Friday.

Nobody was injured in the Homestead Avenue shooting, nor in several other recent incidents — when a bullet struck a police car with an officer inside on Aug. 13 on Commercial Street or when police said a bullet from a shooting on Bowers Street entered the living room of an apartment on July 28. But on Aug. 8, a 25-year-old man was shot dead on Walnut Street. In May, five people were injured in a shooting incident in the South Street Plaza. And last December, a 15-year-old boy was shot to death in the Churchill neighborhood.

The shootings have drawn reaction from city leaders and community members focused on addressing gun violence.

For Moriarty, seeking information from the public is the primary focus. He said the HPD’s “text-a-tip” service allows residents to anonymously give the department information that might lead to an arrest.

“There are a lot of people walking the streets who should not be out there,” Moriarty said. “I don’t care where you live in Holyoke, you have the right to let your kids ride their bikes and play in the parks … It’s not fair to the residents of downtown Holyoke.”

City resident Anne Thalheimer is an activist on the topic of gun violence. A survivor of the 1992 shooting at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington in which a student shot and killed two people, Thalheimer said it’s important to focus on the bigger picture when it comes to gun violence.

“What ways do we think about gun violence?” she asked. “Where does that stem from? Are we not looking at root causes? Why are people picking up guns and using them in this way? Are they feeling disenfranchised? Are they disempowered?”

Those thoughts were shared by Israel Rivera, who grew up in The Flats neighborhood and now works as the family and community engagement manager at Holyoke Public Schools.

“I grew up in the neighborhood where this normally happens,” Rivera said. “As a kid growing up, I witnessed it on a regular basis.”

Rivera said that prevention programs that are effective are ones that provide good job and educational opportunities for people and teach people to handle certain situations in ways that don’t end in violence. He said that communities with positive economic options for people are better at preventing gun violence.

“Where the common person can go in and make a decent living in that community and not have to find other ways that lead them to violence — either committing an act of violence or being the victim of it,” he said.

Rivera himself spent five years in prison after high school, after which he dedicated himself to mentoring youth and community activism, steering kids away from violence. He said policing doesn’t necessarily address the causes of why people feel like they have to resort to gun violence, and that there should be more community-based mentorship programming that provides opportunities for those at risk of committing shootings.

“For me coming out of prison, for me what made me straight was that I was working, that I was going to school,” he said. “If I didn’t have any commitments, what would have kept me on the straight?”

Thalheimer noted that it’s also important to focus on the broader picture of gun danger — education for gun owners safely storing those guns, for example, or asking where guns are coming from. She pointed to the example of a 5-year-old student bringing a loaded handgun to his preschool class in 2020.

“That was someone who just left their gun out and just didn’t connect the dots between ‘I have guns in the house’ and ‘I need safe storage,’” she said. “That resulted in no harm, but that could have been so much worse.”

The recent shootings have prompted statements from those running for political office, including Rivera and Thalheimer, who are both candidates for City Council.

In a statement on social media, School Committee member Devin Sheehan, a candidate for mayor, referenced the shot that hit the police cruiser on Commercial Street earlier this month.

“As Mayor, I will work closely with the Police Chief to ensure the department has the necessary resources to keep our City and department safe,” he said. “Violence against the police has no place in our community.”

At-large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, who is running for mayor, also issued a statement addressing the recent reports of shootings.

Lisi said the incidents highlighted the need for an independent assessment of the HPD she has called for to determine how funding, training, and policies can make the department as effective as possible at preventing gun violence as well as keeping officers safe. She also said she would work with HPD to hold gun buyback events if elected.

The anonymous text-a-tip line can be used by texting the word “crimes” (274637), then type “solve” and then one’s message.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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