Shortly after 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 14, Shoskamika Risper said goodbye to her daughter, Mikayla, before leaving their Akron, Ohio, home for her job at a nearby KFC restaurant.
“I love you, and I’ll see you later,” Risper told her.
“I love you, too,” the 8-year-old replied.
About eight hours later, as Risper was finishing up her shift, her phone rang. It was her teenage son. He was hysterical.
Mikayla had been shot at a birthday party for one of the kids around the block, he told her. One of the bullets fired into the neighbor’s backyard had slammed into Mikayla’s back.
The soon-to-be third-grader, known by her school principal for her “brilliant sense of humor, energetic hugs and kind spirit,” was pronounced dead overnight. Risper received the news in the hospital waiting room, still wearing her KFC uniform.
“It’s devastating,” Risper said. “She had her whole life to live.”
Homicides rose sharply across the country, in cities big and small, in 2020.
Kansas City, Missouri, broke its previous record-high year for homicides in October. The number of killings in Fort Wayne, Indiana, more than doubled. Los Angeles reached its own milestone in November: more than 300 homicides for the first time in over a decade.
In Akron, the bloodshed has taken a particularly painful toll.
Violent crime isn’t new for this industrial city of nearly 200,000 in northern Ohio, but far more children lost their lives to gun violence in 2020 than in years past, police officials said.
Over a single four-month stretch, a total of six children under the age of 16 were killed. All but one died from gunfire.
“They're innocent people who haven't had a chance to get a start in life,” Akron police Capt. David Laughlin said. “And it seems to hit harder for the community. It hits harder for the officers.”
The killings have shaken the city, sparking a series of anti-violence demonstrations and prompting Mayor Dan Horrigan to launch a plan to hire 12 additional police officers dedicated to curbing gun violence.
The Rev. Roderick Pounds, pastor of the Second Baptist Church, said the bloodshed has also spurred increasing numbers of Akron residents, particularly Black mothers, to arm themselves.
“There’s a lot of angst in the community,” said Pounds, who leads monthly concealed weapons training courses.
Pounds said his classes have ballooned over the last year, with Black women accounting for 80 percent of the participants.
“The irony is we’re arming ourselves against ourselves,” Pounds said. “It’s so sad, but that’s what’s happening more and more.”
Homicides have soared in both Republican-led cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Fort Worth, Texas, as well as larger, Democratic-run urban centers like New York and Chicago.
Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based crime analyst, has been chronicling the crime data from 57 cities with populations over 250,000 people. Murders are up 36 percent through at least September compared to 2019, he said.
“It’s not as bad as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, but I’m not sure it’s fair to compare it to the worst period in modern history,” said Asher, a former CIA analyst.
The Covid-19 crisis has impacted all facets of society: torpedoing businesses, erasing jobs, emptying out schools, short-staffing police departments and disrupting the court and jail systems.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why homicides surged across the U.S. this year, but criminologists and other experts say those pandemic side effects are all likely contributing factors.
UCLA professor Jorja Leap said changes in people’s routine punctuated by economic upheaval, job loss, distance learning and other factors also brought individuals into closer contact for sustained periods, heightening tensions and increasing the prospect of violent encounters. At the same time, gun sales spiked, teenagers were out of school and organized activities and programs ground to a halt.
“This is a complex situation with Covid at its heart but with several social dilemmas all interacting with each other,” said Leap, a professor of social welfare. “I’m actually surprised there hasn’t been more of a rise in crime.”
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, said the combination of a cratering economy and cooped-up young people with even fewer opportunities provides an opening for gangs to exploit.
“You have a lot of teenagers and young adults who recognize that they're not working — no one's hiring,” Fox said. “And what opportunity is there? But gangs are always hiring.”
Other experts pointed to the fallout from the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis police custody.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, noted that police departments in several American cities were faced with escalating demonstrations and heightened scrutiny of their conduct in the wake of Floyd’s death.
The protests forced already-strained departments to redeploy officers in places like Seattle and Portland, Oregon, which both saw a sharp rise in homicides.
“They were spread thin,” Wexler said. "They weren’t able to have the usual complement of officers in some parts of the city, and, honestly, police became more cautious about engaging with the public."
“You’ve got this whole Covid-19 issue and concerns about police use of force,” he added. “All of those ingredients, I think, made for a very difficult summer in American cities.”
Akron eclipsed its previous record-high year for homicides in mid-October. A total of 55 people were killed in Akron as of Dec. 30, up nearly 45 percent from last year.
The last time the city saw more than 40 killings was in 2017, a year that included seven deaths from a single incident of arson. It hasn’t recorded 50 or more homicides since at least 1983, the earliest year for which it has data.
The vast majority of the victims have been Black, police officials said, and 1 in 9 were under the age of 16.
“It’s been painful in that regard,” said Akron police Lt. Michael Miller. “It stings just a little harder when it involves children.”
Pounds, the Akron pastor, said he believes the staggering rise in killings has been fueled at least in part by the economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis.
“The pandemic has accentuated extreme poverty,” he said. “It just breeds more and more violence, especially in poor, low-income communities.”
The series of killings involving minors began on June 4 when Ty'Leia Junius, 14, was shot in the chest in a triple shooting that also claimed the life of a 24-year-old man.
“She died in my doorway,” said Ty’Leia’s mother, Jhovonne Taylor, who has since moved out of her house. “I stayed in that house after she got murdered, and the next day I left.”
Two men — Erick Sarzosa, 21, and Dreshawn Shephard, 24 — were arrested and charged in the killings. Both have pleaded not guilty to murder charges.
Ten days after Ty’Leia was gunned down, Na'kia Crawford, 18, was fatally shot while sitting in her car next to her grandmother at a stoplight. The pair were out running errands.
Na’Kia had just graduated from Akron North High School a week earlier and was planning to study computer science at Central State University, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Her grandmother was not injured in the incident.
Police are still hunting for the suspected gunman, Adarus Black. Investigators believe the shooting was a case of mistaken identity. Black, 18, opened fire at the car believing it belonged to one of his rivals, according to the FBI.
The following month, a 22-month-old girl, Azeria Tucker, and her father, Horace Lee, 43, were killed when a SUV intentionally slammed into them as he was pushing her in a stroller on a sidewalk near their home, according to the police and prosecutors.
The suspected driver, Shawn Allen, 36, is accused of targeting Lee after the two men got into an altercation at a bar, according to Summit County prosecutors. Allen has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.
An even younger baby was killed on Aug. 2.
Unidentified gunmen fired into a car as it pulled into a driveway in East Akron around 9:30 p.m., striking Tyree Halsell Jr. along with his grandmother Kimberly Thompson and her boyfriend, Brian James, according to the police and family members.
The group, which included Tyree’s mother, were returning home from a party where the adults had gotten into a fight, according to Tyree’s cousin, Crystal Garrett. The two adults suffered non-life-threatening injuries, but Tyree, who was struck in the head, died at a nearby hospital.
He was 21 months old.
“He was just a loving little boy,” Garrett said.
Garrett said Tyree, Ty’Leia and Mikayla were all related.
“It’s so heartbreaking here,” she said. “They haven't got a chance to really get to know who God is, to learn, to get married, to have children, to be somebody. They didn't have that chance.”
A month after Tyree was killed, Mar’Viyah Jones, 6, was fatally shot while riding inside a car with five other children. Police say the driver, Corey Jemison, exchanged gunfire with another motorist after an argument broke out.
One of the bullets fired by the other driver, Marqualle Clinkscales, struck and killed Mar’Viyah, according to the police. Both men have pleaded not guilty to murder charges.
“I want to impress upon our entire community the toll this senseless violence is taking on our neighborhoods, and innocent lives,” Horrigan, the mayor, said in a statement following Mar’Viyah’s death. “There is a role for everyone in this community to help end this cycle of violence that has claimed far too many of our precious children.”
The mayor’s plea did not stop the killings.
Ronald Willis Jr., 15, was shot several times outside an apartment at about 4:50 p.m. on Oct. 21 after getting into a dispute with another person, police said. The killing, which remains unsolved, marked the city’s 41st of the year.
Four months after Mikayla’s killing, police are still searching for the gunmen who opened fire into the backyard birthday party.
Mikayla’s mother, meanwhile, is still replaying the events of that night in her head.
If only the babysitter didn’t decide to leave the house and bring her daughter to the party. If only she wasn’t working the night shift that evening.
“Just thinking of the thousand things we could have done to avoid this, but it’s too late now,” Risper said.