Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Local and Global Perspective on the Kalamazoo Shootings

In yet another occurrence of what has become an all-too-common event in the United States, the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan has experienced a tragic mass shooting spree. We here at CWCP of course mostly cover macro-scale international issues, although we also delve into issues related to domestic security in the US. It is particularly fitting for CWCP to cover the events in Kalamazoo, however, as it is my own hometown.

At this point, authorities to not have a clear motivation for the killing, nor is there any apparent connection between the seemingly disparate victims who were killed over a five-hour period. Yet Kalamazoo County's senior prosecutor, Jeffrey Getting believes that the targets were very deliberately chosen and not the victims of random gunfire or stray bullets. The attacks also do not, as far as authorities can tell, seem to be an act of terrorism. Kalamazoo County Sheriff Rick Fuller has speculated that the gunman's motives came down to personal issues.

If there is any one thing we can be fortunate of, is that the arrest of the suspect, who was reportedly transporting a weapon, went down without a fight. The arrest occurred near the downtown business district, which is always busy on a Saturday night going into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Had the suspect, Jason Dalton, resorted to armed resistance, there could possibly have been more victims.  

As a Kalamazoo native, the shooting presents a special analytical quandary. Kalamazoo is, on the one hand, a very pleasant place as is an excellent area to raise a family. Yet there is also an undercurrent of crime rampant in the city that is usually limited to certain neighborhoods or sections of the city, but  which occasionally spills over (I myself was the victim of an assault and unarmed robbery in 2008 right in the central business district during daylight hours). Gun violence is not infrequent, but again is usually relatively limited to robberies, home invasion and even murder in rare instances. Drug trafficking is also a major issue, as Kalamazoo is a transit hub exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit on highway I-94.

Again, however, while I may paint a relatively bleak or even condemnatory portrait of Kalamazoo, these realities are usually confined to the more under privileged parts of the city.

The shooting effectively shows the limits of different policing philosophies. Across the United States, police departments have become increasingly "militarized". As I learned through close direct contact with the Kalamazoo law enforcement community while working for a non-profit, Kalamazoo officers are all equipped with an automatic assault rifle, and there are of course armored vehicles at the Department of Public Safety and the Sheriff's Department's disposal. This could hardly be considered "militarization" as local law enforcement, to my knowledge, are not arming like the Navy SEALs. Nevertheless, Kalamazoo policing agencies are well equipped to handle all manner of dangerous situation that may require more than a glock.

Yet while Kalamazoo's law enforcement community stands ready to handle incredibly dangerous situations, and has a high level of interoperability with state and federal agencies, the Kalamazoo police also have a vigorous and highly successful community policing program, where community liaison officers are out in public making regular contact with the wider citizenry. Furthermore, on the judicial end of things, Kalamazoo has been a national innovator in its drug court program, which focused on the rehabilitation of drug users, and has seen a high rate of recovery with a low level of recidivism.

Nevertheless, as the recent shooting spree shows, neither of the two ends of the spectrum- a more hardened police preparedness level nor a philosophy of community outreach- can prevent even major tragedies such as this. It is not unlike terrorism in the sense that, even with high alert level, horrible things can still happen. Even if the crime does not technically fit under the auspices of the federal definition of "terrorism", if the shooting manages to increase a lingering sense of fear and unease in the community, the shooter's actions will of course have produced some of the same intended effects of terrorist acts.  

Needless to say, the shooting spree has made national news in the US, and has even gotten the attention of President Obama, who has often highlighted incidents such as this in his bid to increase gun control. It seems unlikely that this particular incident will have much of an effect on the nation-wide gun rights debate. Other incidents do not seem to have changed public opinion among those who oppose President Obama's plans, who have charged the president with attempting to overstep constitutional law. Nevertheless, I cannot help but see that perhaps the more imminent issue is not so much the notion of gun rights enshrined in the Second Amendment, but rather the extent to which the federal government versus the individual states have the right to govern gun laws. 

Furthermore, while of course this is primarily a local issue, it could also have some potential international implications. Western Michigan University, a large public research university, attracts students and academics from all over the world. Furthermore, Kalamazoo has a robust and active public diplomacy scene, welcoming professional delegations invited to the US by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. While our international guests have generally had a very positive experience in the city, citing it's small-city feel as being true of the "real America", there is of course a grave possibility that this horrific crime may snuff out international interest in the city.

As details emerge about the crime itself and the suspect, we will have a much better understanding as to the potential reverberations and the implications of this incident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.

Authors note: The original version of this post stated that the suspect was found with "weapons" (plural). Different news reports, however, are reporting police locating either a single weapon or multiple arms. Due to this uncertainty, we have edited the post to say "a weapon" in case the reports of multiple firearms is inaccurate.

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