‘Losing a generation’: Des Moines police chief worried about uptick in juvenile gun violence

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Des Moines police chief Dana Wingert has seen a lot in his nearly three-decade career in law enforcement. “Every homicide is tragic,” said Wingert, who has served as police chief since 2015.

Wingert says Des Moines is now on an alarming trend in his eyes. “When you look at the ages of the victims and suspects, they seem to be getting younger and younger,” he said.

Since Oct. 10, there have been five arrests for four homicides in Des Moines, with the average age of the suspect arrested sitting at just 22 years old.

“We can’t keep going down this road. The young people, it appears to me we are losing a generation here,” said Wingert.

On Nov. 7, a 15-year-old was shot and killed while he and another 15-year-old tried to rob a 21-year-old man near 17th Street and Forest Avenue. Just eight days prior, three juveniles robbed and shot a 65-year-old man in the chest in the 1500 block of East 29th Street to take two cell phones. Two of the three juveniles were picked up by police while in class at Hoover High School and North High School.

“We found one of our suspects in the classroom and had a loaded gun with him. That takes it to a whole different level,” Wingert said.

So far this year as of Nov. 15, Des Moines’ 12 homicides are well behind 2020’s pace, which ended at 21, but deeper statistics show a scary reality. As of Oct. 20, 2021, police say there have been at least 70 people treated for a gunshot wound and survived. That number matches all of 2019 and is well ahead of 2020’s 49.

“Our emergency room and our fire medics, our doctors and nurses, they are saving lives. We have 12 homicides, but we could very easily have 30,” said Wingert.

The gun violence nearly took the life of a 2-year-old Sunday night after a drive-by shooting struck the toddler in the leg in the 800 block of McKinley Avenue. “Dozens of shell casings were found there from what appears to be an AR-15 rifle. We can’t have that in Des Moines. We are just better than that,” Wingert said.

Wingert believes a solution can be on the horizon with common sense. “The old school adage here is if you have a problem, throw a cop at it. If you have a big problem, throw ten cops at it. We are beyond that,” he said.

Regardless of where the shootings occur and how it happened, the chief says it’s the entire city’s responsibility to lend a helping hand. Wingert said, “You are not doing that for the police, you are doing it for the community, you are doing it for the families of victims.”

It’s a Des Moines problem that will take a Des Moines solution. Wingert said, “Until we take a hard stance that we are done burying 15- and 16-year-old kids, we have to take ownership of it.”

Wingert says the after-school programs and activities to help keep kids out of trouble aren’t working as well as everybody hoped. The department is open to collaboration and solutions to help keep teens from being victims and suspects involving gun violence.

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