Nearly a dozen children were shot in July in Norfolk. Communities are hurting, and activists want change.
The casket had been polished and the flowers arranged. Children filed into the church to remember their friend, a rising ninth-grader.
Some had yet to attend a school prom. Others had only the first traces of facial hair. Yet here they were, filling the pews of Bethany Baptist Church to mourn the 32nd person killed in Norfolk this year, Kristopher “Be-Bop” Edmonds.
They wore red, white and black clothing personalized with Kristopher’s name. “The good die young,” read the T-shirt of one boy who looked no taller than 5-foot.
And they sat and stared at Kristopher’s smiling face on the projector screen, listening as a reverend spoke from the stage: “Father, we declare the guns have to be put down.”
Kristopher, 15, had been struck by gunfire the week before, in the early hours of July 13, near his Norfolk home.
He’s one of 10 children shot in the city this month — a jarring string of violence involving Norfolk’s youth, even for a city peppered with gangs trying to woo the young. The city hasn’t seen that much gun violence involving children since 2016. Kristopher is one of two who died in the burst of shootings. The other also was 15: Teonna “Tee Tee” Coburn.
The Virginian-Pilot spoke with nearly two dozen families impacted by gun violence, elected officials, community organizers and the city’s police chief who reflected on the cluster of shootings and outlined their path forward.
Everyone has their calls for change — more funding for recreation centers, expanded peer mentorship, getting guns off the streets — but they agree there is no single solution.
Teonna Coburn was walking home with her 17-year-old brother, Craig, around 9:30 p.m. July 10 when a car pulled up. Someone inside asked if Craig was somebody they named. He said no. They opened fire anyway and drove away, according to Marcia Keeling, their mother. Teonna died at the scene, while Craig was shot in the leg and spent several days in the hospital.
That night, a Saturday, the family had been having a birthday celebration a few blocks away at the house of Keeling’s wife. Teonna and Craig were on their way to pick up their youngest sister, Aiyana, and take her back to the party, Keeling said.
The party ended in chaos.
This week, party decorations remained on display inside the home. But remembrances of Teonna now decorate the space, too: Virgin of Guadalupe prayer candles, a poster board with signatures from a candlelight vigil, a flyer pinned to the front door, seeking information about what happened to Teonna.
No one has been charged in the shooting.
Teonna, who attended Norview Middle School, was a good girl, Keeling said. When asked to do the dishes or clean her room, she did it without a word.
“Tee Tee,” as she was known ever since Keeling can remember, didn’t know how to stay mad.
“She’d say, ‘Mama, it takes more muscles to frown than smile,’” Keeling said. “She was too good to be true.”
The family hasn’t been back to its home since the shooting. Teonna’s room is the first thing you see going up the stairs, Keeling said, and it’s just too painful.
Instead, they’ve been staying at the house of Keeling’s wife.
At the home recently, Keeling was wearing a shirt that said “Gone 2 Soon,” featuring photos of Teonna and her eldest son, Davageah Jones, who died at 18 a few years ago in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
Craig sat on the couch nearby, the crutches he’s used since getting out of the hospital propped against the wall. He doesn’t remember much from the shooting; it happened so fast, and he dropped to the ground.
What he does remember, vividly, is his sister — her penchant for pranks, how they sometimes “fussed,” but quickly moved on.
“Everybody liked Tee Tee ‘cause she was goofy,” Aiyana, 13, added.
Keeling doesn’t let Craig and Aiyana walk even a few blocks on their own anymore. Doesn’t let them out of her sight.
If this could happen to Tee Tee, she said — someone who only spread joy — it could happen to anyone.
A few days after Teonna died, Kristopher Edmonds was killed and two teenagers were hospitalized with gunshot injuries.
The most violent of the juvenile shootings happened July 2. Four children , ranging from 6 to 16, were shot on Madison Avenue near Norfolk State University. A 15-year-old was arrested in the incident. Then around 10 p.m. on Independence Day, a 3-year-old was shot in the 400 block of St. Paul’s Boulevard — likely struck by a stray bullet, police say.
The recent string of shootings involving children feels shocking. But Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone told The Pilot this week it’s “not an uptick.”
He pointed to a similar spike in 2016, when 28 children were shot by the end of July, with 10 more by the end of the year.
But that was five years ago. In the years since, the number of children shot in a given year remained below 20 until hitting 28 in 2020. This year has already seen 23 children shot.
Juvenile shootings are on the rise throughout the region. Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, which draws patients from across Hampton Roads, has seen the number of kids admitted with gunshot wounds — typically 15 or younger — jump from 19 in 2019 to 37 last year and 22 midway through 2021.
Boone said he has noticed a shift in who’s pulling the trigger.
“The suspects are juveniles,” he said. “In the past, juveniles will get caught up in the crossfire from adults, young adults, firing weapons.”
Behind the trends, though, Boone said the driving factor behind crime isn’t new: Poverty.
There’s a generational lack of opportunities for the primarily Black neighborhoods where these shootings largely take place, he said. If you overlay a map of crime with maps denoting high unemployment or high rates of preventable disease such as diabetes, “they all fit hand in glove,” Boone said.
A few weeks ago, Boone floated another theory. A rise in gun purchases could be linked to the stimulus checks that people received during the pandemic, he said. Some residents told him people were buying guns with their checks — and charging double to resell them.
Boone’s comment irked some members of the community. Stimulus checks, they said, offered a lifeline during the pandemic, and many used the money simply to put food on the table.
Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander addressed the violence at a city council meeting the evening after Kristopher’s killing.
“The harsh truth is that there are too many guns on our streets,” he said. “And it is becoming all clear that too many people lack a regard for human life.”
Norfolk police recovered 920 guns in 2020, a 16% increase from the 791 recovered in 2019, Alexander added. Of those 920 guns, just 52 had been reported as stolen. ( State law requires that a person in lawful possession of a firearm must report its theft or loss to local law enforcement within 48 hours.)
In an interview, Alexander stressed the importance of parents and guardians being attentive to “red flags” with their children, including drug use, mental health and the people in their lives.
“It may sound simple,” he said. “But it can save a life.”
Too often, Alexander added, deadly encounters begin with trivial grievances. These street clashes, he warns, lead to death or incarceration, despair for family members and a loss of talent for the community. “There are no winners.”
At the same meeting, longtime Councilman Paul Riddick said “we have no one but ourselves to blame” for the continued violence, referring to city leaders. In an interview, he added “we have lost control of our youngsters.”
The city doesn’t provide enough opportunities for children, such as libraries and recreation centers, to use their time constructively and work toward a larger goal, Riddick said.
Riddick suggested Norfolk use money generated by wealthy areas, such as through hotel taxes, to invest in those that need more help.
“We’re so concerned about our bond rating and balance sheet that a young child lying under a sheet dead doesn’t make a difference,” he said.
The police chief and several local activists said gun violence should be treated as a public health crisis.
At a few Norfolk hospitals, a new program aims to do so. The initiative, called Foresight, has been at Sentara Norfolk General since last summer and is now at CHKD.
When someone comes to the Sentara trauma bay to be treated for a gunshot, stab or other assault wound, a hospital team is automatically notified and immediately connects with the victim and their family, said Stephen Williams, Foresight team coordinator.
The idea is that the hospital can work to better people’s circumstances that led to a violent incident.
That can mean working to move the person out of the community where they were assaulted, providing transportation for medical appointments, giving them money for food and more, for up to a year after their discharge from the hospital.
Dr. Ann Kuhn, medical director of CHKD’s trauma program, said a main focus is to help the family as a whole. Maybe it’s a teenager or young adult who was shot, but the younger sibling saw it happen, she said. They need help, too. Children deal with post-traumatic stress differently.
Williams said he wanted to be involved with Foresight in part to model what change can look like for young folks that rarely step outside their community.
“It gets tiresome to go into a patient’s room and pretty much see myself lying on the stretcher,” Williams said. “Because most of them are Black males.”
Cameron Bertrand recalls how angry he felt six years ago as he lie on the ground in Norfolk having been shot, his blood pooling on the sidewalk. Cars continued to drive past, and a woman smoked a cigarette on her nearby porch.
Now 30, the Newport News resident works to provide assistance to trauma victims in Hampton Roads through his organization, Violence Intervention & Prevention — the kind of things he needed himself, including mental health counseling.
One major issue, he said, is that nonprofits set up shop in these communities — but when grant funding dries up or leadership loses interest, the assistance fades away. That reinforces to residents that they can’t rely on outside help. He wants to be a consistent presence.
Children are often drawn to gang life because of the sense of family or community they might otherwise be lacking, Bertrand said. They’re in survival mode.
“These kids don’t believe they’ll live long enough to face consequences for what they’re doing,” Bertrand told Norfolk City Council members this month.
In 2008, Billy Cook, then a member of the Norfolk School Board, paced the stage in a local mall during a rally to combat youth violence. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired of reading in the newspaper about our young African American boys either being killed or killing somebody over something stupid,” he told the audience.
More than a dozen years later, does the same sentiment ring true? “Absolutely,” he said in a recent interview.
Cook began teaching in Norfolk public schools a few years ago. He witnessed firsthand the importance of building trusting dialogue between young people and local leaders.
“When you’re in touch with kids, they’ll talk to you,” he said. “We’ve got to connect with them.”
This past year, he taught math at Lake Taylor High School, where Kristopher would have started this fall.
Inside Bethany Baptist Church, friends and family dried their eyes and fanned themselves with funeral programs describing how Kristopher had been “suddenly called home to be with the Lord.”
From behind the glass lectern, they remembered his laugh. And his voice. The boy could sing, they said. He had a voice so beautiful people would edge closer to hear him in the church choir.
Then they walked outside and watched the casket, topped with a basketball nestled among flowers, heaved onto the back of a white pickup that would take Be-Bop for one last ride, to his final place of rest.
Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, firstname.lastname@example.org
Olivia George, email@example.com