After Active Shooter, Ferndale Community Comes Together to Cope

After Active Shooter, Ferndale Community Comes Together to Cope

(Crystal A. Proxmire, June 17, 2019)

Ferndale, MI – In the earliest hour of Wednesday, June 5 the SWAT Team that had taken over the perimeter of Withington West Apartments in Ferndale, and transformed the nearby parking lot into a temporary headquarters, packed up their armored vehicles, hummers, vans, and tactical robot and headed off as efficiently as they had arrived.

The 74-year-old man who had opened fire in the hallway towards a neighbor, and through the doorway of another, had been found dead in his own apartment, having taken his own life.

But as the SWAT Team and the news vans left, the gravity of what had taken place began to set in for the people still at 415 Withington – the residents, the employees, and those in the City who would be stepping up to help.

About a week after the shooting, on June 12, the Ferndale Housing Commission had their regular board meeting, an opportunity to review what happened and consider the future.

Residents also had questions.

WHO WAS THE SHOOTER, AND HOW DID HE GET THERE

Mason Campbell had been living in Withington West for nine years.  When he came to FHC, they did a seven-year background check on him before allowing him into the housing program.

Executive Director Heather Van Poucker explained that The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a time–frame of 3-7 years as the window that commissions can look at a person’s criminal history. The current FHC policy looks at a five-year history. At the time Campbell applied, the former administration was in place, and the policy was seven.

Each year as part of renewal of leases, FHC runs new background checks on residents.  New convictions can be grounds for eviction.

“Campbell lived here nine years without any problems, and his background was clear for seven years before that.  This individual has had 16 years of no criminal history,” VanPoucker said.

Police later learned that Campbell had a past, including convictions for armed robbery and unarmed robbery. But the crimes stopped in the 1990s.

Because Campbell had a felony record, he could not legally own a firearm. Yet on June 4, at about 7:45pm, it was a .38 caliber pistol that he used to fire at his neighbors before retreating to his apartment, putting a chair in front of the door, lying in his bed, putting the gun in his mouth, and pulling the trigger.

TERRIFYING NIGHT FOR RESIDENTS

The sound of Campbell’s gunshots rang through the six story apartment complex that houses elderly, disabled, and low-income residents.  Police arrived within a minute of receiving 911 calls, and neighboring departments came as well to help set up a perimeter.

From inside, residents could see the police cars surrounding the building. They waited, many alone, inside their apartments, until armed SWAT team members came by giving them the option to shelter in place or to leave with a bus of residents to the Kulick Community Center.

Residents and neighbors on Facebook got updates from the City’s communication department and from media on the scene.  For over four hours police tried to communicate with Campbell without any response. They used a technique that would get the man’s attention were he still alive – moments of police lights and sirens, followed by the voice of the negotiator.

“The building is surrounded… We need to talk to you… Come to the window so we can see you are okay…”

These things take hours because sometimes time helps to deescalate an anxious suspect. It also gives the police time to understand as much of the situation as they can – who is this person? Where exactly are they at? Is anyone else in danger? What’s the layout of the building?  Best plan of entry?  Potential exits?

Buying time saves lives. Yet for the residents in nearby rooms, that night could not have been over quickly enough.

By midnight residents safely filled the dining room of the Kulick Community Center, some trying to sleep while others watched tv and looked for updates on social media. VanPoucker and folks from the City stayed up late, making sure residents were as comfortable and informed as possible. Some residents chose to stay in their apartments and wait things out since police knew the danger was confined.

Just after midnight a robot was sent to the man’s door. A “flash bang” was thrown into the room.  The bright light of a flash bang blinds a suspect, and the noise temporarily deafens them.  The effect is limited to those in the room, but the sound could be heard throughout the building, and the burst of light could be seen outside the windows.

A robot then entered the apartment and found the man’s body. The tension of those watching from the outside was immediately lifted, and within minutes the bulk of the SWAT members were back on the road, in a bee line back to Oakland County Sheriff’s headquarters to refresh and prepare for whatever danger might be next. Investigators remained to process the scene, to learn more about what happened, and to help the residents feel safe.

AFTERCARE AND COMMUNITY CONTEXT

While the night was a tense and exhausting blur for many at Withington West, the next morning brought fears and questions to light.  Trauma Counselors spoke to dozens of residents about what happened, and those who need ongoing support have access to it.

VanPoucker drove over half an hour when she heard about the shooter, keeping her focus on being strong for the residents.  “I’m incredibly protective of these folks,” VanPoucker said. “I am devastated, all I want is a safe and uplifting home environment for our residents and this is so traumatizing for them.”

Residents in the Ferndale Housing Commission have spent the past three years building their community after suffering from another crisis. The former Director Deborah Wilson had created an environment of fear and isolation that made life miserable for the already vulnerable people in the housing program.

They were deprived the right to communicate with their neighbors.  Being friendly was cause for remand. If residents complained or asked too many questions, they were given violations and even evictions. The buildings were also unkempt and in disrepair, adding to the isolation of a place that dozens of Ferndalians call home.

As the former Director went off to jail, City leaders came together to give the residents a supportive new start. Board members who supported the former director even after learning of her crimes, were replaced. And VanPoucker was brought in as director.

Under VanPoucker’s care are 166 units, including 43 houses scattered though the city, Autumn House (with 55 units) and Withington West (with 68 units).

Residents don’t have to think twice about socializing or even discussing tough issues.  In the years since VanPoucker’s arrival, resident group engagement has flourished.  Not only do residents feel free to speak their minds about issues with the buildings, the staff, neighbors, etc – they also host social events like holiday potlucks and game nights. As they unraveled the flawed policies of years past, residents were at the table to have a hand in the process.

Optimism has also been up in the community as it goes through the process of obtaining RAD certification, a Federal program that allows approved housing programs to invest in remodeling, rebuilding, and possibly re-configuring properties.

The process requires public engagement.  In some communities this would mean posting the requisite notices and holding the obligatory meetings.  But in Ferndale this has meant visioning sessions, regular communications with residents about the process, and even field trips to other housing commissions to see the possibilities and learn directly from residents who had been through the process.

VanPoucker feared that the shooting would send residents back to an atmosphere of fear and isolation that they’d been working so hard to overcome. Yet like in many communities that experience gun violence, the residents have come together to share support and information.

Some residents will even be putting in the work to explore potential solutions.  The FHC board voted Wednesday to approve a safety task force that includes residents of both buildings to dive deep into the issue of security.  They will look at resident concerns, ascertain security weaknesses, and explore policy changes.  The administration has already begun the work of improving safety as well.

IMMEDIATE SECURITY CHANGES

Ferndale Police have been doing walk-troughs of Withington West every 1-2 hours since the shooting to help residents feel more secure, according to Police Captain Emmi who attended the FHC meeting to give an update.

Some have complained about the presence while others have found it comforting.  Both views were expressed by residents at the meeting, with Captain Emmi stating “The goal is not to live in a police state, we just want people to feel safe in their homes.”

The patrols will taper off in the coming weeks.  “We can’t keep up this kind of staffing, but we’re willing to do it until people feel safe,” he said.

Cameras in the hallways worked the way they should, documenting the dispute and the ensuing gunfire.  Both police and FHC staff have reviewed the footage to see if anything security-wise could have prevented it or be done better. They found that nothing in the building had malfunctioned. The shooter was a resident, so he had no reason not to be there. Residents responded as best as they could and cooperated with police, and the situation was kept from escalating.

“Our goal in a situation like this is the safety of everyone involved,” said  Police Chief Vincent Palazzolo on the day after the shooting.  “We did see an outcome with no additional victims or injuries, and I’m proud of that.”

FHC has also made some decisions to shore up security in a way that will be noticeable for residents.  All key locks in the building are being re-keyed, and all keypad access pads are being replaced with a key-fab system.  Though neither played a role in the tragedy, it is an easy way to add more protection for residents.

VanPoucker said she’d be bringing in Active Shooter Training for the staff, as well as for residents who would like to participate.

There could be further changes based on the task force’s recommendations down the road.  One topic on the minds of residents at the meeting was of firearms, and what a housing authority do in regards to gun ownership on the property.

“There is no reason to have guns in a place like this where so many people live,” said one resident.  Others at the meeting agreed, though the topic is a tough one for administration.

GUNS

Like any other citizen, residents in public housing have the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. There are likely guns on the property that are being kept by residents legally. And the one that Campbell used to shoot at his neighbor was not a legal one.

VanPoucker said FHC cannot obtain a list of registered gun owners, and they are not allowed to ban them from the property.  One item on the task force’s plate is to explore what, if anything, can be done to track where firearms may be inside the building in case an emergency arises involving an apartment where guns are kept.

LOCAL LEADERS ATTEMPTING TO ADDRESS GUN VIOLENCE

This issue of gun violence is still a tricky subject for communities to tackle. Shootings happen everywhere, in every size community, every space on the spectrum of wealth, from cities to suburbs to farms and woods. Yet people continue to speak in stereotypes or not address the issue at all, until it happens close to home.

Suicides – the most common type of gun death – have stigma and are often not publicly discussed. And it’s hard to adequately describe what someone goes through when they encounter the threat of bullets firsthand. Shootings make exciting news, and the bravery of first responders is often celebrated. But recovery and safety are long, hard processes.

Even before this month’s shootings, officials in SE Oakland County have been working to raise awareness about increasing rates of gun violence.

County Commissioner Helaine Zack represents Ferndale, Oak Park, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, and Royal Oak Township at the County level.  Violence including murder, suicide, robbery, assaults, and threats have impacted not only these cities, but people throughout Oakland County and beyond.

The most recent incident, Saturday night, involved a manhunt though the neighborhoods of Oak Park after a 23-year-old man reportedly shot his brother-in-law to death and fled the scene on foot.  As police scoured garages and backyards, news of the shooter on the loose sent fear though Oak Park and neighboring communities, including Ferndale.  The shooter was not found until the following afternoon. That scared the heck out of neighbors, who chatted about their feelings, experiences, rumors and speculations, and police sightings through the night on Facebook.

Zack wore orange on June 8 along with people across the county and the country.  “I wore orange to support Moms Demand Action and other advocates trying to reduce gun violence. Last term, State Representative Robert Wittenberg tried to get common sense ‘red flag’ legislation passed in Lansing to reduce gun violence,” Zack said.

When she heard about the shooter at Withington West, she worried for the residents.  “It is frightening for neighbors and the community. I always hope that no one gets harmed physically and emotionally,” she said.

For the County Commissioner, gun violence is not just a political issue.  In her professional work Zack counsels employees on a variety of mental health and support needs.

“I was trained in 1995 to conduct critical incident stress debriefing for employees after shootings and other traumatic or out of the ordinary workplace events. This intervention helps people normalize and stabilize their emotional and stress reactions after an awful event.  I continue to do these interventions at least monthly.”

The legislation proposed by Wittenberg at the State level would require universal criminal background checks and the introduction of Extreme Risk Protection Orders.  He also helped found the Michigan Legislative Gun Violence Prevention Caucus and is currently the Chair.

“Too many families and too many communities have been torn apart by gun violence. Over 100 people die every day in the US from guns. The caucus was formed to introduce and advocate for data-driven policies to mitigate gun violence in Michigan. We are working to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands, while at the same time protecting law-abiding gun owners. We are doing everything we can to ensure that only people who are legally qualified to own firearms have access to them.”

According to statistics compiled by Every Town USA, 58% of American adults or someone they care for have experienced gun violence in their lifetime.  In an average month, 52 American women are shot to death by an intimate partner.  Each day, 100 Americans are killed with guns.

On June 5 there was one life lost in Ferndale. One June 15 there was another one in Oak Park. In both cases neighbors were left wondering what more could be done, and thankful that the toll was not higher.

As those who make the laws try to figure out safety from a legislative standpoint, FHC’s focus is on prevention, community-building, and healing.

NOTICING POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

Observation may be a key to spotting people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, disputes, or other challenges before a situation gets worse.

VanPouker explained that staff does not intrude on residents’ lives, but there is regular contact with all residents and their apartments.  Every unit has several inspection visits each year.  They are inspected for the FHC renewal, for the HUD inspection, for the City rental inspection, for the fire inspection, and they are visited quarterly for a pest control check with a sniffing dog.

“Every unit is seen 7-8 times per year,” she said.  “We are careful of health and safety violations.”

FHC gives warnings if people are struggling to keep up their rooms properly, and they may be able to evict people if there are clear issues with violence or illegal weapons. But in Campbell’s case there had been no warning signs.

If residents know of illegal weapons, disputes, or even just neighbors who may be having a hard time, they can talk to someone on staff in confidence. Many issues can be resolved with communication, support, or resources that are available for people.

“We are a community that looks out for our neighbors,” VanPoucker said.

She and Captain Emmi stressed the importance of following rules like not letting strangers into the building, not propping open doors, and speaking up if they see anything of concern.

“It’s important to everybody to have a security mindset,” Emmi said.  “The vast majority follow the rules and want to live in a nice, safe place.”

One resident at the meeting said she wished more people would take advantage of talking to the counselors.  “Some people are just angry,” she said.  “When you talk about your feelings, it helps.  That rage behind why he did what he did, we just don’t know.  But I think talking about it helped.  Doing your best going forward, not holding it in.”

VanPoucker is determined to continue brightening spirits, giving updates about the RAD process, and introducing ideas for removing an old sign at Autumn House to add a landscaped seating area instead.  Two old pianos may be donated for a public art project.  And a sculpture could also be coming soon.

“We are doing what we can, we are supporting each other, and we are moving forward,” she said.

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