Savannah’s gun violence reaches 4-year high, sparks community efforts to end ‘culture of violence’

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 6:40 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Savannah has seen an increase in gun violence - one the city hasn’t experienced since 2016.

While the level of violence is not even close to the violent crime wave seen in some of the largest cities in the U.S., like Atlanta, the gun violence in Savannah has sparked communitywide efforts to end a “culture of violence.”

For Lavania Smalls, it’s been nearly six months since someone shot and killed her oldest son Kareem. His murder is unsolved.

“I’m not going to never get over it,” she said. “I just learn to deal with it.”

Kareem Smalls owned the business, “Free Lunch Baby”: A line of clothing that evolved into a well-known brand that inspired children living in poverty to pursue their dreams. Kareem handed out free lunch bags to children living in public housing - children who grew up like he did.


“You can be something coming from nothing. That’s what Free Lunch Baby stands for,” said his brother Douglas Smalls Jr.

Kareem, 36, died in November during a particularly violent fall in Savannah. The violence in the fall of 2020 escalated from, on average, a shooting every three days to one every two days, according to a WTOC analysis of Savannah Police crime data.

Someone shot Kareem on the night of Nov. 23 while he was in his van.

At the time, his mother said Kareem was working in his van while it was parked outside her apartment on Draper Street in the Kayton Homes subdivision. It’s the same public housing complex where he grew up and often gave back.

Moments after he was shot, Kareem crashed the van at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and West Gwinnett Street.

A bystander called 911 to report the accident.

Savannah Police responded within seconds. By the time his mother found out, Kareem already was in surgery at the hospital where he later died. She wasn’t allowed in the room to say goodbye.

“It just kind of rocked my world from that day until now. It’s been really hard time. Some days I get through it and some days it’s just hard,” she said.

His murder remains unsolved, but it is a priority for the Savannah Police Department according to Chief Roy Minter.

“Absolutely someone who was out there trying to make a difference in our community,” he said about Kareem.

His murder is one of 31 homicides and 98 shootings Savannah Police investigated last year.


A WTOC Investigates analysis shows the number of homicides and shootings reached levels the community has not seen since 2016 when there were 43 homicides and 87 shootings.

Gun violence causes, near-term solutions

What contributed to the uptick in gun violence in Savannah?

The police department has narrowed it down to four areas, as Chief Minter explained:

  1. “The first one had to do with people trying to resolve conflicts, you know different issues, by using a firearm and introducing a firearm into that mix.”
  2. “The second one had to do with drug sales and drug purchases where those evolved into shootings.”
  3. “The third one had to do with gang-related issues.”
  4. “And then the fourth one where people out either awaiting trial or people who were witnesses in court cases and the court system was shut down so these people unfortunately were running into each other in the community and trying to resolve those issues again with the introduction of a firearm into those matters.”

The recent reopening of the court system is something Chief Minter said he is hopeful will prevent some shootings and deaths, but he says the gun violence in Savannah is a problem beyond the scope of the police department and the justice system.

The root causes, he says, are linked to systemic issues in Savannah: poverty, blight, education and employment. Also, the number of guns being stolen out of vehicles is a contributing factor to the violence - the subject of a previous WTOC Investigates report.

The solutions involve several community partners who have stepped up to reintroduce programs targeting at-risk youth, the police chief said. They include: a youth mentoring program with 100 Black Men of Savannah, a Mom Heroes initiative announced by Mayor Van Johnson, a conflict resolution program through the United Way of Coastal Georgia and efforts to bring CURE Violence Global initiatives to the area.

As for efforts within the department, a police athletic league known as PALs will return this summer and ramp up by the fall, Minter said.

The department also hopes to re-launch its IMPACT program by the end of June. The program ended several years ago after a lack of funding when the Savannah-Chatham County Police Department demerged. Savannah City Council agreed to put funds behind the program to relaunch it this year after the increase in gun violence. Minter expects the program to begin in the fall.

‘Break that violent culture’

The efforts are to end the community’s culture of violence, as Chief Minter described:

“This whole culture of having a gun. Having access to a gun. Letting people know that you have a gun. Not being afraid to use a gun. Not being afraid to carry a gun. We have to break that violent culture. We’ve got to break that cycle in our community and that’s one of the reasons we’re working with our community members, our community leaders.”

Kareem wasn’t a part of the gun violence culture, his family said, but he was targeted by it.

“Let me tell you something,” his mother Lavania Smalls said. “I just felt that somebody went out and killed him because they were jealous of what he was doing. That’s the bottom line. I just don’t think that he did anything to anybody that he deserved to die.”

Kareem Smalls, left, and his mother, Lavania Smalls, right.
Kareem Smalls, left, and his mother, Lavania Smalls, right.(Smalls Family)

Kareem’s aunts have launched a Facebook page to push for justice.

The family support has helped Lavania focus on continuing her son’s legacy of giving back through the business.

“That’s all he ever wanted was for people to push his brand so that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Two months after Kareem died, the family received unexpected news: Kareem’s first child was born.

It’s something he kept a secret from much of his family. The arrival of Kareem Carmel earlier this year has brought the family joy and comfort during their grief.

“That baby is like a little angel,” gushed Kareem’s aunt Florrie Washington.

“It’s like a little tangible piece of him is left on Earth,” said aunt Ruby Smalls.

If you know anything about the murder of Kareem Smalls, detectives want to hear from you. Call Crime Stoppers: 912-234-2020. Tips are anonymous.

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