Dayton’s Mayor: Facing Challenges and Moving Forward
On August 4th at about 4 a.m, I woke up to a knock at my front door. I went downstairs, thinking it may be a neighbor who needed help. Instead, it was a city attorney, who told me there had just been a mass shooting in our city.
A gunman had opened fire in the crowded Oregon District, a trendy neighborhood of bars and restaurants that is the center of Dayton’s nightlife. Armed with an AR-15 style pistol variant with a 100-round magazine, the gunman was able kill nine people and shoot 17 more before police killed him in 32 seconds. Dozens more were wounded in the chaos as people fled for their lives, some of them running out of their shoes.
The Oregon District shooting was a terrible inflection point in a year of crises for Dayton. On Memorial Day weekend, a group of white supremacists held a rally in our downtown, trying to incite hatred and fear. After Charlottesville, we could not take any chances, and had to shut down our entire downtown to avoid violence. Ohio is an open carry state, meaning both the white supremacists and counter-protestors were visibly armed and we were concerned that the smallest scuffle could quickly escalate to carnage. Thankfully, the day ended with no arrests, citations, or use of force, but the city had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on police staffing and equipment to make sure the community remained safe.
Less than 48 hours after the hate group left, dozens of tornadoes ripped through our community, flattening neighborhoods and businesses. Miraculously, there were no deaths caused directly by the damage, but hundreds of families were displaced and the property damage totaled in the millions of dollars. The severity of the storms took out the quadruple-redundant electric feeds to both of the city’s water treatment plants, creating a secondary crisis as the city water department scrambled to restore service.
And in November, a 30-year veteran of the Dayton Police was shot and killed while serving a search warrant on a DEA raid. Detective Jorge Del Rio, who immigrated from Mexico as a child, helped to curb the supply of deadly fentanyl that has plagued our community for years. Detective Del Rio’s murder was the first on-duty death the Dayton Police had experienced in decades, adding another painful blow to a department that had already carried a heavy load this year.
This year has tested Dayton to our very core. It has tested our city staff’s ability to simultaneously respond to crisis and meet residents’ daily needs. It has tested our first responders as they must continue to come to the community’s aid in crisis again and again. It has tested our residents as they are called to care for their neighbors while managing their own reactions to traumatic events.
I believe that Dayton has risen to each one of these challenges. As our city has endured horrible times, we have learned about each other and what is most important to us. People who never would have crossed paths have helped each other in our most painful moments.
The weekend after the tornadoes, thousands of people with rakes and shovels – whatever they could find – volunteered to clean up neighborhoods that weren’t their own. Within days of the shooting, the Oregon District was covered in small, handmade signs of encouragement. Tens of thousands of people came out to a benefit concert raising money for the victims’ families. And on a cold day in November, schools and businesses throughout the county closed early so that mourners could line up for miles along the funeral procession route for Detective Del Rio.
I am proud of how Daytonians have responded to these crises, but I am frustrated that our state and federal governments have not acted to stop them from happening in the first place. So many of the challenges we faced this year are local manifestations of national problems, and Dayton has been left to foot the bill.
We have seen a frightening national resurgence of white supremacy that has received little condemnation from the highest levels of our federal government. But Dayton is a welcoming city – no matter where you’re from, who you love, or what you believe, you are welcome in Dayton. So when the white supremacists came to town in May, we didn’t let them divide us – we brought our community together to have the real, and tough, conversation about the legacy of racism in our city and how we can continue to work past it, together.
Both the August 4th mass shooting and Detective Del Rio’s murder point to the ongoing national crisis of gun violence. Yet these shootings are simply the ones that make national news. Our community, like many others, experiences gun violence on a nearly daily basis. Local governments’ ability to regulate access to guns has been stripped away by the Ohio legislature, so Daytonians must look to our state and federal governments to keep them safe. When Gov. DeWine took the stage at a vigil hours after the shooting, hundreds of people shouted in frustration, “Do something!”
Fortunately, it seems Governor DeWine heard this call and is working to pass real gun safety reforms in Ohio. Yet this remains an uphill battle. And despite promises made after the August shootings in Dayton and El Paso, the federal government remains deadlocked on passing universal background checks or other measures.
It became quite clear this summer that no one else is coming to solve our problems. With gridlock in Washington and Columbus, our state capital, we must do what we can locally. Time and again this summer, Daytonians have demanded action in the wake of these crises, and we must work to heed their call.
City leadership is a small, scrappy team that is dedicated to our residents and our employees. We have spent years building a team of leaders who live up to our city’s history of ingenuity and resiliency. While we may lack resources in Dayton City Hall, we do have the ability to create a culture and build a team that can make our city succeed. This is the only way to keep pushing ahead. Without leadership from state and federal governments to tackle critical issues, we in Dayton must instead rely on nurturing our own talent to foster creativity and risk taking. This is how we keep moving forward, no matter the challenge – including the many we have faced this year.
Nan Whaley is the mayor of Dayton, Ohio. She was first elected to the position in 2013, and was re-elected in 2017. She serves on the board of trustees for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is the chair of the Conference’s International Committee. She is a Vice Chair for the National League of Cities, Council on Youth, Education and Families, and a founding board member for the Ohio’s Mayor Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of Ohio’s 30 largest cities. She also currently serves as the vice chair of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors. Twitter: @NanWhaley