Charlotte Has A Problem With Crime
This story is the first in what will be a four-part series, which we're calling Charlotte’s Crime Problem. Each story in the series will examine a key component of our city’s struggle against crime.
Written by Melissa Hankins
Photographs by Chris Edwards
On a raw Tuesday morning last February, just before dawn, about 250 people gathered at Cricket Arena, which is where the red, white, and blue buses were waiting. It was a diverse group—racially and socially—but many wore small reminders of the large loss that united them: fluttering ribbons, rubber bracelets, memorial pins picturing murdered loved ones. There were camera crews and local celebrities, and, of course, politicians. There were police officers and preachers, restaurant owners and hoteliers, and an abundance of elderly folk, too, somewhat surprising given the long day of lobbying that lay before them—some looked too fragile to picket in the cold wind cutting through their state capital destination, Bicentennial Plaza; to hustle up and down the halls of Raleigh's Legislative Building, looking for senators and representatives to listen. But they did it anyway. "Well, someone has to," whispered Elaine Utter, director of sales and marketing at Embassy Suites Charlotte, from her seat on the first of the five buses, the one carrying Mayor Pat McCrory and Channel 6's steely faced safety guru, Dan
"Don't Be a Victim" Starks. "The crime in Charlotte is completely out of control."
McCrory says he organized the "Caravan to Raleigh" trip after some local crime victims urged him to, calling it a "grassroots" effort to solicit state support for Charlotte's criminal-justice system, "since right now," he says, "the way the system's set up, we need permission from Raleigh to do anything." Mecklenburg County's courts and jails are all North Carolina funded.
"I cannot tell you how impressed I am," McCrory told the crowd at 7 a.m., "that all of you are taking time out to ride three hours up and three hours back today." But for Utter, the trip did not feel elective, like something she was squeezing in. It felt imperative. The Embassy Suites on South Tryon Street is reeling from violence, she says, and if something isn't done about it, well, she could be out of a job. "Crime is so bad at that end of town," Utter says, "we deal with it on a daily basis. Theft. Break-ins. Stealing. Bellmen being held up at night by gunpoint, guests with guns put against their heads. I can't reach my goals because we keep losing accounts. People will not bring their conventions to town because of our reputation. We're losing business left and right," she says. "I'm from New York. I moved here from South Florida. So I've seen a lot. But I've never seen this."
And in fact, Charlotte was named one of the ten most dangerous big cities in the nation in a report released in March by Kansas-based research company Morgan Quitno Press. Out of those cities with a population of 500,000 or more, we rank eighth in a lineup that includes notoriously troubled towns like Detroit and Baltimore, based on each city's reports of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and auto theft.
Charlotte, of course, is known as the Queen City, and it has a host of other pet names as well: Bank Town and Yuppieville; monikers based on the fact that this is, perhaps above all, a very business-friendly town. There is no doubt, however, that crime is souring the city's rich, regal reputation. Take Yahoo!'s travel site, where people post reviews of cities. A resident wrote some scathing comments in April, and they're featured at the top of Charlotte's page. "Okay, 90 percent of the city is gorgeous: big trees, brand new shiny skyscrapers, manicured lawns, massive suburban houses…but that's what's on the surface," the reviewer wrote. "There's also the flip side to the shiny coin: the rampant crime that knows absolutely no bounds here." City officials admit to being worried, too, and they've taken to pointing fingers at each other on the issue. But they all agree on this: unless the city is infused with a major shot of cash, crime will only get worse as the city's population expands, for Charlotte is also one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation; Mecklenburg County's population is projected to break one million by 2010.
It's a situation that's scaring citizens into action.
Cornelius resident Steve Monger sits quietly in the seat in front of Utter, dressed in solemn garb and a powder-pink bracelet. His teenage daughter lived with him until she was murdered. When asked why he's on the caravan, he clears his throat and says, "Because I want to make sure my daughter's death wasn't in vain." Even those few words seem to pain him. A twenty-eight-year-old Bank of America employee leans across the aisle to tell Utter about a Web site she started called CrimeinCharlotte.com, on which she posts mug shots and most-wanted lists. "I started the whole thing after my car was stolen by a guy that had been arrested twelve times in two years," she says, giving her long brown hair an indignant flick. "My main goal is to let people know about repeat offenders, and to help them take action by contacting elected officials." She grins and points at McCrory. "As the mayor says, I'm always giving him a hard time." For a while, the young woman was proud to post her name on her site. "But last year, I did a story on gangs in Charlotte and teens with guns," she says, "and I received a lot of threats about it." So now, she wants to remain anonymous, here and online.
Utter, Monger, Ms. CrimeinCharlotte.com, and hundreds of others arrived in Raleigh armed with photos of each member of the Mecklenburg delegation and maps showing their respective room numbers in the Legislative Building. McCrory instructed them to fan out and knock on doors. "Be passionate," he told the crowd. "Tell your stories. Say we can't deal with this anymore."
The crowd also clutched folders containing a kind of instruction manual. "Our overall goal is to ask legislators…[for] more funding," it read, "plus legislation that will support Police efforts with gangs, repeat offenders, and victims," going on to indicate that the major problems stemming from crime in Charlotte are a direct result of the city's clogged courts. Spread across Bicentennial Plaza, they dutifully read and recited McCrory's manual. They waved signs reading "Support Our Police."
Not that there's anyone, really, in Charlotte who would disagree with the fact that our punitive system is troubled. District Attorney Peter Gilchrist says it will take around $23 million to make things right. "Most law firms have a couple of lawyers working on every case," he says. "We have forty-some lawyers [plus thirteen funded by the county] and twenty-some support people [plus ten], and we filed 228,000 cases last year." He says more than two hundred defendants will typically move through one courtroom each day in Charlotte. "The sheriff says he has four hundred sleeping on the floor," of the jail, awaiting court time. Gilchrist says one of his assistant D.A.s has more than three hundred cases pending (actually, there's one with 608), and that at least one hundred additional employees are needed in the clerk's office to properly process caseloads. "We keep falling further and further behind," he says. "We are seriously understaffed compared to national standards." Gilchrist blames this on the fact that Charlotte's judicial system is state funded and "we have a rurally dominated Legislature. The reasons behind where resources go are political. Over the years," he says, "we've gotten less than our share. The blanket's too small for the bed, and we live in the bare spot." In fact, the system is so backlogged, McCrory says defendants "are waiting nine, ten months for their trial, and by the time it finally rolls around, witnesses have disappeared. We're arresting people, then nothing happens. It's like, what's the use?" the mayor says, laughing sharply.
What everyone does not agree on, though, is that the city's crime dilemma begins and ends in its judicial system, that the blame belongs alone to state legislators who've ignored Charlotte's cries for cash.
Some say Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel W. Stephens hasn't helped matters.
Like Charlotte City Council Member Anthony Foxx, who says one of the city's biggest problems is that its police force simply isn't scary enough. Foxx is a Charlotte native serving his first term on the council. He is a thirty-four-year-old Democrat and an attorney at Hunton & Williams, and he believes Chief Stephens is too mellow for his job, in effect, all brains and no brawn. Foxx says that the chief's perpetual poise and cerebral approach have affected the way criminals view Queen City cops. "The face of crime fighting in Charlotte is a subdued one," he explains. "Our police chief has a very good understanding of crime issues. But he's not a firebrand. He's not the kind of guy that walks into a room, breathing so much fire that people are afraid to commit crime.
"There just hasn't been that pounding of the fist that people expect from a chief," Foxx says bluntly.
It's true that Stephens can seem more like a professor than a policeman. He is silver haired and soft spoken. He measures his words carefully. He balances his glasses on the tip of his nose. And when he talks about his department's approach to crime, he likes to draw diagrams. "We're a little different than some," Stephens says, referring to his police force, as he draws an equilateral triangle on a piece of scrap paper and labels the sides "offender," "victim," and "location."
"Our emphasis is on prevention and problem solving in the community," he says. "We look at why crime happens and where and at whom it's happening to, and we try to influence people, in a way, to change, because behavioral changes can result in a reduction of victimization."
Pointing at his picture of the triangle, he says, "This is where we have the biggest chance to change things." And Charlotte cops go about convincing criminals to alter their behavior, he says, by "encourag[ing] programs that attempt to eradicate social problems" like drug addiction, prostitution, and juvenile delinquency. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) counsels victims, too, on ways they can avoid becoming target. Police appear on videos on the CMPD's Web site, sharing tips on how to keep one's home safe from thieves, and how to take on bullies. Stephens wants 40 percent of his officers' time to be devoted to "problem solving" versus calls to service or emergency response. "We don't do these things because we don't have something better to do," he says. "We do it because it'll reduce crime in Charlotte."
He's aware that some think this approach makes him look cushy—like he'd rather counsel derelicts than bust them. Even the D.A. questions how far police could or should delve into prevention. "I don't know that police have the ability to be changing people," Gilchrist says. Stephens is aware, too, that "some people," as he puts it, "say we aren't enforcement oriented."
"And that's nonsense," Stephens says, looking vexed. "We arrested some 30,000 people last year. We wrote 100,000 citations." The chief sighs. "When people think about aggressiveness they think about New York City. There was a New York Times article a few days ago saying that police there stopped 600,000 people or so" last year, he says. "Well, [in the same time period] we stopped 112,000 people. New York has 36,500 sworn police officers, we have 1,600." Do the math, Stephens says, and the typical NYPD officer "stopped about fourteen people in comparison to seventy [stops] per officer here. Our officer average is about five or six times higher than NYC's, where they have this zero-tolerance policy.
"We do have officers in the department who think the problem-solving stuff is a waste of time," he admits. "That the only way to reduce crime is to arrest people. But it's very hard for me to understand that kind of thinking. You can't arrest your way out of a crime problem. Any logical, clear-thinking person can't come to that conclusion. Those that think we're soft on crime because I talk about crime prevention a lot are misinformed," the chief says calmly. "They don't have a clear understanding of crime or safety and they certainly don't have much knowledge about what police are doing. Some people think we're not aggressive enough because I spend a lot of time talking about this," he says, tapping his triangle. "But I stand behind our stats."
In 2006, violent crime dropped by almost 7 percent in Charlotte. In fact, violent crime (a category that consists of murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) last year was the lowest it's been here in twenty-five years (there were eighty-three homicides last year; eighteen murders were committed in the first few months of 2007). "But no one talks about that," says Stephens. On the other hand, property crime has increased by 2.8 percent.
Percentages like these, though, are fickle. In 2005, the situation was opposite: violent crime spiked 6.4 percent and property crime dropped 3.3 percent. And—as evident when comparing Charlotte's overall crime to cities like San Jose and Austin (see p. 98)—a 7 percent dip in violent crime doesn't exactly equate to a stellar report card. "There are many reasons, varied reasons, why crime goes up and down," the chief says. "But we can't always say why."
What Stephens does know is the city's worst recent homicide year was 1993, when 129 people were murdered, and "those peaks of violence were associated with the introduction of crack cocaine." But Stephens, who's been chief since 1999, says modern addiction services—in an example of why he supports them—helped curb that issue. The largest problem Charlotte faces today, he says, is its own rapid expansion. "We're one of the fastest-growing cities around," he says, "and there's a challenge in keeping up with it." In the past two years, Stephens says he's added 120 new officers.
All of which leads one to wonder: with the addition of more police officers, what is it about Charlotte's growth that's so problematic?
Try the expanding number of juveniles, says Stephens, and the city's rising poverty rate—the intersection of those two facts can have a devastating impact on society. "We've got an awful lot of kids hanging out in the streets," he says. "Wandering through neighborhoods . . . making people in the community fearful. The proportion of our population that's increasing is in violence-prone ages."
It's the kind of situation that breeds gangs, and the chief says they're more visible today in Charlotte than ever.
Police have identified eighty different gangs here. They know of about two thousand local members, and they estimate eight hundred more will be added to their database by January 2008. "The majority are young folk," says Stephens. "They're engaged in car thefts, robberies, drug dealing. Recruiting takes place in schools."
Compounding the problem: juvenile justice is yet another system controlled by the state, and Charlotte leaders feel that, once again, North Carolina legislators have ignored their pleas for assistance. One thousand thirty-five juveniles (under the age of sixteen) were brought into custody in 2006, according to the mayor's office. "If there's no accountability, then that leads to more crime," says McCrory. "If the kids are let out of jail an hour after they get there, then when they go back to their neighborhoods, the other kids see and say, ‘Look, nothing happened.' "
Stephens agrees with the mayor. "Juvenile court is even more inadequate than the adult system," he says. "[Youth] arrests are going up, but actual detentions are going down. What we end up with is kids on the street doing the same thing they did before." And thanks to our clogged court system, "you can steal a car—you can steal several cars—before you darken the door of a judge," he says. "There's a real sense among juveniles that there won't be consequences to their actions."
The D.A., however, takes issue with McCrory and Stephens's belief that young criminals (and older ones, for that matter) are getting off the hook in Charlotte, no matter how overtaxed our court system. "I think that part is overplayed," Gilchrist says, hackles showing. "If we get cases that are properly investigated," and he says those two words slowly and pointedly, "we prosecute them. This causes a lot of angst among officials, this theory that police are making arrests but the D.A.'s not prosecuting. Well, that just reflects a lack of understanding why." If a case isn't prosecuted in court, he says, there's always a legitimate reason. "Like lack of evidence," he says.
There can be more than a little finger pointing among Charlotte officials when it comes to detangling the city's crime issues, and the mayor hasn't gone entirely blameless either. City Council Member Foxx says that in June 2006, McCrory "actually vetoed" the council's plans to add seventy officers to CMPD's force, but that the council overrode that veto. "He wanted to add thirty-five," scoffed Foxx. "He was trying to avoid a tax increase. You have to be careful about balancing a budget on the backs of the people you're supposed to protect. We can say all we want about Raleigh and putting more money into the courts and stopping the revolving door," he says. "But we have to put all we can locally into the fight as well."
"Now that's an interesting spin," says the mayor. "I strongly support adding new officers." McCrory says he had a different plan to add new officers.
Given the discrepancy, maybe more citizens concerned about crime will start attending City Council meetings. After all, they got up at the crack of dawn to ride to Raleigh. And they came out in droves to the recent forums held by police.
Throughout February and March, CMPD hosted a series of meetings in each of their districts to ask for help in getting a handle on crime. The meetings in crime-ridden areas were packed.
Metro Division Captain D.E. Gallant addressed the 150 people who piled into the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Beatties Ford Road one Thursday night last March. "There was a time when we
didn't have these kinds of meetings"—in fact, the department has never had these kinds of meetings—"when we thought we knew everything. Then crime went up, and we realized we knew nothing. We need your help," he said plaintively, to a sea of bobbing heads.
At each of the forums, fifteen in all, police broke the crowd into groups and grilled them, taking notes on the attendees' top five concerns for the areas they live in, and accepting general recommendations. At Friendship Missionary, an elderly man called out, his voice wavering with emotion, "Don't let gangs have this city!" A woman replied shrilly: "We have kids in the street, 24/7. When do they go to school?" Dozens complained of hearing regular gunfire and seeing blatant drug deals, and they attributed both those things to gang members. "I tried to get five [youths] to ride here with me," said Cynthia Nicholson, a thirty-something woman with flaming red hair. "But they were like, why? It's like you have to give them something."
Police copied down these comments furiously.
At the various forums, as people poured out their concerns and officers showed such enthusiasm in listening, there seemed to be a growing feeling of solidarity. Citizens who came with tight voices and anxious expressions clapped uniformed officers on the back before leaving. Officers announced a citywide meeting, at which they planned to reveal the collective forum findings, and people buzzed about how big and important that last gathering was bound to be.
But then tragedy struck, just after the last of the neighborhood meetings wrapped. And unfortunately, when hundreds of citizens met next, it was to mourn two murdered CMPD officers.
People stood in clots along the curb of Pineville-Matthews Road on Thursday, April 5, and in silent rows outside the Arboretum shopping center, watching a procession of fifty motorcycles and two hundred police cars escort the body of Officer Sean Clark toward Forest Lawn West cemetery. They lined the streets of Myers Park and Dilworth, hands over hearts, and as the procession moved uptown, they left work to stand in the streets, at attention.
Officer Clark, thirty-four, and Officer Jeff Shelton, thirty-five, were gunned down after responding to a disturbance call at Timber Ridge apartments, a subsidized housing complex in east Charlotte. They were the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers killed in the line of duty in more than a decade. Clark was the first to be buried. Three thousand people attended his funeral at Calvary Church; thousands returned the following evening to say goodbye to Shelton.
Charlotte resident Demeatrius Antonio Montgomery is accused of the killings, and his arrest highlights another major issue riddling Charlotte's court systems: repeat offenders. Records show Montgomery was found guilty of assaulting or resisting public officials five times since 1998, when he turned sixteen and records became public.
"I deal with repeat offenders very frequently," Gilchrist says. "Prisons don't change people. They just keep them off the streets for the period they're incarcerated." And while Gilchrist says he doesn't know whether it's the job of police officers to attempt to change people, he says his office has a number of programs focused on just that. "If we've got someone who's never been in trouble before and they're willing to admit it and make restitution, we try to realize what made them do it," Gilchrist says. "Per year, in excess of one thousand are put in that system."
Montgomery, however, wouldn't have qualified, having been arrested again and again and serving time in Mecklenburg County jail, though never in a North Carolina prison. His story, perhaps, gives credence to the chief's belief that police should be involved in prevention. Montgomery, it seems, could be a prime example of how dangerous it can be to let ticking time bombs go unnoticed. A CMPD search warrant says that on the night he allegedly executed Clark and Shelton by shooting them both in the head, the five-foot-four-inch twenty-five-year-old with a rap sheet practically bigger than he is was drinking liquor and listening to a song called "Murda Man."
McCrory went back to Raleigh a week after Officers Clark and Shelton were killed, and this time he took the chief, the D.A., and the sheriff with him. It was the first time, he says, that he was invited to discuss Charlotte's crime situation. "I've been going to Raleigh for ten years on behalf of public safety," the mayor says. "Usually, I get blank stares. But this time Senator (Marc) Basnight called and said, ‘I want to see you again.' That's never happened before." Basnight, a Democrat and president pro tem of the N.C. Senate, spoke with members of the caravan last February. "This proves the caravan worked," McCrory says. "For the first time we have a leader who's saying, ‘I get it.'
"I was actually invited back before the police shootings," he says, "though we did talk about them. The tragedy gave an emotional punch that backed up the facts. I let them know the city has been going through a lot of turmoil because the person who was arrested for this crime is an individual we've dealt with many times before."
McCrory calls this last visit a great success, saying that he and the city's top law enforcers "made a great team" in Raleigh. "We spoke with one, very effective voice," he says.
But whether it's enough, whether all this—the lobbying caravan, the neighborhood forums, the police shootings, and the statistics that should set alarm bells screeching—is enough, remains to be seen. When legislators allocate this year's funding, the mayor claims it will be "a make-or-break case as to whether they're listening."
Because, like the D.A. says, it can be awfully hard to get rurally dominated Raleigh, so far removed from Charlotte, to listen, even when you throw the kind of passion in its face that this city's citizens have displayed, of late, so often.
When a small group from the caravan including Mike Butts, the amiable executive director of Visit Charlotte, and a stooped, graying senior who looked as if every step through Raleigh's Legislative Building might end him, politely approached Democratic Senator Charlie Smith Dannelly, for example, back in February, Dannelly, who represents Mecklenburg County, looked like he wanted to throttle them. "I know the problem," the senator said testily, before stalking away toward a luncheon. "Don't you let the public think we're up here doing nothing."
"Huh," said Butts. "That didn't go so well."