Crime & Banishment
Originally published in the January/February 1971 issue
The night was crisp and cold and dark, with hardly a star blinking in the black sky, and business had begun to taper off early in the small neighborhood grocery store. Nick, the owner, shifted his heavy body on the stool he rested on behind the counter and squinted at a fly-specked clock on the wall. He'd close in another hour or so. Wouldn't be much doing on a bitter night like this. No kids coming in to beg a couple of gumdrops or some bubble gum. He twisted around to check the box where he kept a supply for the youngsters who stopped by his store on their way to school. Suddenly, the front door banged open and three young men burst into the store, one brandishing a gun. Nick was startled but not surprised. He'd been beaten and robbed earlier in the year; but this time he was ready for them. He grabbed a pistol from beneath the counter.
He never had a chance to aim it. Several sharp reports resounded through the quiet street—and Nick, the friendly neighborhood grocer, toppled from his stool and lay dead in a spreading pool of blood.
It happens with sickening frequency in cities—large and small—across the nation.
And one of the cities is Charlotte—a clean, progressive southern city with good leadership and an excellent police department. Some say increased crime is the price a city must pay for growth. But Charlotte is not content with that answer. Civic leaders are looking for reasons for the crime increase.
Allen Bailey, the popular, cigar-smoking Charlotte attorney, thinks he knows part of the answer.
"We waited entirely too long to come to grips with the situation," says Bailey. "We failed to build a law enforcement agency efficiently equipped, personnel-wise and facility-wise, to keep pace with a growing population. We're just beginning to catch up. The Charlotte Police Department has made great strides in the past five years. It's now among the very best in the country. Also, there's been a tremendous increase in drug traffic. A great deal of the robberies and murders during robberies can be traced directly to that problem. And then there's permissiveness. There's no denying that permissiveness has run rampant throughout all levels of society. We're now seeing the results in increased crime rates all over the country."
Jake Wade, Jr., Vice-President of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association is a ruddy, ex-Davidson football player who weighs carefully everything he says.
"The permissive attitude is a definite factor in the rapidly accelerating crime rate," says Wade. "The courts are made up of people, so naturally this attitude seeps into our court system. I don't say this to be critical. On the contrary, I think Charlotte has the finest judges, the finest bevy of lawyers, and the very best police officers in the United States – they're beyond reproach. I simply point out that a court is not a machine, it's a collection of human beings. Therefore, when people criticize courts or juries, they're really criticizing themselves."
Jake Wade thinks deteriorating family ties contribute to the growing crime problem. "The tendency today seems to be, if you have troubles blame the government. Less attention is given to accepting responsibility in the home, consequently there's been a breakdown in the basic family unit. By all means, the family unit and all its facets should be preserved. I don't think harsher penalties or more stringent laws will be of much help. If people would just take care of their own home—if they'd do everything within their power to ensure harmony within the family, many crimes would be eliminated. When I see a mob of kids destroying a college campus my first thought is, where are the parents?"
Allen Bailey believes there has been a breakdown in the court system at the jury level. "In the past," says Bailey, "I've seen a lack of desire on the part of jurors to do what has to be done—a tendency to look for excuses rather than to convict."
Concerning the court system, Chief Justice Warren Burger, in a recent speech, suggested the possibility of eliminating or reducing the size of juries in some cases. He's also in favor of relieving state and federal courts of many matters they now handle.
"There is a broad and serious social question, whether such things as divorce, child custody, adoptions, receiverships, and various other matters of that kind belong in the courts at all," said Burger.
He also questions whether courts should deal with chronic alcoholics, narcotic addicts, or mental patients.
An interesting observation by the Chief Justice, but what about impinging on constitutional rights?
"I don't know," he says, "I say simply that it warrants study."
But what is to be done about the increase in crime?
"Bring the family closer together," says Jake Wade.
"We can be more observant as citizens," says Allen Bailey, "and more willing to cooperate with the police in the reporting of crimes and criminals. Also, we can contribute by being willing to testify when called upon rather than seeking out excuses and technicalities."
One citizen of Charlotte has gone a step beyond the normal boundary.
Reverend F. B. O'Shields, the handsome young pastor of St. Giles Presbyterian Church, became so alarmed that he decided to form a citizens committee to study and evaluate the situation, to make the public aware of it, and devise ways to fight it. In other words, to bring about a reversal of the crime trend in Charlotte.
Citizens Help Eliminate Crime, (CHEC), was born last July. Reverend O'Shields called a public meeting at that time to organize "so that others may have a vehicle through which to work." To date CHEC has over 120 members and has been endorsed by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the Mecklenburg Presbytery, and the Central Charlotte Association.
"We don't know the reasons for our astronomical crime rate," says Reverend O'Shields. "We intend to study and research that very question."
Refusing to single out the courts, the Reverend feels our entire system of justice must share some of the blame. "I think the system is antiquated. We're continuing to function on a concept based on a time when the population was much smaller and crime wasn't nearly as rampant. A major difficulty is the time lag between arrest and trial. It takes approximately eight months in North Carolina for an arrested man to get his day in court. And yet, that isn't so bad when compared to other parts of the country. For example, the time lag in the state of New York is almost two years—that's outrageous."
The Reverend O'Shields has conducted his own personal research program into Charlotte's crime problem and has come up with some very unusual findings. "In the past," he says, "a rather high percentage of the murders committed in this area have been domestically related. This seems to be a decreasing fact. I cannot prove this statistically—it's merely an observation on my part, but if it's true, it certainly means that increased drug addiction is a contributing cause. It would be interesting to have a graduate student come in and make a study along those lines as well as the socio-economic ramifications of the crime situation in general."
An undertaking as ambitious as CHEC doesn't happen overnight. Reverend O'Shields and his staff worked many long hours laying the groundwork and some community impact has been made. A speaker form the National Association of Citizen Crime Committees addressed the group in October and the Reverend attended a meeting of that organization in December.
"We hope to affiliate with them eventually," he says. "The meeting I attended was very informative. We were told that, according to a recent Gallup poll, the number one item on the minds of the citizens of this country is the increased crime rate. There's also an unprecedented interest in citizens crime committees. These facts have encouraged us to launch a membership drive during the first quarter of this year."
A statement by Allen Bailey seems to bolster the point. "I've found a consciousness on the part of citizens about crime in the past twelve months," says Bailey. "There seems to be a new awareness and, within the courts, a willingness to impose harsher sentences. It's a healthy sign."
Whatever the cause or cures, it's apparent that the populace is aware of the crime problem in Charlotte and the surrounding area, and they're beginning to come alive and take an active part in the fight.
Look for a decrease in the number of serious crimes in 1971. With a new vigilance on the part of an aroused citizenry and an updated manpower deployment system by the Charlotte Police Department that concentrates more policemen in areas with higher incidences of crime, it must happen.