Originally published in January 1996
With a new chief and some new attitudes, Charlotte takes aim at its number one problem
Written by Frye Gaillard
It's a different day in the fight against crime. Sgt. Rick Sanders sees that now. He had his doubts for the longest time, back in 1992 and 1993 when people started talking about community policing. To a veteran Charlotte cop like Sanders, it sounded pretty soft – like the police were supposed to become something else, social workers almost, for here they were in the roughest parts of town playing basketball with kids on the corners and talking about partnerships with the people. Another silly fad, Sanders thought, until all the events of October 5, 1993 proved otherwise.
That horrible night, police Officers Andy Nobles and John Burnette went on a routine call – attempting to arrest a robbery suspect who tried to get away. Burnette caught up with him first, and they both fell wrestling into the woods. The suspect, Alden Harden, made a grab for Burnette's gun, which was still in its holster, and the gun came free. He began to fire at point-blank range, and almost before they knew what happened, two young policemen lay dead in the woods.
They had known, of course, that they were working in a violent part of town. The murder rate in their Adam 2 district, which included the housing projects from Tryon Street to West Boulevard, was nearly as high as in Newark, New Jersey, the most violent city in the United States. Police always understood the danger. They knew everyday that they could be next, but whenever that possibility came true, the horror of the moment was hard to comprehend.
Sgt. Rick Sanders felt that way. As the head of the homicide squad in Charlotte, he had handled the last six murders of policemen, and there weren't many cases he dreaded more than these. For one thing, even among people who saw what happened, it was hard to find anybody who would talk. Some people were afraid, others didn't like the police. But this time Sanders was stunned by the difference. Everywhere he turned when he arrived on the scene, people rushed forward to tell what they knew. They referred to the fallen officers by name – John and Andy – and Sanders could see that their grief ran deep.
Later, he began to understand why. Over the next several days, the stories poured out – the single mother of three who was amazed every Friday when Burnette came by to check on her, most often bringing an armload of diapers. Kids who were having trouble in school discovered that Nobles would listen to their problems. All those little things mounted up creating a whole new climate – a new relationship with the people.
Sanders could see the advantage right away. Police caught Alden Harden, and with the help of people who might have been hostile a few years before, they brought him to trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to die for his crime. It may have been a horribly ironic example, but that was the philosophy of community policing – a partnership with the people they served, which made it much easier to prosecute the criminals.
It was one of several new strategies in Charlotte, some of which produced their share of skepticism. That was the way it had always been. Ideas came and ran their course, soon to be replaced by some other fashion. But not any more. Something significant was going on here. A city that had been a case study in crime – the eighteenth-most violent in the United States – was slowly becoming a case study in policing. Rick Sanders now was one who believed.
In a sense, he probably had no choice. Shortly after the murder of Nobles and Burnette, a new police chief came to Charlotte, full of energy and new ideas. Dennis Nowicki was a veteran of the streets of Chicago, having joined the force in the 1960s when the police essentially were the thin blue line. They stood alone against the forces of disorder in a city synonymous with mob violence. In 1968, when demonstrators threatened the Democratic National Convention, images of Chicago police cracking heads were broadcast nationwide. It was an ugly scene on the TV news, but the police back then didn't give much thought to public opinion.
"In the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was a police chief, we never asked the community what they thought of us," says Dr. Richard Lumb, a criminologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Frankly, we didn't really care."
But that attitude began to change, driven in part by public criticism – "the Rodney King-type cases," as Lumb puts it – and also by the realization that the criminal justice system was failing. The volume of crime had simply overloaded it – like a funnel with the police at the broadest end, pouring in cases that got clogged at the bottom. The courts, the prisons, the DAs' offices – all of those were swamped, and the social problems that aggravated crime got worse all the time.
The neighborhoods that seemed so rough were actually the most fragile places in Charlotte – the most easily overwhelmed by crime. It was simple enough to see how it happened, at least for the officers who worked those streets. A lot of kids were growing up poor in single parent homes, and sometimes the parents were dealing in drugs. Even when they weren't, the children saw drug dealers wearing gold chains, making more money than the kids could imagine, never breaking a sweat.
"Think about how it looks to the young person," says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sgt. Terry Sult. "A guy in a fancy car says to him, ‘Stand down there and when you see a police officer, give us a sign.' So the kid keeps watch while the drug deals happen, and if a police car comes, maybe all he does is take off his hat. For this he can make $250 a day, and if he wants more money he gets a gun. He's young, he sees all the violence on TV, sees cuttings and shootings on the street where he lives. It's a way of life. Eventually, he decides to pull the trigger, and he does not even think about the consequences."
Complicating all of that, says Sult, a new kind of drug appeared in the 1980s. Before about 1986, the drugs of choice in the west-side slums were marijuana and heroin, and the rich man's passion was powder cocaine. But crack came along in the middle of the decade – a cheaper cocaine that quickly spread through the poorest neighborhoods. The biggest open-air market in the state was Kenny Street in a place called "The Hole," a rundown collection of rental houses off Oaklawn Avenue. Crack, which is smoked, produces a brief euphoria and a longer-lasting feeling of aggression and power. With more and more people turning to crack, the level of violence escalated in proportion.
In 1988, there were forty-eight homicides in Charlotte. In 1989, there were eighty, and two years later there were 122. Nor did the numbers peak at that point. The worst total came in 1993, the year Nobles and Burnette were killed. They were two of 126 victims. The problem didn't affect most people directly, for murder was not like many other crimes – not like auto theft, for example, which happens anywhere there are cars. Killing was a much more geographically concentrated thing. If you made a target in the shape of Mecklenburg County, most homicides would hit the bull's-eye – the poor neighborhoods in the inner city. But the terror of it spread to other parts of town. People heard about the killings and felt unsafe. With the body count rising on the TV news, murder became the ultimate symbol of crime – and a city that seemed to be losing control.
Into all of this came Nowicki, a thirty-year police veteran, with twenty-five of those in Chicago. Nowicki, the youngest son of a Polish truck driver, took his first oath on June 1, 1964, and from that moment on he was proud of what he did for a living. He thought the police did well in 1968, when Chicago erupted in political violence. There may have been a few "who failed their profession," retaliating with too much force against the waves of violent demonstrators. But most, he said, showed admirable restraint, and Nowicki understood how hard that could be. He was out there himself, battling the mobs in Lincoln Park and other parts of the city.
But if all of that served as a baptism for him, Nowicki's career and understanding of his job were shaped primarily by a different experience. Those were the days of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which provided federal money for research and training in alternative methods of policing. Nowicki was a part of many of those programs and as he rose through the ranks to become deputy police superintendent in Chicago, and chief of police in Joliet, Illinois, he was hungry for the chance to apply what he'd learned.
Charlotte, he says, was the perfect opportunity. He was looking for a place with clean city government, better weather than Chicago (which was not asking much), and a police department known for integrity. Charlotte appeared to have all of those things, and it became his choice over Buffalo and Boston, the other two cities where he also applied.
Nowicki arrived in Charlotte in April 1994, a gray-haired man of fifty-three, trim and tall, with lively eyes and a thin, crisp smile. He loves a good joke and a good conversation, and there were plenty of the latter in his first year in Charlotte. He spent a lot of time listening, which helped win the confidence of Vic Orr, among others. Orr had been chief of the county police, recently merged with the city, and along with acting city Chief Jack Boger, he had applied for the job that went to Nowicki. He wondered how Nowicki would deal with that fact, and he was pleased to discover that it was simply not an issue.
"We had a number of conversations," says Orr, "and it didn't take long to become very comfortable. It was clear to me that Dennis has a leadership style that brings out the best people – and the best in people."
Darrellyn Kiser agrees. She is an assistant to Nowicki, and had the same job under Chief Ronnie Stone, a man she admired for his integrity and fairness. She finds those qualities in Nowicki as well, along with a level of energy that's astounding and an ability to thrive in the chaos of change. "Life without stress is death," he declared in one of his early staff meetings in Charlotte, and Kiser believes that if that is true, the people around Nowicki should live a long time. She says he's supportive of people who hustle, but impatient with those who are reluctant to change, or who talk about problems that have no solution.
"You don't go to Dennis Nowicki," she says, "and tell him there's a problem that can't be solved. He is open to trying things that don't work, but he expects you to try."
In that spirit in his first year in Charlotte, he stepped up the level of innovation. He expanded the boundaries of community policing, increased the size of the homicide squad (there are twenty-one investigators today, as compared to seven in 1993), and supported the work of a Violent Crime Task Force aimed at removing the worst offenders from the streets.
There are encouraging signs that those initiatives are working. In 1994, the number of homicides dropped to eighty-eight, a decline of almost 30 percent. Violent crime overall, including rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault, was down 12 percent, compared to a national decline of about 4 percent, and Charlotte dropped a notch – from eighteenth to nineteenth – in the FBI's list of most violent cities. Other kinds of crime were down as well, for an overall drop of 4.4 percent – again slightly better than the national average.
Nowicki, however, says it's too soon to celebrate. For one thing, the decline leveled off in 1995. At the end of October, crime in Charlotte was up 2.9 percent from the year before, driven in part by a huge increase in vehicle theft – about 16 percent in the case of cars and more than 40 percent in the case of bicycles. Murder also inched up and Nowicki says the struggle is going to be a long one.
"Crime," he says, "can't be solved by the police alone. We have to mobilize the entire community. But we also have to organize our resources, trying to be smarter – making arrests that affect the quality of life."
If that is starting to happen in Charlotte, Nowicki is careful not to claim all the credit. Under his predecessor, Chief Ronnie Stone, things already were beginning to change. Stan Cook, for example, was one of Stone's captains. He had spent his career on Charlotte's west side, and he had seen the changing face of crime – the drugs and violence that only got worse no matter how many people they arrested. But sometime early in the 1990s, Cook saw something else. Grassroots people were taking a stand, fighting to reclaim their own neighborhoods from the forces of desperation and violence.
The Reverend James Barnett was the most well-known. He was a Baptist preacher and civil rights veteran who believed that blacks in crime-ridden areas were suddenly confronted with a new kind of enemy: themselves. He organized marches against killing and drugs, and if some people scoffed, the police did not. Anything to alter the public mood – to transform the cynicism, fear, and defeat that make people think that nothing could change.
About the same time, another black preacher attracted Cook's attention. The Reverend Barbara Brewton had established a ministry to the most violent and drug-riddled section of Charlotte. On Oaklawn Avenue, on a hill overlooking the Uptown skyline, she opened the Community Outreach Church, a nondenominational outpost where she declared her spiritual war on crime.
By 1990 she had some important allies in the fight. Perhaps the most crucial was Gene Davant, a Charlotte real estate man who served on the board of Habitat for Humanity and had come to believe because of that work that almost any neighborhood could be saved. Kenny Street, of course, represented a challenge, but Davant and Brewton had an ambitious plan. Working with a nonprofit group called the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, they would begin to buy up neighborhood property, persuading the various slumlords to sell. Then they would rehabilitate the houses, turning duplexes rented by dealers and drug users into single-family units, which could then be sold to people who would bring new strength to the community.
As that physical transformation began, Stan Cook saw a role for the police. The families moving into the resurrected houses had to feel like urban pioneers, terrified of stray bullets in the night. Cook urged a couple of his best young officers, Pat Tynan and Mike Warren, to get to know the families coming in – to meet them all quite literally at the door and reassure them that the police would be there.
The idea was to work with the good people first – the 90 to 95 percent who obeyed the law and did their best to live decent lives. Too often, said Cook, police were caught up with the criminal minority – answering calls, making arrests, and then disappearing to another part of town.
The time had come to try something different. Pat and Mike, as everybody called them, were skeptical at first, but soon they could see that the idea was working. They carried beepers and gave the neighborhood people their numbers, and told them to call any time, day or night. Their phones rang a lot. Sometimes people were simply afraid, other times they had information on a crime – a drug deal perhaps, or maybe a shooting – but whatever it was, they knew that Pat and Mike would respond.
Residents saw the officers every day, talking to kids at the school bus stop, playing whiffle ball in the afternoon, or maybe approaching a group of drug dealers, telling them that the time had come to move on. After three years of it, the neighborhood was different. The people now called it Genesis Park, after the Biblical idea of beginnings, and Pat and Mike thought the new name was apt. The crime rate was down by 60 percent, and late in 1995, there hadn't been a murder in nearly two years.
If they could do it there, in the heart of the heroin and the cocaine traffic, then Stan Cook thought the police and the people working together could transform any neighborhood in the city.
And there was also another piece of good news. The police had developed a new strategy for dealing with Charlotte's most violent gangs. They experimented first with Cecil Jackson, a west-side drug dealer who had bullied and threatened his way to the top. His favorite tactic was shooting people in the knees, or having it done by one of his men. As a method of intimidation it worked, and at least for awhile it didn't attract much attention from police. They knew the courts were overwhelmed by murder, rape, armed robbery, and the rest, which seemed more important than a junkie or a drug dealer wounded in the leg. But Jackson was the architect of organized violence, and sometime late in the 1980s, he and his men made a fatal mistake. They began to threaten the police on the street. Not surprisingly, the police took notice and decided a different approach was in order. With state courts clogged, why not try to make a federal case? There were tough racketeering statues on the books, and if police could show that Jackson's isolated acts were actually part of a much bigger pattern – a criminal enterprise, in the words of the law – they might be able to send him away.
"It worked like a charm," says Sgt. Terry Sult. On November 26, 1990, Cecil Jackson was led into court, his legs in chains. He was still feeling cocky, and according to an account in The Charlotte Observer, he blew a kiss at federal prosecutor Gretchen Shappert precisely at the moment when his sentence was announced.
"How long did I get, anyway?" he asked a U.S. marshal a short time later.
"Life plus 145 years."
"Well," said Jackson, "how much of that am I gonna have to do?"
"Cecil," said the marshal with the hint of a smile, "I wouldn't worry about the 145."
The Jackson case was a breakthrough in Charlotte. It led to the formation of the Violent Crime Task Force, which now consists of twenty-three investigators from three federal agencies, local police, and the State Bureau of Investigation.
"The concept here," says Terry Sult, the top-ranking Charlotte officer on the force, "is to take the most violent offenders off the street."
In the past four years, it has made a start, prosecuting 518 people – "the worst of the worst," says Sult.
The conviction rate is 100 percent.
Dennis Nowicki is pleased by that, and he has some other things going as well – a new domestic violence task force, which will focus its efforts on habitual offenders; a task force aimed at juvenile crime, coordinating the efforts of police, the schools, and all other agencies compelled to deal with teenage violence; a massive effort to update computers and streamline the daily flow of information. A new drug court pushes those cases through the system faster, and an environmental court targets violations – housing codes, the dumping of trash – that affect the overall quality of life.
Some of those efforts are driven by the power of public perception in a community where the level of terror is frighteningly high.
According to The Carolinas Poll, conducted jointly by The Charlotte Observer and WSOC-TV last summer, nearly half the people in the Piedmont Carolinas were more worried about crime than they were a year ago, and only 12 percent were feeling any better. With a focus on violence and domestic abuse – the most publicized crimes – Nowicki and others hope to alter that perception. But their overall goals are not cosmetic. The message that Nowicki has conveyed to his force is that the police are out there to solve real problems.
"In the past," says Charlotte Officer Mike Warren, "it was answer calls, put people in jail. You were evaluated on the number of arrests and the cases you cleared. Now the question is much more significant. It's: ‘How did you affect the quality of life out there in the neighborhood that you serve?"
If police see some hope in that transition, the ride has not been altogether smooth. Nowicki's department has had its critics, and some were out in force when he came.
Many in the black community, for example, were appalled in December of 1993, when black motorist Wendy Thompson was shot and killed during a traffic stop. The case was investigated by the police, the Mecklenburg District Attorney's office, and the U.S. Department of Justice, and no charges were filed. But a civil suit is pending, and the case sparked calls, which Nowicki has resisted, for an independent board of civilian review.
But perhaps the most outspoken critic of all was Dee Sumpter, executive director of Mothers of Murdered Offspring (MOM-O), which was established after the grisly rampage of accused serial killer Henry Louis Wallace. Dee Sumpter's daughter, Shawna Hawk, was one of the victims, killed February 19, 1993. From the beginning, even in the midst of her horror and grief, Sumpter had doubts about the police. They had come barging in to the scene of the crime, not being very careful, or so it appeared, and she wondered what evidence was being destroyed. She also saw gaps in the questions they asked her, and as the weeks dragged on into months and then a year, they never came back for another interview. And later, when the serial pattern was clear, Sumpter had to wonder how they had missed it. Was the homicide unit simply too small? Too overworked to handle the job? Or was it because all the victims were black, and their deaths didn't attract the attention they deserved?
As Sumpter began to raise those questions, she found at least one source of encouragement. Dennis Nowicki was willing to listen. He did not agree that race was a factor, but he did make changes – increasing the size of the homicide unit and the level of communication between police and the victims.
"Chief Nowicki," says Sumpter today, "has given me a feeling of hope that I am most grateful for. I believe old habits will be broken, and new ways of dealing with murder will happen… That's what brings comfort – or elements of comfort – to this mother's aching heart."
Meanwhile, down in the homicide unit, Sgt. Rick Sanders is also grateful. He doesn't deny that mistakes were made in the Wallace case and perhaps a few others. "We learn from every investigation," he says. But now, at last, he has enough people to see some results. In 1994, with twenty-one investigators assigned to his unit, they were able to solve 89 percent of the killings in Charlotte. (The national average is 65 percent.) And with a cold case squad, also new, addressing homicides going back five or ten years, the police in Charlotte were solving murders last year faster than they happened.
Nineteen ninety-five was not quite as good, with a clearance rate through August of 77 percent, but Sanders believes they are on the right track. "A couple of years ago," he says, "with a homicide happening every three days, we were pretty much running from one to the next."
But it's also true that much of what Nowicki is attempting is happening in other places. Violent crime, for example, has dropped in New York, San Diego, and Jacksonville, Florida, and one of the primary goals in those cities has been to take the most violent people off the streets – with efforts like Charlotte's Violent Crime Task Force.
Nowicki, however, says there has to be more, for the police, in a sense, are like hospitals battling against infant mortality. They can apply new treatments and new technologies, but they simply can't solve the problem by themselves.
In the war against crime, Nowicki insists, it's essential to establish a new partnership between police and citizens standing up for their communities. He has seen it work all over the city: in Genesis Park, in an apartment complex called Village Town House, a longtime haven for street-level drug dealers.
In the latter case, community police Officer Cynthia Johnson came in and won the support of neighborhood leaders, who began to point out the drug dealers to her. She brought a drug unit in to make the arrests, then turned her attention to the neighborhood kids. Many of them were young, still in elementary school, but already starting to struggle in their classes – which she knew was a step toward life in the streets. Johnson tried to head that off. She set up an afternoon tutoring program, where she and a group of volunteer teachers worked with the students two hours every day, four days a week. She also set up parenting classes, and helped bring in a branch of Central Piedmont Community College, where adults could pursue their own education.
Two years after her efforts began, many of the kids are making better grades, the parents now run the tutoring program, and the neighborhood generally is peaceful and quiet. Will it last? Will it steer the next generation from crime? Nobody knows, except to say that working with the kids is not a quick fix. "It's more like a long-term bond," says Nowicki. But others also believe it will work.
In the Greenville neighborhood, just across Oaklawn Avenue from Genesis Park, neighborhood leaders Marie and Pop Sadler watched in amazement three years ago as Officer Mike Warren and his partner, Pat Tynan, established their remarkable rapport with the children.
"We were skeptical at first," Marie Sadler says. "There had been too many broken promises."
But the officers did not break many, and after a while the neighborhood children asked for their own private meeting with police. Tynan came and met with the students in Marie Sadler's kitchen – spending a couple of hours just listening, answering questions, talking about the problems they faced growing up.
The Sadlers are convinced that kind of policing is almost certain to have a long-term effect – assuming of course that the program continues. For now, they say, the signs are all good: the crime rate is dropping, the neighborhood is peaceful, and the kids are working harder in school.
There has to be, Pop Sadler insists, at least a little hope in that. Over the next several years, as the philosophies of Dennis Nowicki take hold, he would not be surprised to see the optimism spread, as the crime rate moves in a steady decline.
Nowicki, however, still has his doubters. Within the department, some officers regard community policing, the cornerstone of Nowicki's philosophy, as too soft. But perhaps the biggest category of skeptics is the public at large – that 88 percent who, according to the polls, still feel the city is as dangerous as ever.
Nowicki worries about that perception, for one of his goals as chief of police is to help build a city where people feel safe. On that front and others, he is quick to tell you, the police still have a long way to go. But he believes they are making some progress now, and he hopes it is only a matter of time until people out there in the community will see it.
Frye Gaillard is the author of eleven books, including Lessons from the Big House and Kyle at 200 Miles Per Hour.