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Chief's Commentary

Chief Darrel Stephens' insights into events and issues concerning our community.

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Community Safety – A Continuing Challenge
      By Darrel Stephens, Chief of Police

The violence of the past weekend was a tragedy for the victims, their families, the Eastside and the entire Charlotte-Mecklenburg community.  Police, in partnership with Eastside business and community leaders have been working for several years to address crime and fear and we have made progress – while the spotlight is on the Eastside right now, crime problems affect all of us.  From this tragedy comes an opportunity to renew our focus on both violent and property crime throughout our community. 

Let's start with the facts: there have been increases in property crime for the past two years throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg but the violent crime rate has declined every year since 1994 with the exception of 1997 when it did not change from the previous year.

  • Violent crime increases in the first six months of this year are driven by robberies – they have increased by 34.5% from 1174 last year to 1579 – 8.7 a day throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg
  • Robberies declined by 7.3% in 2003 – there was a slight increase in 2004 but the current trend began in the last three months of 2004
  • High frequency locations, types of robberies and known offenders have been the targets additional police scrutiny
  • Repeat robbery offenders represent a significant challenge.  Detectives conservatively estimate 50 to 60% of the people they have arrested this year have been arrested before.  Some are out on bail awaiting trial for other cases while others have been recently released from prison

Understandably, homicides receive a great deal of attention. Although the loss of life through violence is a tragedy for everyone involved, these cases frequently involve family members and acquaintances whose access to firearms and inability to handle conflict without violence too often results in death.  Moreover, in many of the cases the victims engages in a violent lifestyle and have criminal histories as lengthy as the person committing the murder. 

  • Domestic homicides have increased the most this year followed by homicides during a robbery
  • Since 1999, when we had 84 homicides, we experienced declines each year except in 2002 when the number increased by one over the previous year
  • In 2004 there were 60 homicides - the lowest number in the past 17 years except for 1997 when there were 59

Too often, the news media and some in the community look no further than holding the police accountable for making crime, violence, drug abuse and disorderly behavior go away.  Too often, they shine a glaring spotlight on the occurrence of crime yet pay little attention when a crime is solved, warrants issued and people arrested, giving way to inaccurate perceptions about crime rates and issues.

Too often, people believe a decrease in crime and fear can be attained by simply increasing the visibility of the police.  Crime occurs in a complex set of interactions between places, victims and offenders.  The police and the criminal justice system play an important role in dealing with crime but it requires much more to create a safe community and decrease crime.  Lasting crime reduction requires a real partnership between the police and those who have the most control over the places where crime occurs. It requires victims to change the behavior that increases their vulnerability to crime.  It requires more effective short term methods for dealing with current offenders and more long term efforts to address the conditions – such as drug and alcohol abuse - that create new offenders.

The police have and will continue to do everything we can to create a safe community.  We have overwhelmed the ability of the court system to handle our arrests and citations.  As a result, the District Attorney's office is forced to dismiss lower priority cases and accept plea bargains because there are not enough resources to take the cases to trial. The best way to control the most prolific violent and property crime offenders is to arrest, prosecute, convict and put them in prison. That approach is denied in too many cases because of the under-funded court system and a North Carolina prison system that has for years been beyond capacity.

The police alone cannot create a safe community. Cooperative victims and witnesses are required for successful prosecution. The community controls such basic security measures such as lighting, trimmed shrubs, fencing, closing a garage door, locking a car and securing personal property.  People's lifestyle choices – from abusing drugs and alcohol to prostitution and gambling –increase the potential for becoming a victim or offender.  Parents are responsible for and are much more effective in controlling the behavior of their children than police.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a safe place to live. Working together, with each partner taking action in our areas of influence, we will achieve a more lasting level of safety than we could ever accomplish acting on our own.  Join with your neighbors, your church, your co-workers, your family and the police as true partners in the effort to create and sustain the type of community we all want and deserve.   

For information about how to start a Neighborhood or Business Watch program or how your neighborhood or organization can get involved, please call Crime Prevention at 704-336-2310 or contact your CMPD district office.



Charlotte-Mecklenburg Gangs
     By Darrel Stephens, Chief of Police

Street gangs continue to be a significant challenge for urban communities throughout America . Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police has been working for a number of years with community and law enforcement partners to address this challenge. In spite of this work we have seen increases in the number of gangs, gang members, graffiti and associated criminal activities. The problem is complicated because the dress of gangs has become the clothing of choice for many young people who are unaffiliated with gangs. This has contributed both to the fear some people have of any group of young people and the perception that gangs have taken over the community. The North Carolina General Assembly has recognized gangs are a problem throughout the state and is considering tough criminal sanctions for gangs involved in the commission of crimes. They also are considering a $20 million dollar grant program to assist local communities with gang prevention and enforcement effort.  While there are no easy or quick solutions to this problem, there are things the police and community can do that can make a difference. 

The fundamental approach of the CMPD has been to address the gang problem from a department and community wide perspective – everyone sharing the responsibility for understanding and responding in appropriate ways to gangs.  Our strategy, based on the work of experts and large cities with more experience in dealing with gangs, involves three equally important areas – prevention, intervention and enforcement.  It is designed to sharpen the focus on gangs and engage in both short and long term measures to more effectively meet this challenge.

Prevention.  The CMPD and community have a long history of involvement in programs aimed at youth in the community as a prevention tool. These well-established programs--Right Moves for Youth, Police Athletic League and supervised after-school activities--have always tried to fill time with productive activities and positive role models. In addition the police have developed a broad-based community education program designed not only to help people understand the nature of the problem but provide insight into recognizing and responding more effectively. Since January 44 programs have been delivered in the community and schools touching almost 2100 parents, teachers, children and people involved with youth. The idea is to provide the kind of information and support that helps kids avoid gang involvement or remove themselves from a gang if they are already involved.

Intervention.  The centerpiece of the effort to help kids get away from gangs is the Gang of One program. A grant-funded initiative launched in February, 2004, it also plays a major role in prevention. Through the educational process and a "Hot Line" the Gang of One program is able to identify kids who are being recruited and help them resist such overtures. In the past 18 months the Gang of One has handled 201 calls involving kids in gangs or at risk. Twenty-five of those kids have been connected to the critically important community partner agencies to provide them with the needed support to either avoid or remove themselves from a gang. 

Enforcement. . In 2003 the police department created a Gang Intelligence Unit (GIU) to help coordinate our internal and community response to this problem. The enforcement component relies on collaborative partnerships within CMPD and law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels. Through these partnerships and the intelligence the GIU provides, enforcement takes advantage of every opportunity to prosecute gang members in both state and federal courts for any crimes they may commit. 

Partnerships with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the FBI and Immigration and Customs (ICE) have been particularly effective. Since May, 2003, 146 Latino gang members involved in violent crimes have been deported for immigration violations. An example of one on-going operation is the Metro Division's effort, supported by departmental units and other agencies, to break up a set of the Blood gang. This initiative has resulted in prosecutions for drug violations and violent crimes.

It will take time and an engaged community to effectively address the problem of gangs. Community members can help:

  • Try to look past the clothing to see if the kid is a gang member or just making a fashion statement
  • Support efforts to provide after school, weekend and summer activities to help fill the time with productive activities
  • Learn about gangs and know who your child is spending time with.
  • If you suspect your child may become involved with a gang, take steps to avoid it: talk with them about their friends and what they do together, take advantage of the Gang of One program and contact them for help. 

All community safety challenges are most effectively handled through understanding the problem, taking responsibility for your part and taking coordinated action to address them. For more information about The Gang of One or to report suspected gang activity, please call 704-432-4264.




What Police Learned July 4:  CMPD Had No Reason to Expect Disturbance,  Responded Well 
     By Darrel W. Stephens, Chief of Police

The events the night of July 4 in the center city provide an opportunity for wider community conversation about what took place and how it contributes to both the perception and reality of safety in the center city. The police department has carefully reviewed what took place to learn what can be done to prevent a reoccurrence. I want to share the lessons learned from this review.

First, I have to acknowledge we did not have adequate staffing in the center city to deal with the behavior that took place. However, nothing in our experience with July 4 celebrations indicated a need for a higher level of police presence. The July 4 fireworks displays have attracted large crowds for many years with little difficulty other than traffic flow. At the 2003 and 2004 fireworks shows, police made a total of five arrests, as opposed to 17 in 2005. While staffing l! evels for future July 4 celebrations certainly will be different, we shouldn't forget that we have hundreds of special events in the center city every year. Those events are well planned and provide appropriate security. It is very unusual to have significant safety problems at any of them.

Second, it is understandable why people were afraid. We were indeed fortunate more serious injuries did not occur. Tapes from police cameras and news media footage clearly indicate some people were exploding fireworks in a way that certainly had the potential for injury. A number of fights took place. It is easy to conclude that the general atmosphere was one where one would not feel safe. The behavior by some young people should not and will not be tolerated.

Third, I believe the restraint, professionalism and thoughtful response of the police leadership and officers prevented the situation from escalating into a true civil disturbance. To gain control of the situation, it! was necessary to call on additional police resources. They were deplo yed in a controlled manner, made it clear the crowd was to disperse and arrested those whose behavior required they be in custody. There were two injuries to citizens, no injuries to police officers, very limited use of force and no property damage. I am a 37-year veteran of policing and local government that experienced the riots, student unrest and bombings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. More recently, I was the police chief on the front lines of a disturbance in St. Petersburg, Fla. , that left $5 million in damage in its wake. I am very proud of the way CMPD officers and leaders responded and handled those crowds. They have not received the credit they deserve for being in the fray with all of the accompanying uncertainty and fear and preventing a bad situation from becoming worse.

Fourth, while gangs were no doubt in the mix in the center city July 4, the fights and misbehavior were not gang conflicts. None of the people arrested have known affiliations with gangs. While we do have a gang problem in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, it is important to know that most kids who wear long baggy T-shirts and pants and flash gang signs are making a fashion and age behavior statement, not proclaiming any real gang affiliation. Recently, the parent/baseball coach of a 10-year-old told me the kids displayed gang signs in the team picture. They had no idea what they were doing, but they had seen them on television and in schools. We must not minimize the gang problem here, nor should we frame it as something it is not. Neither extreme is helpful in addressing the problem.

Crime does occur in the center city, although considering the number of people in the area 24 hours a day, it is one of the safest places in our community. We want to make it even safer. That requires a continued emphasis on community partnerships and creating an environment that reduces opportunities for crime to occur.