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Gang members would be banned from Wilmington city parks under an ordinance up for the city council’s consideration Tuesday, coming days after the end of a three-month ceasefire authorities called in the interest of peacemaking.
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Proposed by the city’s community services staff and backed by the Wilmington Police Department, the prohibition at parks would hit “any person employed by or associated with a criminal street gang,” with violators among them treated as trespassers.
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A summary the city manager’s office included with the proposal said it would “further public safety through the protection of the public at large,” which this year has read numerous headlines about shootings and violence attributed to gangs.
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“I think the gang situation is—it’s bad,” Chief of Police Ralph Evangelous said Friday morning at Wilmington City Hall, where officials and clergy gathered to discuss the recent cease-fire. “It’s as bad as I’ve seen it since I’ve been here. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”
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Multiple reports of gunfire came to Evangelous’ department last Sunday night and Monday morning. In a Sunday night incident, officers responded to the 900 block of North 30th Street and the 1000 block of Emory Street in reference to multiple gunshots reportedly from two vehicles.
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Witnesses described a black male in dark clothing firing a gun out of a blue Ford Thunderbird’s sunroof. A second suspect reportedly fired out of a silver vehicle with tinted windows and a body style similar to a Honda. It wasn’t immediately clear whether they were firing into the air or at each other, but the department has suspected a turf war.
“We do believe that two gangs are struggling for control and power,” said police spokeswoman Linda Rawley after the Sunday-Monday reports.
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The department in the past has identified five communities or areas where gang violence is prevalent, including the Houston Moore, Hillcrest and Creekwood communities, as well as the areas of 12th and Chestnut and North 10th and 11th streets.
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When the cease-fire call went out in June, Evangelous noted the ages of persons becoming involved with gangs: “… when they age in, they’re very young—the youngest 13 [or] 14—and very violent. They’re scary violent.”
While local authorities say they have intelligence on gangs and affiliates, basic gang member identification is described in state law. The North Carolina Street Gang Suppression Act, passed in 2008, criminalizes activity in the realm of gangs. That includes intimidation and coercion, and violations are Class H felonies.
The act defines a criminal gang as an ongoing organization of at least three individuals that has “as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more felony offenses, or delinquent acts that would be felonies if committed by an adult.”
The definition also notes the individuals may operate under a common name or identifying symbol.
The same law authorizes the City of Wilmington to enforce its proposed parks ban, the city says. The ordinance up for passage Tuesday notes that if a court strikes down any part as unconstitutional, the remainder would stand.
The city’s communications office Friday indicated more information was forthcoming to explain how the police department plans to enforce it, if approved.
It may be part of a series of new initiatives to suppress or resist local gang activity, Evangelous indicated Friday.
“Our strategies have not worked in the past, are not working presently,” he said. “We need to retool.”
Purposes of the cease-fire included community engagement, highlighting such programs as the local midnight basketball league. That “crime prevention program is designed to help youth make good decisions with an emphasis on staying out of any local gangs,” according to a narrative from the police department, whose officers share the court with youths in the league. It has been in place for seven years.
The chief said Friday new strategies are in development but were not ready for announcement.
“We have to move in a new direction, and our new direction, we’re trying to engineer that as we speak,” Evangelous said. He added it would be a “multipronged approach” that in part would show youths have alternatives to drugs and violence.