The City of Wilmington’s police-supported proposal to ban gang members from city parks would be a first for North Carolina, the city’s attorney said Monday.
“We are the first jurisdiction in the state to put forth such an ordinance,” City Attorney Bill Wolak told Wilmington City Council members Monday morning. “I think other jurisdictions are watching to see what happens here.”
The proposal will go before Wilmington City Council on Tuesday and would, if approved, create a trespassing violation for gang members who set foot into any city park. Wolak’s comments came after Councilman Charlie Rivenbark asked whether the ordinance would raise ire over possible profiling, which Wolak opined was not a concern.
“Is this constitutional?” Mayor Pro Tem Earl Sheridan had asked at the outset of the discussion Monday morning, during a routine review of agenda items council is set to take up at Tuesday evening’s regular meeting. The draft agenda packet that surfaced last week said the proposed ban on gang members in parks would “further public safety through the protection of the public at large,” as Wilmington’s chief of police has called recent gang violence in the city the worst he’s seen.
To answer Sheridan’s question, Wolak noted the Wilmington Housing Authority has a similar ban in place that has not been legally challenged as unconstitutional.
According to the city, the process would involve a warning to persons in violation of the ordinance upon first known offense. “Once they enter a park after that warning, they can be arrested for essentially second-degree trespassing,” Wolak explained. “And the city attorney’s office, we’ve looked at this extensively and we believe it is constitutional, based on that criteria.”
Reached for perspective Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina did not see the proposal as agreeable.
“We can all appreciate the need to keep our communities safe, but the fact of the matter is that these type of ordinances focus on punishing association rather than any criminal activity whatsoever,” said Raul Pinto, a staff attorney with the group’s Raleigh office.
Pinto said the ordinance could make room for subjective enforcement, “as police all too often rely on someone’s appearance to determine who is a gang member, which leads to racial profiling and erodes the trust between the police and minority communities.”
The Wilmington Police Department supports the proposal; Monday morning, Chief Ralph Evangelous informed city council his department does have a list of “validated street gang members” to work with.
“We would stop, we would engage them, we would run their name through our records system,” Evangelous said of the enforcement process. If a stopped individual’s name comes back validated, a warning or arrest could follow.
“Presently, there’s nothing we can do” to known gang members simply hanging out or grouping in the community parks, Evangelous said.
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.
In July, a 4-year-old found a loaded handgun under some playground stairs on Portia Hines Park on North 10th Street. (Related story)
(Click here for a list of Wilmington city parks.)
State law does deal with gangs, however, and the city says it’s the same law that enables the ban Wilmington is proposing. The North Carolina Street Gang Suppression Act of 2008 criminalizes activity in the realm of gangs, including intimidation and coercion. Violations are Class H felonies; a ringleader may be guilty of a Class F felony.
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.”
“This would give us some teeth,” Evangelous said of the city’s proposal.
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Wilmington City Council’s meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the chambers of Wilmington City Hall, 102 N. Third St. downtown.