Area leaders say they’ll fight gang violence by holding landlords accountable for criminal tenants

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Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo stands at the podium during Monday’s press conference to address community efforts underway to combat youth violence. Photo by Christina Haley.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo stands at the podium during Monday’s press conference to address community efforts underway to combat youth violence. Photo by Christina Haley.

Five local leaders say they have banded together and are redoubling efforts to stop the growing presence of youth violence in the Wilmington community.

During a press conference Monday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, 401 S. 8th St., Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Beth Dawson, District Attorney Ben David, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and New Hanover Sheriff Ed McMahon discussed ongoing youth violence and crime prevention efforts.

Saffo said while community safety has always been a top priority for each of the local officials, some efforts have accelerated since the Sunday morning drive-by shooting that killed 16-year-old Shane Simpson and injured several other teenagers at a Castle Street intersection in December 2015. The shooting was gang-related and happened just before noon.

Saffo said he will be escalating his approach to call on state lawmakers.

“I’m going to be asking our legislators in Raleigh to make tougher sentencing laws for people who are out here shooting in the streets, that are convicted felons with guns, to take them off the streets for long periods of time,” Saffo said.

Saffo made reference to the most recent arrest in the Castle Street murder, a convicted felon who was also a teen when he was arrested back in 2013 in connection with a shooting that injured two people in the Creekwood community.

“We live in a city where children are now killing children. That’s not acceptable,” David said. “What I’ve seen…is this cycle of violence, where today’s victim is tomorrow’s defendant, where people don’t report the crimes that occur against them, they take justice into their own hands instead of reporting it to law enforcement…and we see more and more violence out on the street.”

The district attorney said his office continues to pursue active gang members in criminal matters, but in a growing effort with local law enforcement, area leaders are turning to civil laws to help rid violent criminals from communities and to keep those criminals from leading area youth into that lifestyle.

David said he will be implementing several measures in the community through the North Carolina Street Gang Suppression Act. That legislation is intended to keep validated gang members from gathering together for violence, prevent them from recruiting local youth and to seize property used in criminal activity.

“There are injunctions that can be served upon gang members, verified members, that means they can’t be hanging out with each other,” David said. “The first amendment gives us all a right to peacefully assemble; it does not give people the right to assemble for a violent and criminal purpose. And if that means we are going to have to keep some people from hanging out with each other and leading children into these gangs, we’re going to do it.”

Local law enforcement has formed a task force between vice and gang units to work specifically on enforcing those civil laws on gang members and to go after crime-ridden property.

“You will see in the days ahead, we are only getting started,” David said. “We are going to bring every resource to bear on this issue, because our children are worth it.”

The police department has already assigned officers to work on gang injunction, Evangelous said. Those officers will be working with the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office to go after owners who rent to gang members or those with gang ties.

Officers will also be using code enforcement through city ordinances to the fullest, Evangelous said, targeting rental properties that don’t meet standards and have been the havens of criminals. Landlords would be held accountable for their tenants, he said, noting it’s a measure the police department has not yet used to crack down on crime.

The initiative has already started in a section of Market Street, where both the district attorney and police chief said there was a need to help alleviate a pattern of criminal activity found at several of the hotels.  Evangelous said among the many crimes reported at the hotels in the Market Street corridor, gang members have used them to further their heroin trade. Heroin is a growing problem in the Port City area, as well as the nation.

With the support of city and county leaders, Evangelous said the police department is furthering the efforts to help clean up communities plagued with violence – areas in the city where the street gangs have taken over – and implementing a new measure to take them back. The police department has established an expansion of their community policing tactics, concentrating their efforts and resources in the community between Seventh and 13th streets, from Castle to Wooster streets.

“That has been a hot bed for crime for many decades,” Evangelous said. “And we are putting a ton of resources there. Not just police resources.”

The police department is also working with the city’s sanitation department to do street-sweeps in an effort to clean up the communities in the targeted area. Police are working to take back one area of the city at a time, to increase public confidence and citizens’ sense of safety, Evanglous said. Police will move to different areas of the city as they become successful.

“Public safety continues to remain the county’s highest priority,” New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Dawson said. “While law enforcement is on the front lines, the county is a partner in every phase of addressing this threat to our community.”

Dawson outlined the county’s efforts to support public safety, including increased funding to the sheriff’s office for gang intervention; funding for school-based mental health staff and Trillium Health Resources for mental health disorders and addiction; and through supporting innovative programs aimed at preventing  youth from turning to gangs.

Saffo also echoed efforts to allocate funding that would help in the ongoing fight to prevent youth violence. He pledged to explore what the city can do to improve employment conditions and bring more jobs into the community that could cater to youth, while increasing measures to establish vocational education. A new regional vocational high school is in the works on the Cape Fear Community College campus.

“The safety of our community is the most important responsibility that we have to our citizens and it will continue to be one of the top priorities that we look at through the budgetary process in the coming year with city council,” Saffo said.

The county has also partnered with community groups targeted at helping at-risk youth engage in pathways for success, such as Dreams, Kids Making It, the Blue Ribbon Commission, and One Love Tennis. The county is partnering with the school system and other community agencies to share responsibility for school safety and promote safe learning environments to “end the school-to-prison pipeline,” Dawson said.

New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon said school resource officers have become heavily involved with faculty and counselors to identify children starting to show some gang activity, and reach out to parents or guardians. The sheriff’s office is also continuing its effort to work with at-risk youth through its ELEMENTS program, he added.

“What  you are hearing is we are committed,” McMahon said. “We can’t arrest it all away. We need the communities’ help.”

Every local official at Monday’s press conference urged the need for a holistic approach to community involvement. from volunteer efforts, to business partnerships, to actively communicating with law enforcement and using the Text-A-Tip lines.

“The Castle Street murder, the four arrestees we had, Text-A-Tip helped us there. Unfortunately, it didn’t help us up off Stewart Circle. We still don’t have any clues in that murder….you have to be part of the solution to this problem,” Evangelous said, referring to the first homicide of 2016. Ahljean Thomas Williams, a 14-year-old boy, was shot and killed around 6:30 p.m. on January 3, a Sunday.

“We cannot do it alone. We can do it together,” Evangelous said.

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