Wilmington police partner with neighborhoods, city departments to prevent crime

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Officer Michael Scott, of the Northwest Patrol Division, says he walks miles a day in a targeted neighborhood where the Wilmington Police Department has increased foot patrols. The effort promotes community support and relationships in a crime-prone neighborhood. Photo by Christina Haley.

The Wilmington Police Department is taking on a new philosophy when it comes to crime prevention, helping revitalize local neighborhoods to give relief to residents and families living in crime-prone communities.

The police department and other local partners have established several new efforts to target crime in those neighborhoods, including increasing foot patrols in high-crime areas, improving community relationships, targeting rundown properties, removing trash, and helping those with criminal records find jobs. It’s all part of a new branch of the police department created this month, officially called the Office of Strategic Enforcement and Outreach (OSEO), led by Interim Assistant Police Chief Jim Varrone.

Varrone, formerly the captain of the criminal investigative division who has been a member of the force for more than 29 years, was recently appointed to the new position on March 7. While the assistant chief position is not yet official with the city, he will serve as interim to help provide oversight in this new, multifaceted approach to fighting crime.

Interim Assistant Police Chief Jim Varrone
Interim Assistant Police Chief Jim Varrone

“The time is ripe. The citizens want it. The citizens need it. And I think the rest of the other city departments are looking at things a little differently…to make our community a little bit better and safer,” Varrone said.

The interim assistant chief will be coordinating all city-related enforcement services and community outreach efforts under the OSEO, in conjunction with the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, the Office of District Attorney Ben David and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. Under his direction, Varrone said the OSEO will provide more coordination for future efforts, as well as those efforts already underway in the city.

The police department is focusing crime prevention efforts in an area near downtown Wilmington, which spans from 7th to 13th streets and Wooster to Castle streets. The OSEO will help increase foot patrols, trash removal and identification of city code violations in the neighborhood by joining those groups dedicated to those direct services and providing more communication between agencies.

The city removed about 14 tons of illegally dumped debris from the streets and 71 properties in the police department’s first targeted neighborhood. The trash removal was announced by Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous as part of a widespread effort to prevent crime during a press conference on crime prevention and youth violence in February.

“What we want to do is go forward; it’s not that we’re not arresting people. It’s not that we’re not addressing problems. But there’s a lot of after care, a lot of situations, like dealing with the environment where crime is occurring,” Varrone said.

The first targeted neighborhood includes the area at 11th and Castle streets, where 16-year-old Shane Simpson was fatally shot in a drive-by gang-related shooting in December 2015.

Read related story: Community calls for a stand against violence after latest shooting

City crews work to take trash and debris from the streets as part of a crime prevention effort in a targeted area of downtown Wilmington. Photo courtesy of the city.
City crews work to take trash and debris from the streets as part of a crime prevention effort in a targeted area of downtown Wilmington. Photo courtesy of the city.

Varrone said that while there are a lot of good people in these focused neighborhoods, some of which are long-time residents, there is also a mix of residents who don’t care about their property, promote criminal activity and illegal dumping.

Neighborhoods favored by illegal dumpers are a good place for a straightforward approach to remove trash, followed by working with the city’s code enforcement division to identify – then deal with – unlivable homes to promote neighborhood upkeep, Varrone said.

“We’re working more with our other city departments and we’re trying to get our ships going in the same direction,” Varrone said. “If we see a house that maybe there’s been some criminal activity, and it continues to be but there’s clearly code enforcement violations – it’s falling apart, there’s junk cars in the yard, maybe there’s a health hazard – we call [code enforcement] out and they’ll do an inspection.”

Back in February, the police department and the city’s code enforcement inspected a number of houses in the targeted area and issued letters to property owners. It’s methods such as these that the new OSEO will oversee and, working with the city, get in contact with property owners in violation and levy civil fines against the owners, if needed, Varrone said. Code enforcement is working with community members facing code violations, he said, using fines and penalties as a last resort.

By getting rid of destructive tenants, cleaning up the neighborhood, enforcing code violations and focusing patrols, Varrone said crime could be deterred from the neighborhood, because criminals will see that somebody cares. The office will continue to work one neighborhood at a time, with its sights set next on the back streets of east Wilmington, off Princess Place Drive near the Creekwood Community – another neighborhood with similar problems, Varrone said.

Along with revamping target neighborhoods, the district attorney’s office, the city and its police department, have teamed up to enforce stricter penalties on many of the Market Street hotels that have been “hot beds” for crime over the years, Varrone said.

“So we’re taking a little bit more of an aggressive stance and a long-term [approach] to try to really clean up some of these neighborhoods that really need our attention,” Varrone said. “But if the hotels are not doing what they should be doing, prostitution, drug use and, things like that, are going to flourish there.”

In December 2015, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and David held a press conference about a joint initiative using the district attorney’s office, police and city attorneys to seek criminal and civil laws and to evaluate options to alleviate the pattern of criminal activity seen at some of the Market Street hotels like drugs, prostitution and violence. With the newly formed OSEO, Varrone said the police department will continue its effort already underway with the hotel situation along Market Street.

The other valuable piece of the new approach is a special investigative process that will focus on certain organized groups, Varrone said. While the interim assistant chief said he could not go into much detail about which groups the police department is going after, he said the investigations will be an ongoing process that goes “above and beyond” what the police department is already doing and will require some in-depth investigations.

“We will be doing…civil injunctions on gang members and gang organizations. And really what that is, is when we have identified the worst of the worst of gangs as far as who’s the most organized, we are going to take out civil actions,” Varrone said.

Civil injunctions will be utilized against gang members to keep them from being in certain places and associating with each other by using a contempt charge to bring them before a judge when in violation, Varrone said. The interim assistant chief calls the special investigative process a “new and creative” way to target those who bring about violence in the community. Civil injunctions have been done in Charlotte, North Carolina and Texas, he said.

Aside from focusing on neighborhoods and the criminals, the OSEO is looking for more creative ways to community outreach. Varrone said he will be reaching out and working with non-profit agencies, to help identify those who have run into trouble in the past but are willing to change. Part of the office’s responsibility is to work with those agencies to help get those individuals on the right path, including finding job training and education.

“I’m also looking to bring in part of the business community…I met with a very intriguing entrepreneur the week before and he is really interested in helping out some people that have been in the criminal spotlight that have hope and are trainable. And he wants to provide work, education and training to get them turned around,” Varrone said, adding that those individuals can be an example.

Officer Scott hands out police department stickers to children in the community. Photo by Christina Haley.
Officer Scott hands out police department stickers to children in the community. Photo by Christina Haley.

Varrone said people who “grow up in the streets” tend to think that a life in crime is their only path. But by developing trust and showing citizens that the police department cares, word could spread throughout the community and turn individuals away from a life of violence and gangs.

That same approach has turned some citizens to the police department to seek ways they can help bring a change to their neighborhoods, Varrone said. The police department has held, and will continue to hold, public community meetings in crime-prone neighborhoods to reach out to citizens and find community stakeholders.

“I’m looking forward to really working with the other city departments and the other groups in our community to really try to bring about a change because, you know, the problem of crime, we can’t arrest away our problem….clearly arresting everybody is not the answer. So we have to also address the causes and look at getting some opportunity in for some folks. And I think we can make an impact,” Varrone said about the overall goal of the OSEO.

Varrone said there is still more planning to do before the OSEO is in full swing, but he hopes that by the summer he’ll be able to come forward with some positive reports for the community.

“The world of policing is changing and we must embrace those changes in order to provide the best policing services possible” Evangelous said. “This comprehensive approach will help to transform communities and enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”