WILMINGTON — The city’s latest crime stats show 2022 was a record year for lowering violent crime, a trend Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams said has been ongoing for the last three years.
The chief explained to Wilmington City Council at Monday’s agenda briefing that despite labor shortages in the department between 15% and 20%, officers responded to nearly 400 calls on average every 24 hours.
“My command staff, we had to help out wherever we could help out,” Williams said. “I have lieutenants who are supposed to be managing the shift; they are out running calls. Same thing with sergeants. And my only concern with that is it’s going to lead to burn out, because you can only do that for so long.”
He added Wilmington’s law enforcement agencies handle the “heaviest” field work of all municipal entities in the North Carolina coastal region. Yet, crime overall has decreased by 4% citywide, the lowest since 2009, based on data compiled by WPD’s 30-year analyst Barry Coburn.
“I had to tell people, ‘No,’ a lot this year; there were a lot of things we could not get involved in,” Williams said. “Our priorities centered on loss of life and injury. Those events don’t care if you’re short five or 25 officers. They don’t care if you’re tied up in a landfill on extended operation. They could not be placed on hold or wait until the next day when I have new personnel or wait until Monday to deal with. We have to deal with them 24/7.”
Of the nearly 5 million radio transmissions made last year for all New Hanover County public safety agencies (New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, fire and EMS included), WPD accounted for almost half, at 2.1 million.
The county 911 center logged 472,198 events, of which WPD handled 31% or 149,922; 51,000 were self-initiated, Williams said.
Violent crimes for 2022 reached the lowest the city has seen in 13 years, with 41 fewer incidents than 2021, and a 6% decrease in violent crime overall. Even though the city’s population increased 24% since 2009, crimes overall have decreased 44%, according to the police department.
“The reductions in crime you see today are a testament to the collaborations and partnerships in this community,” Wiilliams said. “No one entity or agency can take credit for these reductions. Many efforts on many different fronts went into making this happen.”
WPD works with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office in multiple service areas, including within New Hanover County schools — Sheriff Ed McMahon’s operational jurisdiction.
All incidents on school campuses reported by WPD officers are accounted for in the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office database; they are not included in WPD’s numbers.
The joint Downtown Task Force and public housing locations are managed under Williams’ leadership. While public housing saw a decrease in violent crimes, down 48% from the prior year, property crime increased by 9%.
In July, the Wilmington Housing Authority Housing Taskforce told committee members there was an increase in breaking and entering of empty apartments and of those under construction. Units have been vacant due to mold issues and families being relocated while remediation is underway.
The Downtown Task Force covers the central business district from the Isabel Holmes Bridge to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, and from the Cape Fear River to Third Street. Officers handled an uptick in crime overall within “downtown” boundaries, which extend farther than the CBD east to Fifth Avenue. Following a year of pandemic-related shutdowns in 2020, and the lowest crime reported downtown, offenses began to “creep back up” in 2021.
In 2022, 14 additional incidents were reported downtown and 37 more were clocked in the CBD from the prior year. Most were attributed to shoplifting, larcenies and breaking and entering of automobiles, “the majority which were left unlocked,” Williams said.
Five more downtown officers were approved in fiscal year 2023’s budget — two funded from Municipal Services District taxes and three from the city’s general fund.
Homicides and gunfire decline
There were 11 homicides with 13 victims in 2022, down from 15 victims the prior year. Of those, two were gang-related, one was a narcotic deal “that went bad,” two were domestic violence-related with four total victims and six were fatal assaults.
“We made arrests in 10 of these 11 cases,” Williams said. “Our clearance rate is above 90%. The national average for clearance is somewhere around 50 to 60%.”
One case accounted for more than 2,500 man hours over two weeks. Williams was referring to the extensive search for a missing Wilmington teen. 16-year-old Miyonna Jones was found dead in Pender County in November, following a 15-day investigation into her whereabouts.
Compared to cities both larger and smaller than Wilmington’s population of 126,847, local murder rates are exponentially lower.
Hand-in-hand with homicide reduction is the decrease of incidents involving gunfire. In 2022, there were 97 reports of gunfire, totaling 142 victims. This is down seven incidents and 26 fewer victims than 2021.
Shotspotter, the technology that tracks gunfire in certain areas of the city — downtown, the northside, east side and surrounding UNCW — also saw an 11% decrease in activations. In 2022, 1,260 incidents of gunfire were reported versus 1,409 in 2021 and 1,462 in 2020.
Traffic fatalities went down in 2022. Fifteen people died on the city’s roadways, seven fewer than 2021.
Of those, four are suspected to involve at least one driver, pedestrian or cyclist under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Williams said.
“The answers of what led to a fatal crash can take extensive time,” he said. “Media wants answers the next day, but we can’t provide that. We’re not going to rush an investigation; we take our time and get it right.”
From September to December, the department set up traffic checkpoints. Combined, they conducted five events over four hours, issuing 92 citations, five written warnings and four verbal warnings to drivers.
Williams cited texting while driving, not wearing a seat belt, failure to yield at rights-of-way and red-light violations as the most common officer-observed behavior.
‘50 bodies short’
Council member Luke Waddell told Williams to keep pushing the council to provide the resources needed to keep crime numbers down. City council approved a 4% budget increase for WPD in fiscal year 2023, to $38.7 million up from $37.4 million the prior year.
Williams credited the council’s increased compensation for law enforcement. Council voted in April to allocate $1.3 million to raise wages ahead of the fiscal year’s end and $7.5 million in citywide salary bumps for fiscal year 2023.
“It’s the largest compensation I’ve seen in my 30-year career with the city,” he said. “That has stopped some bleeding. But people are still retiring and leaving, but not in droves to go to other agencies.”
Williams told council during 2022’s budget meetings that officers were taking advantage of the city-paid training (equating to roughly $40,000) and then securing jobs elsewhere that offered higher pay, as noted by the city’s April 2022 compensation study. Brunswick County, New Hanover County, and Wrightsville Beach also approved pay bumps this year.
WPD specifically averaged pay rates 13% below market pay before council’s increase. Now, officers make on average $38,984 starting out, plus education incentive pay, employer 401K contribution and additional benefits. The Town of Leland for example reports a hiring range for police officers ranging from $44,610.39 to $49,963.64.
While WPD reports 11 vacancies right now, with 277 sworn officers reported in the fiscal year 2023 budget, Williams explained the number is closer to 50 bodies short in the field. This accounts for individuals in field training, the academy, awaiting certifications, or on military or FMLA leave.
“So, the crime rate is down even with us not having a full force?” council member Clifford Barnett asked.
Williams explained his staff made “sacrifices” to make it happen.
Crime stats by the numbers (subject to change based on final approval by State Bureau of Investigation):
- Murder: 13 in 2022; 15 in 2021
- Rape: 79 in 2022; 91 in 2021
- Robbery: 106 in 2022; 105 in 2021
- Aggravated Assault: 405 in 2022; 433 in 2021
- Burglary: 417 in 2022; 471 in 2021
- Larceny: 2,578 in 2022; 2,675 in 2021
- Motor vehicle theft: 267 in 2022; 222 in 2021
- Arson: 15 in 2022; 11 in 2021
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