WILMINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Uniform Crime Report (UCR) is in many ways a job evaluation for police departments across the country. This most recent report, covering crimes committed in 2016, showed two national trends – decreasing property crime and increasing violent crime, including rape and murder.
Wilmington has seen those same crime trends. There’s good news and bad news: property crimes have dropped by about 20 percent, but homicide is at an all-time high, with a per-capita murder rate that is nearly double that of Charlotte.
Some of the factors behind these numbers are frustratingly predictable, namely the opioid epidemic. But other factors are surprising and occasionally uncomfortable. Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous broke down the good news, the bad news, and story behind the FBI’s latest crime reports for the Port City.
(It should be noted that not all crimes are reported; in fact, less than half are, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, published by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The survey found that, in 2015, only 47 percent of crimes were reported.)
Good news: Property crime is down
The national trend of decreasing property crime is obviously good news, but it’s particularly reassuring for Wilmington, which was once one of the nation’s most dangerous cities, according to Evangelous.
“Let’s go back to 2002. Our part one crimes, which includes property crimes, was a little over 8,600. We were ranked at the time as one of the most dangerous – number eight – on a list of the most dangerous cities in the country. We were there,” Evangelous said.
He added, “Now fast forward to this year and we hit a low of around 5,400 and some change. So we’re down (to) around 5,400 – first time we’ve hit that in decades – and this year we’re on track for something that was my goal, after I had been here a few years, I said my goal was to break into the 4,000s.”
What’s driving these crimes down?
According to Evangelous, property crimes – including break-ins to houses and cars – are largely driven by the opioid crisis. The Wilmington Police Department (WPD) has spent years focusing on opioid-related gang activity, including break-ins, which is “part of the story,” of decreasing numbers.
Evangelous credits the “other part of the story,” to community involvement. Part of that means groups like Moms in Mourning. The group visits the victims of violence and their families, often in the hospital, to provide comfort and counseling — they also try to discourage retaliation, which Evangelous called “a major driver of gun violence.”
But “community involvement” also means an increased willingness to provide information to the police. The Police Deparment’s ‘text-a-tip’ program, as well as social media, has made a considerable impact, Evangelous said.
“We’ve had a 19 percent increase in text-a-tips, just this past year. And, what’s important, a lot of those texts that come in are good: not just time and location, but names, license plates.” So we’ve had some good people who are stepping up – so that’s big piece,” Evangelous said.
That intel gets distributed through the city’s new real-time crime center, which Evangelous said was starting to “run on all cylinders.” Evangelous also cited daily “hand-in-hand” cooperation with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office on task forces targeting gang activity. He also credited a host of state and federal agencies – including the ATF, DEA and FBI – working cases in the Wilmington area.
Gentrification and crime: the elephant in the room
Then there is another major factor, one that doesn’t often get discussed, Evangelous said.
“Property crimes are low, as low as we’ve seen them in a longtime, and they’ve been trending down and down and down and there’s one more thing happening that people don’t want to talk about. There is gentrification – the natural gentrification that occurred in this city. And unfortunately or fortunately, depending on which side you sit on, it makes a difference in crime rates,” Evangelous said.
Evangelous made it clear he was talking about socio-economic gentrification and not race. Still, historically, Wilmington’s gentrification has replaced many lower-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods with wealthier white residents. That’s part of the reason the conversation about gentrification’s impact on crime can be so uncomfortable to talk about, Evangelous noted.
But Evangelous pointedly brought the issue back to economics as the most primal motivator of crime.
“Poverty. If you don’t have work, if you don’t have a way to feed yourself, if you don’t have a place to live, you’re going to do what you got to do to take care of yourself to your family. That’s the survival of the fittest. That’s our basic humanity. That’s who we are. Yeah. And, so, you know poverty and crime I mean there’s a correlation there. You can sugarcoat it, but that’s it,” he said.
Bad news: violent crime is up
Wilmington had 15 violent deaths – murders or “non-negligent homicides” – last year, nearly double Charlotte’s, or Wilmington’s 2012 rate.
What’s causing the violence?
Evangelous said comparisons between cities are problematic, because every area “has its own dynamics.” But he laid the blame for the violence over the last several years in Wilmington squarely on two factors – opioid-related gangs and irresponsible gun owners.
The first seems obvious – if disheartening – and Evangelous said half of last year’s violent deaths were related to gangs fighting over territory and distribution of heroin and other opioids. But the disputes have become particularly lethal because of the abundance of firearms, according to Evangelous.
“Guns. Guns drive a lot of the violence out here. And guns, around here, are being pushed out onto the street from houses and cars,” Evangelous said. “We had five guns stolen from cars in one night. We had two guns stolen from one car… I mean, it’s bad enough you’re going to leave your gun in your damn car, overnight, parked out in the street, unlocked in some cases. But then you leave two guns? I mean seriously, you’ve got that many freaking guns you’re just leaving them in your car?”
For Evangelous, the problem is the toxic mix of Wilmington’s particularly severe opioid crisis and the national trend of gun violence.
“There’s no question that we’re the most armed society in the history of mankind. There are conservative estimates of over 300 million guns in America. 300 million guns. Think about that for a second,” Evangelous said. “Three hundred million guns and they’re being produced and purchased at an astounding rate. So you know, if you say ‘we’ve got to control them,’ that horse has left the barn. You’re not going to control guns, OK? There’s too many of them. You can’t control 300 million guns.”
Domestic violence deaths: a disturbing new trend
The WPD’s multi-agency fight against the opioid trade has reduced gang-related murders, Evangelous said. But violent deaths haven’t gone down, in fact – according to Evangelous – they are on track to hit the same, or higher, numbers.
“Eight or nine of those murders last year were gang related. And – because we’ve been focusing on that, because of the efforts we’ve taken, and how hard we’ve hammered them – we’re starting to see that taper off,” Evangelous said. “But now we’re seeing domestic violence rear its heads, which means now we’ve got to redirect resources and do a better job on how we investigate. We see a trend developing and we have to try to figure out how to address it.”
Evangelous said he hoped that looking for evidence of domestic violence and finding ways to intercede and “cool down those situations,” could help lower rising death toll; still, he admitted it was frustrating to have to succeed in one area only to face a new issue.
There were 44 rapes last year — that’s 37 per 100,000 people, considerably higher than Charlotte’s 25 per 100,000 people. It’s hard to call that good news, although the numbers are down from 62 in 2015. Evangelous said sexual assault and rape are the hardest crimes to deal with.
“Let me tell you what sexual assaults are, what rapes are. There’s two types, and they’re both equally wrong and equally unacceptable. One is the acquaintance rape, which is I think 99 percent of the sexual assault. And then we have stranger rape, which tends to be very violent, but only once in a while will we see that,” Evangelous said.
“But it’s almost impossible…you understand that this is traumatic for these women, and for most part its women, though sometimes men. But it’s very traumatic,” Evangelous said. “In the best possible scenario it gets reported quickly and we get to the hospital, we can get them counseling, we can get the Rape Crisis Center involved. We can also get a blood test and find out if they were drugged, we can collect some evidence. But so often these women are embarrassed, they won’t report it sometimes for days … then all the evidence is gone.”
The Wilmington Police Department solves the vast majority – over 90 percent – of the murders it investigates, Evangelous. But when it comes to sexual assault and rape, things are much more difficult.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.