WILMINGTON — It’s been almost one year since District Attorney Ben David announced a civil injunction against over 20 known gang members in the City of Wilmington forbidding the members to associate in certain areas or congregate in public, but has it been effective at reducing crime? For David, that answer is yes.
In this instance, members of the Folk Nation 720 Gangsta Disciples (GD) were targeted by the injunction to help prevent crimes in several neighborhoods around Wilmington: Creekwood, Long Leaf Park, Market North Apartments, the Sun Aire area, and Greentree Apartments.
Although the injunction focuses specifically on abating crime in these areas, it also acknowledges the gang commits crimes all over Wilmington.
According to the documents, the 720 GD are known to traffic narcotics and use threats of violence and intimidation to maintain control of their “turf.” Several shootings and homicides are also attributed to 720.
The injunction is more than 100-pages in length and utilizes social media, information from members of the police and gang task force, and other testimony to make the case.
The right to peacefully assemble, not terrorize
The First Amendment grants citizens of the United States the rights to free speech, press, and peaceful assembly — so how exactly does David justify the use of a tool in a manner that opponents have claimed is unconstitutional? Well, he likens it to the idea that you cannot shout fire in a crowded theater — a common example of what the first amendment does not protect.
The injunction itself does lay out some pretty strict guidelines the gang members must abide by, but David said it is not a complete ban on associating.
“You guys can still have Thanksgiving together, you can still work together, but if you’re basically terrorizing a neighborhood like Creekwood, I’m going to put you in jail for that — just that, just hanging out on the street corner. Let’s not pretend that’s not why you’re there, you don’t even live there,” David said.
In 2012, the state passed what is known as the North Carolina Street Gang Nuisance Abatement Act that stats, “A street gang that regularly engages in criminal street gang activities constitutes a public nuisance.”
This wording gives the district attorney the ability to file the civil injunction against the gang members, much like the wording used to abate nuisance hotels and bars.
“If you’re going to be out on this corner and saying you are offering protection and all this other crap, which is what they were saying, we don’t want your help. In fact if there is two or more of you in one place we’re going to arrest you … because what this specifically lays out against the 23 of you is that you have committed crimes of violence after crimes of violence in this community and it is your strength in numbers that is bringing the terror to it,” David said.
The injunction against the gang members is pretty specific and it does not extend past the City of Wilmington limits so, in theory, gang members listed on the injunction simply have to take their meetings and business outside of city limits. But unlike areas within the city limits, it is more difficult for gangs to get away with crimes outside of their comfort zones.
“It is what I call squeezing water, you squeeze it and it shoots somewhere else. We had that with nuisance abatement before … Why do I feel different about this gang injunction and why do I feel that it is working versus it does not always work when they [bars] are just allowed to reinvent themselves with ABC permits is that part of their terror campaign is, they have a lot more legitimacy in the neighborhood they grew up in, where they have contacts … the difference is, if you are out in Wrightsville Beach trying to sell heroin or say to the neighborhood ‘No one call the police,’ that’s not going to work very well,” David said.
The shot callers
When asked why David singled out two dozen members of the gang and how they were chosen he said it was not done on a whim and he chose high ranking members who had a history of crime.
“There are a whole lot more people in that gang than we sought that injunction for … if it seems like we are picking on anybody, read the complaint. Among the 23 people that are listed in there we have five or six crimes per person that we are laying out,” David said.
Being in a gang in and of itself is not an illegal act and for David, his goal is not to break up gangs, instead, he hopes to stop the crimes that gangs are committing. He also hopes to provide a reprieve for members of the community that live in these neighborhoods and are law-abiding citizens who are scared.
“Here is the mission, here is what you have to remember when it feels like us versus them: Who is us and who is them? If it is police versus the Gangsta Disciples then it looks like we are evil geniuses and we are strong-arming everybody. If the ‘them’ is criminals and the ‘us’ is peace-loving law-abiding citizens … There are a whole lot of people that are horrified about the crime going on in their neighborhood and think the second they say anything about it, they’re going to getfirebombedd,” he said.
The injunction itself goes into explicit detail of crimes committed by the gang members listed and activities as a whole that the group has participated in. It also offers evidence through social media postings and music videos where gang members can be seen showing gang signs and rapping about their criminal activities.
Is it working?
The plan for civil injunctions is not one that can be completed in a year — it is just one step in addressing the gang problem in Wilmington, David said. It is also not the first time the district attorney has utilized civil law to help fight criminal activities. “I have a long term strategy for this, in addition to individual cases,” he said.
David said for anyone questioning if the injunction has been effective to pull the data from the city’s Shot Spotter system — a program that alerts police whenever a gunshot report is heard.
“Pull the north side of Wilmington since November when we started the injunction until now … There is a lot we can talk about but let’s talk about gun shots, are we down? And I think what you are going to find is that we are. I say that without the benefit of talking to those analysis’s in a long time, but the early word I was getting is that it is,” he said.
In an attempt to check the veracity of these claims, Port City Daily requested Shot Spotter data, as well as calls for service to the Creekwood neighborhood for the past year.
Starting Nov. 1 2017 until Oct. 23 2018, there were a documented 3,465 events in the Creekwood neighborhood. While this number seems high — and it is, relative to other neighborhoods of Wilmington — the data includes all police activity in the area, including Wilmington Police Department roving patrols and community contact. In other words, not every incident reported was criminal activity.
Wilmington Police Department data also shows a reduction in crime since the injunction. Shotspotter incidents are down 17-percent in District 2, violent crime and part one crimes have also decreased.
“A twelve month review of the violent crime numbers taken from the areas addressed in the gang injunction (District 2) show a continuous decline in both violent crime, Part 1 crime and Shotspotter activations. There is also a 42-percent decrease in the number of complaints made against some motels along the Market Street corridor that have been linked to previous gang activity prior to the gang injunction.” said Ralph Evangelous, Wilmington Police Chief. “We believe these numbers are a reflection of our constant efforts to use innovative solutions to an age old problem.”
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