WILMINGTON — The population of Wilmington has grown exponentially in the past few years, but contrary to logical assumptions, as more residents call the Port City home, serious crimes are actually on the decline — but as with anything, there is always room for improvement. While crimes like rape, robbery, and burglary all decreased, the number of murders remained unchanged for 2019 and crimes like motor vehicle theft and arson were on the rise.
But despite the increase in some crimes, overall, part one crimes have reached a 27-year low. Part one crimes are often considered the most serious of offenses and include murder, rape, robbery, and other serious felony crimes.
On Monday morning, Wilmington Police Department Chief Donny Williams offered the City Council a look at the year-end crime numbers for 2019 that showed an overall decrease of part one crimes. Last year the Wilmington Police Department made the change from Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) standards to the federally mandated National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) which was expected to show an increase in crimes due to a more thorough reporting system.
Essentially, the old system allowed departments to only report the most serious crime during an incident, regardless of any other crimes commissioned at the same time. So, for example, if a home invasion resulted in a murder, that murder would be reported while the home invasion would not be.
Last year, then-Cheif Ralph Evangelous explained the switch to the new system and told elected officials there would likely be a perceived increase in some crimes due to the NIBRS implementation.
Part one crimes by the numbers
The WPD did make the change to NIBRS reporting rules, however, Williams offered City Council a look at both UCR results and the new system. While there are some discrepancies between the two systems, overall violent crime and property crime are on the downturn regardless of the system used.
Murders remained the same as in 2018 with a total of nine last year. Of those nine murders, two were gang-related, 1 was ‘crime involved,’ three were domestic violence, and three were non-criminal homicides (which include deaths ruled to be the result of self-defense, accidents, or automotive incidents where no one was found criminally liable).
The Wilmington Police Department had a 78% clearance rate in murder investigations for 2019, significantly higher than the national clearance average of 63%, Williams said.
Of the nine murders, two of them were drivers charged in vehicular fatalities.
While many serious crimes are on the decline, arson increased 100% in 2019 jumping from 9 to 18 cases. But Williams was sure to point out the increase, while concerning, was not necessarily an increase in intentional structure fires being set.
“The increase in arson is mainly a result of domestic and personal disputes and damage to personal belongings and not structures such as homes and businesses,” he said.
Crime might be on the decline in Wilmington but according to the city’s Shotspotter notification system, 2019 saw a significant increase in gunshot notifications.
Shotspotter is a tool the city uses that can supposedly notify police when gunshots are heard — but it is not a perfect system and other things such as fireworks can give a false-positive.
I have staff right now trying to come up with factual reasons why we had 239 additional Shotspotter activations. The speculation would be that there are more firearms on the street, but that is just speculation, I want facts to prove it before we say it for sure,” Williams said.
While the system does have its flaws, Williams and his staff at WPD are not going to assume the notifications were false alarms or fireworks, but gunfire. While it is questionable as to whether or not each activation was a gunshot, 2019 did see a number of reported shootings, especially heading into the end of the year.
Ask residents who have lived in Wilmington about the face of downtown just 20 years ago and they will likely tell you stories of a much different city and central business district.
The CBD encompasses the area from ‘bridge to bridge’ and from 3rd Street to the Cape Fear River, according to Williams. It is the area that tourists and locals alike flock to for restaurants, bars, and shopping — but it wasn’t always this way. (Note: Williams did not provide numbers for the official ‘downtown’ area, which is nearly the same area, but extends east to 5th Avenue.)
Part one crimes in the CBD reach an 18-year low in 2019, Williams said. In fact, since 2002 the CBD has seen a 68.6% drop in serious crimes — despite the fact that in that same time Wilmington’s population has increased by about 52%.
Public housing is also one of Wilmington’s areas of concern when it comes to crimes. Compared to 2018, public housing saw an increase in murders in 2019, going from one to three. Aggravated assault and violent crimes were up compared to 2018, while property crimes like burglary and larceny were down.
Overall, part one crimes at public housing were down 25% over the past two years, from 117 in 2018 to 88 in 2019.
Williams’ full report can be found below.