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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Wilmington’s gunfire problem, Part I: Almost 900 rounds fired, six dead, more injured

WPD are investigating a drive-by shooting that happened Sunday (Port City Daily photo/FILE)
Officials are tracking a disturbing trend in gun violence. (Port City Daily photo/FILE)

WILMINGTON — Since the beginning of the year, close to 900 rounds of ammunition have been fired in Wilmington — that police know about. It’s part of a new trend in shootings that has authorities and community leaders worried.

Related: Wilmington’s gunfire problem, Part II: What’s being done? What does the community want?

Shootings in Wilmington aren’t new. While Part I crimes are at historic lows, shootings related to the drug trade and gang activity have stayed steady. And, while the rest of the region has been locked down due to Covid-19, these shootings have hardly missed a beat — they have, in fact, spiked recently.

But the shootings over the last year, and in particular the last four or five months, have been different. Increasingly, the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) is seeing drive-by shootings. While drive-by shootings are as old as Prohibition-era gang wars, they’ve made up an increasing number of the shootings in Wilmington — to the increasing concern of residents, police and prosecutors, and Wilmington’s city council.

There are also questions about what led to these shootings happening. Some were committed by relatively young men, prompting officials to ask what went wrong so early in their life and what could have been done to prevent it? On the opposite end of the spectrum, some are repeat offenders, recently paroled or even out on bond at the time they committed these crimes. The question there: is there something wrong with the justice system?

Port City Daily took a look at what makes these shootings different, why that matters, and what law enforcement, prosecutors, and elected officials can do about it. In Part I, we take a look at the first two of these questions.

Six dead, more injured

As of mid-May, 866 rounds of ammunition had been fired by shooting suspects over the last five months, according to Wilmington Police Department Interim Chief Donny Williams.

Six people have lost their lives to this violence.

Over a dozen others have been injured, some seriously. As District Attorney Ben David noted, these incidents are sometimes forgotten because they don’t make headlines as ‘fatal shootings,’ but the wounds from gun violence can mean painful, lengthy recoveries with permanent mental and physical effects.

Williams acknowledged that some of these victims were actively involved (or allegedly involved) in criminal activity; most notably, perhaps, is William Springer who was charged with murder in 2017. Charges against him were later dropped because no witnesses stepped forward. At the time, David was outspoken about the need for witnesses, telling media outlets Springer would ‘get away with murder’ if none came forward.

But, importantly, other victims were not, including Shawn Grady, described by those who knew him as a pillar of the community who consistently gave back to his neighborhood. Or, in a case that particularly troubled Williams, a 29-year-old woman who was shot on April 10 during an Easter Egg hunt with neighborhood children in Houston Moore.

“I do know some people who will say, ‘it’s a wash, it’s just one of these shooting another one.’ But one that’s not justice — if they’re criminals we want to hear people come forward, we want to make an arrest … What we don’t want is someone hears about a person who may have done this and that and then they’re driving by that person’s mother’s house or their aunt’s house and shooting up the building, indiscriminately,” Williams said.

That particular MO — shots fired, quickly and chaotically, often from moving vehicles and frequently at night — is what concerns Williams. While the police department obviously doesn’t relish the idea of any kind of shooting, the recent trend of drive-bys has pushed Williams, David, and other public officials to readdress gun violence in Wilmington.

What’s going on?

Shooting are always concerning, but the recent uptick has its own particular issues. Many of those shots were erratic, bullets more sprayed than aimed. While authorities don’t want anyone to be shot, they acknowledge there is an additional concern for innocent bystanders to be injured — or killed — along with increased collateral property damage, according to Williams.

The shootings are also hard to categorize. Many of those involved — both shooters and victims — have ties to local gangs, but the crimes aren’t officially ‘gang-related,’ at least not in the way that’s made sense to law enforcement and prosecutors for decades. Again, while no one in law enforcement wants violence based on the economic or territorial motivations that often drive gang activity, there are good reasons to see it as preferable to the more recent shootings — which often seem to be motivated by nothing more than squabbles on Facebook.

David and Williams both agreed that with a more traditional gang hierarchy, it’s more feasible to negotiate with leaders to curb gun violence. And, while David’s now-expired gang-injunction describes a state of affairs in 2016 that saw gangs with ‘military-like’ chains of commands and standings ‘beefs’ with other gangs, what’s emerged in Wilmington more recently is more unstable.

From the 2017 anti-gang injunction. (Port City Daily / File)

On the one hand, shooters and victims alike are sometimes affiliated with gangs — or even ‘validated gang members.’ And shootings often lead to retaliation, spaced apart a few days as information about who shot who makes its way through the city. It’s not uncommon to see violence ricochetting back and forth between Creekwood and Houston Moore; in David’s injunction, the Creekwood neighborhood was both home to and victim of the 720 Folk Nation Gangster Disciples, with evidence from law enforcement that Houston Moore home to several offshoots and subsets of the Bloods. (The cycle of violence doesn’t even stop for death — as the community saw this week, when WPD was able to prevent an apparent plan to attack Jacobs’ funeral with an AK-47).

On the other hand, in recent months the term ‘gang-related shooting’ doesn’t always work. The more recent shootings don’t appear to be the result of top-down orders, and the violence doesn’t seem to directly serve the ends of advancing a gang’s profits or territory.

In an interview following his election last year, then Councilman-elect Kevin Spears pointed to this phenomenon. Williams acknowledged it as a generational shift. Growing up in Creekwood himself, he said the same kind of insults that are now traded on social media might have led to violence, but not gunfire.

“Yeah, growing up, some of these disputes would have ended with a fistfight in the schoolyard,” Williams said. “That’d be as far as it went.”

What’s changed?

While officials can’t speak to the details of specific ongoing investigations (and there are many), there’s a sense that there’s both a chemical and cultural aspect to the latest wave of gun violence — law enforcement and prosecutors both suspect that drug use might psychologically distance shooters from the reality. At the same time, officials are forced to wonder what’s responsible for a nihilistic mindset that would allow someone to try to take another person’s life over a social media insult.

“I worry about the lack of values — the way a person is brought up, that makes it possible to do this,” Williams said.

David said he didn’t want to sound ‘Pollyanna-ish’ when he discussed the moral component of gun violence but said it often can’t be avoided.

“That’s what makes it important to get to people who are at risk, who have these negative influences, when they’re young — it’s preventative — because later it’s so much more difficult to reach them,” David said.

But while some of the shootings are committed by disturbingly young men, others are career criminals — something that’s led to frustration with the justice system.

Take for example Donte Jamar Rollinson, who was arrested in February for the murder of Jason Stokes. Rollinson has a history of felony convictions, including armed robbery, possession, and parole/probation violations. Most recently, he spent roughly three years in prison for possession of Schedule I drugs, the most serious level in the state, and possession of a firearm by a felon.

He was released in July of 2018. He then received a parole violation last March, was reincarcerated, and re-released in June. Several months later, he was arrested again. On November 7, 2019, Wilmington police arrested him on several charges, including felony possession of a firearm by a felon and resisting arrest. It appears Rollinson was released on a $25,000 bond for that offense, which he posted on December 8.

Williams said he understood this frustration and that he hoped to see changes in how repeated offenders were handled in the future — although that’s an issue largely beyond the control of law enforcement.

[Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more on the issue of repeat offenders, bonds, and sentencing in Part II.]

Another issue involved in these shootings: drug use. Whether drug are used to get ‘amped up’ or quash anxiety before a shooting, they’re not uncommon. David said that, while he could address specific cases, he was familiar with shooting perpetrated by those using a combination of marijuana, hallucinogens, and narcotics. The end result: unpredictable behavior and distancing from reality.

Both David and William agreed that a guiding thread in the recent shootings seemed to be the physical and psychological distance between shooter and victim. That might sound like armchair psychology, but the question — why is this happening? — is heavy on the minds of those who have to answer the next question, namely, what can be done?

Williams acknowledged that WPD needs a new approach. David for his part, agreed that while there are some things law enforcement is doing well right now the status quo won’t cut it.

“That’s the very definition of insanity,” David said. “If we’re doing the exact same thing and expecting different results, that’s insanity.”

Much of this is a nationwide issue, with similar problems seen in cities across the country. But, as Spears puts it, that doesn’t let local leaders off the hook from addressing it.

“Yeah, it’s a national problem, but at the same time, it’s still happening here, you know, where we live, so we have to address it,” Spears said. “Wilmington has its particular issues and — we’ve got to find what works for our communities. We can take what works from other places, and maybe they can learn from us, but we’ve got to speak up about it.”

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow, taking a look at new efforts by the District Attorney’s office, Wilmington Police Department, and other groups to try and address gunfire violence in Wilmington.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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