Friday, March 1, 2024

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

A curbside memorial for Zalleux Johnson, Jr., a young man who was just 18 when he was gunned down in Creekwood. (Port City Daily photo / Ben Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — The city has seen a disturbing uptick in gun violence, in particular drive-by shootings that present a high risk of injuring innocent bystanders. Officials are ready to confront the problem — but their solutions are unlikely to work without cooperation from the community.

That solution will involve law enforcement, namely the Wilmington Police Department but also the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the District Attorney’s office and its federal prosecution partners, and — ultimately — the community, in particular the neighborhoods like Creekwood and Houston Moore where these shootings have taken place.

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

Wilmington Police Department

Interim Chief Donny Williams took over for outgoing Chief Ralph Evangelous (who has since come out of retirement to head up the Wrightsville Beach Police Department). Williams acknowledges he picked a “hell of a time” to take the reins, as the city is weathering both a new outbreak of gun violence and a pandemic.

Williams has been discussing the issue of gun violence with his command staff since the end of last year.

“I said, ‘enough is enough,’ there are no days of peace where I’m not walking around on eggshells worried about who’s going to get hurt,” Williams said. “It’s ridiculous. And we need a new approach.”

New tools

Part of that means increased resources, whether it’s increased ability to process evidence, conduct surveillance, or just keep officers on the beat.

WPD has applied for several grants, including for eight drones as well as a NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) machine. The NIBIN network holds high-resolution images of spent ammunition cartridges which show the unique markings left by the specific gun the fired the round. There are over 3 million images of casings recovered from crime scenes or test-fired from recovered weapons; these casings date back to crimes committed across the country since 1999.

Currently, WPD can access NIBIN through the state, but that means considerable backlog delays.

The system isn’t perfect (it can’t help match a crime to a bullet, for example) and its use is not as widespread as some federal officials would like. But it would still be a “gamechanger,” Williams said, noting that NIBIN could help tie past crimes to current ones, and lay the groundwork for future arrests — all of which could mean more charges and, thus, tougher sentences for violent criminals.

Williams, along with District Attorney Ben David and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), are also discussing the continued and expanded use of technology — including the ShotSpotter system, cameras, and other surveillance options (for example, tapping into Ring and other door-bell camera networks).

New mindset

When Williams took over, he addressed a number of issues, including national trends. Two of those play a major roll in combating gun violence: officer retention and the militarization of police departments.

Departments around the country struggle with retention, so it’s not an issue isolated to Wilmington. The private sector often offers better pay and benefits than public service — without the stigma that sometimes comes from wearing a badge. High-profile cases of abuse by law enforcement officers can translate into criticism of and hostility towards all officers; the undeniable racial component of this situation makes it harder to recruit officers of color, especially from neighborhoods that have experienced ‘crackdowns’ by law enforcement agencies that have increasingly adopted more militarized postures: heavily armored and armed officers and vehicles.

That, Williams said, is where his mindset differs.

“I will not — and I’ve said this before — I will not have my officers looking like they’re in a military unit, like it’s Bosnia,” Williams said, noting that when the city recently acquired two military vehicles from the Department of Defense the WPD quickly had them repainted from camouflage to black and white. “They’re police vehicles — rescue vehicles, actually — the last thing we want people in our communities thinking is that we’re a military force.”

Williams said he’s ensured the lieutenants and captains responsible for neighborhoods like Creekwood and Houston Moore have the “right mindset.” According to Williams, officers like Lt. Kelvin Hardgrove, who have deep ties in the community, have been put in place because “their goal is to protect the community, they’re not on the warpath.”

Community policing

Williams’ approach, sometimes referred to as ‘community policing’ involves building relationships in the community.

For critics of the approach, community policing turns police officers into everything but — it asks them to be teen mentors, basketball coaches, social workers, sometimes at the expense of actual police work.

Williams acknowledged that police officers are already “asked to do so much, maybe too much.” And he said he’s heard the criticisms of community policing before, including that it encourages officers to overlook minor offenses or that it ‘coddles’ minor criminals.

But, at the same time, Williams can point to the fractured current relationship between police and Wilmington’s inner-city communities — and how it makes police work difficult, if not impossible. For example, in November of last year, at least a dozen shots were fired in Houston Moore, around 10 p.m. on a Sunday. Not one witness came forward. Or another shooting, the same week, that sent three to the hospital and saw an angry crowd that rushed police officers they tried to treat the wounded. Or several other incidents where officers arrived to find wounded victims who refused to identify their assailant or, in some cases, even speak with police.

For Williams, there are three prongs to building bridges in the community, and police have to balance their involvement.

First, there’s prevention, or reaching the kids when they’re young and before they are influenced negatively — an important step, but one that should be left largely to non-profits and community groups, Williams said. Then there’s intervention, including the return of ‘call in’ procedures, were those out on bail or parole, or with prior offenses, can be brought in to discuss their progress with police officers and offered resources to avoid returning to criminal behavior. Part of intervention also happens through the district attorney’s office, with tools like deferred prosecution. Here, Williams says police have a role, but only a partial one.

Then, of course, there’s actual police work. Williams said part of the response to the uptick in gun violence is more cops on the street — but, again, he said they have to have the right mindset.

District Attorney’s office

From District Attorney’s anti-gang injunction, which was lauded as groundbreaking and criticized as racial profiling by the ACLU. (Port City Daily photo / File)

District Attorney Ben David also addressed the push and pull between law enforcement and community crime prevention, and seeking a balance he called a ‘tough love’ approach.

It’s a tough act to pull off.

David’s anti-gang injunction was the target of heated criticism by the ACLU. At the same time, his efforts to dismiss low-level offenses in an effort to keep young offenders, especially minorities, from falling into the prison pipeline have been criticized as being weak on crime.

David acknowledged that it’s sometimes ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ in trying to find that balance.

“What we are talking about right now is a tension: a tension between heavy-handedness, what some would perceive as profiling or getting into a community that’s most affected by crime and being targeted our enforcement and on the other hand going into a place of high poverty and understanding that they are starved or resources and realizing that we need to spend extra resources on these young people — not for their incarceration, but for their chance to go to school and get a job,” David said.

On the one hand, David said he’s proud of initiatives that he’s helped founded, like Hometown Hires (now StepUp ministries) and the Blue Ribbon Commission — efforts that help provide other opportunities for those in high-crime communities. David also said his office will continue to pursue ‘community prosecution’ methods, which include seeking increased flexibility for juvenile crime and low-level offenses.

At the same time, David said his office is committed to being tough on violent crime.

David acknowledged frustrations with the short sentences often received for assaults and some violent crimes — even when committed by repeat offenders. Some of that, David said, is because North Carolina’s structured sentencing limits what judges can do. And, while those same statutes give prosecutors more leeway to make plea deals and negotiate with offenders to help tackle broader criminal issues, it also caps the sentences prosecutors can pursue.

That’s why, David said, his office has worked with a satellite U.S. Attorney’s office for the last two years, to take cases to federal court where the sentences are much more serious. David has also pushed both enforcement and education of ‘acting in concert’ laws, which allow prosecutors to go after everyone involved in a serious crime. For example, David’s office is pressing first-degree murder charges against all three teenagers involved in the deadly Mother’s Day shooting on Eastwood and Oleander. According to David, getting the word out about ‘acting in concert’ prosecution to young people is important, to prevent them from acting as drivers or lookouts under the misconception that they won’t face serious charges.

But beyond ramping up enforcement and prosecution and non-profit resource work, there are other more controversial tools in the DA’s kit.

Injunctions and curfews

Despite criticism from civil rights groups, David has said in the past he would bring back the anti-gang injunction — or other injunctions similar to it — if they were warranted.

But David noted, there would have to be community buy-in.

“Nothing is off the table at this point. We’re rebooting a lot of our efforts to address gun violence, and I’m willing to go further — but there needs to be community engagement. I can bring back the injunction, we can talk about a curfew, we can put officers on corners — but it has to be that the community wants it. Do you want me to do that, that’s the question,” David said.

David said he’s in talks now with Williams and Sheriff Ed McMahon about ‘rebooting’ both law enforcement efforts and attempts to engage the community, and that they plan to bring a plan to city council soon.

What does the city and its communities want?

Police, prosecutors, mayors, even newspapers have weighed in on communities like Creekwood. What do the people of Creekwood want? (Port City Daily photo / File)

Part of the problem — and sometimes the elephant in the room — is the lack of communication between neighborhoods like Creekwood and public officials, and perhaps the lack of political representation for those neighborhoods in city and county government.

Consider what happened last year, when then-Chief Ralph Evangelous called for the razing of the city’s public housing neighborhoods following three deaths in a several block radius: on May 18, 2019, Quinchelle Carr, 30, was murdered in her home, located in the Creekwood South housing development; Zalleux Johnson, Jr. was just 18 when he was gunned down on February 2, 2019; on April 4, 2019, 27-year-old Willie Lynell Sellers, Jr., was shot just one block away — Sellers died in the hospital from his injuries.

Related: Wilmington Mayor addresses public housing issues; Police Chief, Housing Authority CEO won’t comment

Following Evangelous’ comments, the StarNews ran an editorial, comparing Creekwood and Houston Moore to the Khmer Rouge’s ‘killing fields,’ were over a million Cambodians were murdered.

“In places such as Creekwood and Houston Moore, the chief’s best efforts have failed. We think they will continue to fail. We think the chief knows they will continue to fail. Something has to change. No amount of police patrols or security cameras will work. The bloodshed is inevitable,” the editorial stated.

Eventually Mayor Bill Saffo agreed to address the issue, but by and large city council declined to comment, as did the Wilmington Housing Authority.

Even more suspiciously absent: voices from Creekwood and Houston Moore. Did they want their homes razed and to be, as Evangelous had suggested, ‘dispersed throughout the community’?

Nearly a year later, there’s still violence in Creekwood. And still people who call it home. City Councilman Kevin Spears said he feels it’s fallen to him to advocate for neighborhoods like Creekwood. But what’s really needed, he said, is for voices from those neighborhoods to get directly to the other key leaders in the region.

“It’s really difficult — and I really wish the community would give more input. And I mean outside of just talking to me. I wish they would push more on Donny [Williams], that they would push more on the other members of city council, the county commissioners, Ben David, the ADAs — I really wish they would push to say, ‘hey, this is how we feel about this specific thing,’ versus me saying ‘I have a close relationship with you guys, and I want to protect you guys and make our city look could'” Spears said. “I think their voice compared to my voice is the key to really seeing some change.”

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

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