By Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Ely Portillo
Posted: Sunday, Jan. 03, 2010
Charlotte hit an extraordinary milestone in 2009 – recording fewer homicides than it has in 21 years.
The rate of killings is down, too: It appears to be the lowest since police began keeping uniform crime statistics in 1977.
Large cities across the country are reporting declines in homicides, a striking development in light of predictions crime would rise in a bad economy. In fact, the homicide decline is part of a general downward trend nationally in violent crime in the past decade.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, 56 people were killed in 2009, down nearly a third from the year before. That was less than half the city’s peak of 122 killings in 1993, when the crack cocaine epidemic made drug violence soar.
Police Chief Rodney Monroe says the city is benefitting from the national trend, but points out that recent declines in violence locally outpace the national average. He attributes that largely to his department’s increased emphasis on patrolling the streets and targeting violent criminals.
“When we go to the scene of a homicide, we go not just with five or six homicide detectives, we go with vice, gang (and assault units)…,” says Monroe, who took over as chief in summer 2008. “It’s a very focused approach. We’re going to target individuals. We’re going to target certain types of crime. And I believe we can have a certain impact.”
Criminologists and social scientists say violent crimes – particularly homicides – are impulsive acts, and it’s unclear how much impact policing can have. The decline is likely due to a variety of societal changes, they say.
“It’s not just a (one) city trend. … It’s happened in so many places, and that leads you to think that it’s got to be social,” says Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley and former head of a national crime analysis and prevention center.
“If you’re seeing drops all over the place,” he says, “it can’t be just because of policy or operations.”
New York was on track for a record low number of killings in 2009.
In the first half of that year, compared with the year before, homicides fell in Raleigh by 55 percent, in Los Angeles by 29 percent, in Atlanta by 14 percent, in Chicago by 11.8 percent, and in Boston by 10.3 percent. They rose in Detroit by 11.6 percent, in Baltimore by 9.5 percent and in New Orleans by 3.2 percent.
Criminologists advance a range of theories for decreasing violence: Improved policing techniques, more prisons, better rehabilitation, better emergency medicine, housing policies that lower the concentration of people in poor, crime-ridden areas, and an influx of immigrants who tend to keep a low profile.
Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx agrees there is a complex mix of social and civic factors bringing down violence. But he sees three crucial ingredients in Charlotte’s success: City leadership, the police department and involved residents.
“It’s obviously much more comprehensive than just the police force,” Foxx says. “But that’s where our presence is felt, and that’s where we’ve tried to make a huge impact, particularly over the last couple of years.”
Since Monroe arrived in Charlotte, the city has added 175 police officers and shifted $2.2 million to cover cost overruns and a reorganization of the department.
Monroe hails the work of his new 12-member Assault With a Deadly Weapon squad, which aims to take assailants off the streets before violence escalates. The courts, he says, may free a number of them from jail, but at least they know police are watching – which may alter their behavior.
Monroe also cites officers’ increased autonomy to decide which crimes most plague their areas, then design a strategy to attack them.
Although official crime tallies aren’t yet available, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is on track to report a 21 percent decline in violent crime and an 18.7 percent drop in property crime for 2009, compared with the previous year.
An official homicide rate per 100,000 residents won’t be known until police calculate final crime and population figures later this month. But if last year’s population mirrors that of 2008 figures, the department will likely report the lowest homicide rate since it began its current record system in 1977.
Not only did homicides drop, Charlotte investigators made arrests in a higher percentage of killings.
“We like to think that, yeah, scientific evidence is what’s being used to close these cases,” says Monroe. “(But) nine times out of 10, it’s someone giving us something – a nickname, one piece of information.”
Taking a toll
Despite the success, civic leaders say Charlotte should take notice of the impact of last year’s killings.
“Our entire community has got to get more engaged on the mentoring front,” says Mayor Foxx. “There are too many young people growing up without a core belief in a positive lifestyle. You don’t just wake up one morning and move into a high-risk lifestyle.”
Virtually all of the 2009 killings happened inside the Interstate 485 loop, primarily west and east of the city’s center.
The killings claimed an 83-year-old great-grandmother and a 6-day-old infant. African-Americans made up the vast majority of murder victims. And one school, Hawthorne High in East Charlotte, was hit particularly hard, losing two students in separate killings.
“We still haven’t dealt with the issues of disparity that lead to that crime …,” says Patrick Graham, who heads the National Urban League of Central Carolinas. “There’s anger and there’s also a sadness. And you have to try really hard to keep from having a feeling of hopelessness.”
Among other 2009 homicide trends:
Eighty percent of people killed were black – a higher proportion than last year. Hispanics made up 5 percent of victims. Four victims (about 7percent) were white.
Eight teens and children were killed, half as many – and a smaller proportion – than last year.
Domestic-related killings made up a slightly smaller share of homicides, with seven (about 12.5 percent) classified as slayings committed by spouses or significant others.
“As tragic as these lives that are lost are, we don’t have a clue how many (people) are functioning, living in fear, that haven’t gotten to this point,” says Mike Sexton, who heads the Mecklenburg County Women’s Commission.
A spike on the west side
Just one of the city’s 13 patrol divisions saw a significant spike in homicides. The Freedom Division recorded nine in 2009, up from just two the year before.
The division begins near the airport – west of the city’s traditionally troubled inner-city neighborhoods – and stretches west to the county line. It contains a mix of aging bungalows, industrial buildings, high-poverty neighborhoods and recently built starter homes hit hard by foreclosures.
Freedom police commanders aren’t sure why homicides climbed in their division. On a recent drive through her territory, Sgt. Lisa Carriker said one contributor may be the influx and clustering of more impoverished families pushed out of the inner-city by new development.
But she also said simply: Murder is unpredictable.
“Homicide is one of our hardest crimes to impact,” Carriker said. “Our robberies have been down, our aggravated assaults have been down. It’s just that when (assaults) have gone bad, they’ve gone spectacularly bad.”
One family’s grief
James McGill and his family take little solace in Charlotte’s falling crime.
His 19-year-old son, Ja’Ron, was the 30th person killed last year.
Ja’Ron had recently enrolled at Hawthorne High School. Determined to graduate, he was looking forward to the beginning of classes. He played drums in his church band and was excited to have a baby on the way.
On the night of Aug. 2, Ja’Ron went to visit his girlfriend. On his way home, something happened. Police know little, but residents of his northeast Charlotte neighborhood found Ja’Ron just before midnight lying in the intersection of Lanecrest Drive and Colby Place, shot in the stomach. He held on for a few hours, but doctors couldn’t save him.
Nobody has been charged in the crime.
Six weeks later, hundreds of Hawthorne High School students held a memorial. A featured speaker was Chief Monroe – whose own sister was murdered in a domestic dispute seven years ago.
This fall, Ja’Ron McGill II was born.
At Christmas, the family sought comfort in the company of others who have also lost loved ones to homicide. They shared testimonies, read poems and clasped hands in prayer.
James McGill cradled his newborn grandson on his lap.
“I look at him and sometimes I just tear up,” says James McGill. “I have to explain to him, when the time comes, where his daddy is.”