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Charlotte feels the impact as shootings into occupied properties rise

Denise Russell was shot in July by a bullet that entered through near her bedroom window.
Sarah Delia
Denise Russell was shot in July by a bullet that entered through her bedroom window.

In Denise Russell's bedroom in her west Charlotte apartment, the 51-year-old pointed to the TV and dresser in front of her window. It might seem strange to block the room’s only source of natural light with furniture, but after what happened during the early hours of July 10, it makes sense to her.

"That particular night I heard something say 'boom!' And then when I woke up, it felt like my leg had exploded," she said. "Blood was everywhere. And thank God that I always have my phone and I was able to call 911 and tell them what happened."

While she was asleep, Russell was struck by a bullet shot through that bedroom window. According to the police report, the bullet was fired by a rifle. She said she spent five days in the hospital, and she still experiences pain from where the bullet entered her upper right thigh.

She pointed to her neatly made bed, which she says she no longer sleeps in.

51-year-old Denise Russell was shot in her upper right thigh when a bullet flew through her bedroom window. She describes herself a survivor, not a victim.
Sarah Delia
Denise Russell was shot in her upper right thigh when a bullet flew through her bedroom window in July.

These days, she sleeps on the couch in the living room.

Russell believes her apartment wasn’t targeted, but rather was the backdrop for a shooting between two groups of young people fighting outside.

"I'm thinking, maybe that particular night it occurred, it worked up to be an altercation," she said. "And they were shooting at each other... and then hit me. And then, you know, I had to put the police report up because every time I look at it, I'm like, who could have did this?"

Last year, there were 927 shootings into occupied properties in Charlotte, according to police. That's a 75% increase since 2018, when there were 530.

So far this year, there have been 729 shootings into occupied properties — which is on pace to meet or exceed last year’s total.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Maj. Ryan Butler, who oversees the Special Investigations Bureau, said these shootings have a certain level of social apathy that’s concerning.

"You're going to a structure, you don't necessarily know whether the person that you are in confrontation with is present, and you don't care who else may be present or not present," he said. "Which is why we end up with small children and innocent people hurt and killed in these situations."

Then there are the cases like Russell’s. There are situations, Butler said, where people are shooting at each other in a public area and someone’s home, apartment or hotel just happens be in the background.

"We get that in single-family residential communities, as well, where there's a target and either the house behind them gets struck or houses that are on either side get struck," Butler said.

Butler said these incidents are likely drug or gang related. In other cases, the shootings are connected to domestic issues.

"If you are dating somebody and you stop dating that person and you start dating a new person, they don't take it out on you — they come and take it out on the new person that you're dating who has not necessarily had any interaction with your old dating partner," he said. "And they'll come to their house and shoot their house or shoot their car."

Victims tend to be young and male, but he’s quick to point out that’s not always the case. These types of shootings happen all over. According to data from CMPD, from January 2021 to August 2021, there are clusters of shootings into occupied homes on the west side of the city.

Addresses used are for blocks, not actual street addresses. The data reflect the corporate limits of the city of Charlotte and the areas of unincorporated Mecklenburg County that CMPD patrols. These shootings include shots fired into buildings and cars. This data is from January through August 2021. We will update this map as new information is available.

Butler said that the pandemic has played a major role in the rise of these shootings. Factors like everything from court systems working at reduced capacities to schools being virtual last year creating less structure and accountability for students tofights on social media that spill into the real world play a part.

"During the pandemic, life as we knew it completely changed," he said. "I mean, this isn't a new problem. It's not like this wasn't a problem before. There's been greater awareness brought to the problem because the problem has increased."

Another contributing factor is the fact that more guns are on the streets, said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. His researchfocuses on gangs, violence and policing.

"Just last year, in 2020, Americans purchased a record 23 million guns," Densley said. "That's up 60-plus percent from 2019. And a lot of their sales are driven by first-time gun buyers. There’s just literally more guns on the streets."

Densley said gun-storage safety is also an issue. When guns aren’t stored properly, it creates an opportunity for people who shouldn't have firearms to have them — like minors.

"Young people, by virtue of their age, should not be in possession of firearms, but they can beg, borrow and steal them from their parents and from their friends and family members because they're not being stored safely," he said. "And that, in turn, creates the risk that these types of crimes would occur."

Every time a shooting happens, Densley said, it shakes the foundation of a community and adds to the trauma of that neighborhood. This is something Russell knows all too well. Just three months after she was shot, she struggles with survivor’s guilt. She points to the story of a 3-year-old boy who was shot and killed in September while he slept inside his home in northwest Charlotte. Police said 150 rounds of bullets were shot into the home that was occupied by 11 people.

"And when that baby died, it took me to another place all over again. Because I lived 51 years and he only lived to be 3, and I still feel guilty for that, because why him and not me?" she said through tears.

And then there’s the financial impact this has taken. Russell has been out of work since the shooting. Insurance has helped some, but she’s not sure how she’s going to continue to make rent.

"I'm still struggling," she said. "I'm like, OK, do I get my blood pressure medicine or do I buy me something to eat?"

When she can save again, she wants to buy a motion-activated camera to help monitor the activity on her street. Just last month, there was a homicide on her street. She remembers hearing four gunshots.

"But I froze because every time I hear a noise, especially a gunshot, I can't move. I'm stuck," she said. "And then the police officers were knocking on the door trying to see if we saw anything. And I'm like, 'Dang, only if you would have had something outside because there's so much activity to go on the street right here.'"

If she could afford it, she thinks she might move. But crime happens everywhere, and she doesn’t want to run away from her neighborhood.

Outside her apartment building, she pointed to the round hole where the bullet entered her bedroom. The property management has offered to repair the hole she said, but she told them to leave it.

If they fix it, she said, it would be like telling herself that it didn’t happen.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.