These were some of the Charlotte area's most important crime and justice stories of 2021
Stories involving crime, the criminal justice system and the courts are some of the hardest to tell. But public safety impacts us all. Our reporters focused on telling the stories of survivors, of aggrieved and hurting families, of public hazards and of both the shortcomings and successes of public institutions. Here are some of the most impactful stories from the Charlotte area in 2021, as told by WFAE journalists.
In the woods: ‘A part of myself died here and will always be here,’ former Myers Park student says
WFAE’s Sarah Delia has been following accusations of sexual assault — and the fallout over how those accusations were handled — at Charlotte’s Myers Park High for much of the year. Eventually, the school’s longtime principal was reassigned amid the furor, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston formed a Title IX task force and the district hired more investigators to review student sexual assault claims. In July, Delia talked to a former Myers Park student who recounted an assault in the woods behind the school in 2013.
One year after the Beatties Ford Road mass shooting: more questions, no closure
June 22 marked one year since four people were killed and several others wounded in a mass shooting at a Charlotte block party. To date, no arrests have been made. In June, Delia went back to Beatties Ford Road, where the shooting happened and talked to people who were there that night. She also heard from one of the victim’s fathers, a member of City Council and a local artist about how the area and the families of those who were killed are trying to heal.
Bodycam footage in North Carolina is not public record, but some lawmakers say that needs to change
One of the biggest stories in North Carolina this year was the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. by sheriff’s deputies in coastal Elizabeth City. Though far from Charlotte, the news reverberated here — and even across the U.S. Ultimately, the local prosecutor decided not to press charges against the deputies who killed Brown. Law enforcement body camera footage — and how and when it would be released to Brown’s family members and the public — was a huge part of the case. Delia looked into North Carolina’s laws around bodycam footage and why there’s a push by some to change them.
How does CTE affect brains? One expert says it’s a ‘public health problem’
In April, a mass shooting shocked the greater Charlotte community. Sheriff’s deputies accuse former NFL player Phillip Adams of gunning down six people, including two young children, before killing himself, near Rock Hill, South Carolina. In December, a neurologist said Adams suffered from severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — a type of brain damage associated with football and other high-impact activities that can lead to aggression and paranoia. Adams’ diagnosis was widely suspected months before it was confirmed, and in April, Delia talked to the CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which is dedicated to CTE research and education.
The Proud Boys are a city problem, a Charlotte gang expert says
Nationwide, the biggest crime story of the year happened in January, when extremists attacked the U.S. Capitol. The Proud Boys were one of the extremist groups that came under the spotlight for their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. So people were on edge when some members of the Proud Boys gathered at a Charlotte sports bar later that same month — especially since they’re labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Delia talked to a gang expert at UNC Charlotte about the organization, which has ties to white supremacy.
Charlotte feels the impact as shootings into occupied properties rise
Charlotte has had a major problem this year with young people accessing guns and, in some cases, using them to harm each other. That’s been apparent in recent months in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where an effort is underway to bolster safety measures after a record number of firearms were found on school property. In September, the problem came into gut-wrenching focus when a toddler was slain — the second of two juveniles killed in just three days — after shots were fired into the home where he was sleeping. In general, that kind of crime — the senseless firing of shots into occupied dwellings — is on the rise in Charlotte. Delia talked to police and survivors about the growing problem in October.
Charlotte City Council discusses traffic death but ignores a big drop in speeding enforcement
The Charlotte City Council has a bold goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries in the city by 2030. But there have been dozens of traffic deaths in Charlotte this year alone. And the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has been writing far fewer traffic citations than it did in the past, WFAE’s Steve Harrison reported in October after City Council members discussed Charlotte’s Vision Zero pledge.
Police pullback: How arrests and citations plummeted in Charlotte
Speaking of CMPD, the number of people arrested by the department’s officers dropped by half over the last decade — even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The number of citations written also dropped as well, from 97,000 in 2009 to 33,000 in 2020. What's behind the drop? Steve Harrison reported in May that several factors are contributing to the decline, including a change in law enforcement strategy.
Many North Carolina schools don’t track interactions with police
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that school policing disproportionately affects students with disabilities, Black children and, in some states, Native American and Latino children. In September, WFAE’s Marshall Terry interviewed the Center’s Corey Mitchell, the lead reporter on that story. And WFAE’s Lisa Worf took a look at how many North Carolina schools don’t even track the number of students they refer to police. You can read more — and search databases of referrals in the Charlotte area — here.
In North Carolina, asset forfeiture creates ‘perverse incentive for police to profit’
Across North Carolina, police seize millions of dollars in cash and other assets from citizens on the mere suspicion it came from criminal activity. Experts say the state actually has strong laws to protect citizens. But a gaping loophole allows law enforcement across the state to circumvent those state laws, WFAE’s David Boraks and WUNC’s Jason deBruyn reported in June. And the reporters took a close look at a particular case in Mooresville in which people whose money was seized took police to court.
NC prison system delivers copies of mailed letters to cut down on drugs
Inmates in North Carolina prisons no longer receive actual letters penned by friends and loved ones. Since October, they’ve been receiving copies of those letters. It’s a change state prison officials say they made to help reduce the amount of drugs entering facilities, Lisa Worf reported.
You can read all of WFAE’s crime and justice stories here.