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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Homicide Rate Remains Low, But Some Neighborhoods Struggle

Todd Sumlin
Charlotte Observer

Despite an uptick in 2013, the number of homicides in Charlotte-Mecklenburg remained near historic lows. But some neighborhoods continued to struggle with the violence that has plagued them for decades.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigated 58 homicides in 2013, six more than in 2012. Taken together, however, the last five years reflect a sustained decrease in killings.

Four homicides occurred within a block of each other along West Boulevard, near a former housing project notorious for crime.

One of the four victims was 19-year-old Ondrea Stevenson, who was 13 weeks pregnant when she was killed in December as she slept in the living room of an apartment. Neighbors said she may have been an innocent bystander.

Her father, Quincy Stevenson, said her death was especially painful over the holidays.

“She was like a little piece of sunshine,” he said. “She could make the best situation out of the worst situation. ... We definitely have had an absence in our lives. It’s a hell of a void.”

The cluster of homicides was just a half-mile away from the home of Judy Williams, the founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring, who led a balloon release on Wednesday for family members of homicide victims. For two decades, she’s organized candlelight memorials after killings.

She said the westside killings are troubling but pointed out that homicides have declined compared with previous years. Her group, founded in 1993 when the city saw 122 homicides, has conducted fewer antiviolence memorials near West Boulevard than in past years, she said. Violence on the west side peaked in the mid-1990s, she said, and has declined since then.

“In comparison to what used to go on out here on the westside of Charlotte, four is still a lot better than it used to be,” she said. “I like to think we’re making strides.”

Across Charlotte, on the east side, six homicides occurred within a block of Albemarle Road, in an area that police have long defined as a crime hotspot. In 2012, there were three homicides along that stretch. In 2011, there were four.

Eleven of the city’s homicides – or nearly 1 in 5 – happened in CMPD’s Metro Division, a 13.3-square mile cluster of poor and working-class neighborhoods in northwest Charlotte that battle drug traffic, gun violence and gangs. In 2012, the Metro Division accounted for the same ratio.

The Hickory Grove division in east Charlotte had nine homicides in 2013. Chief Rodney Monroe said the department has focused its resources on that division – particularly the area where six homicides were clustered. Police have long said that a transient population of mostly apartment dwellers has made it hard to make the sort of inroads inside the community that bring down crime over time.

Despite the high number of homicides, Monroe said the area had the greatest overall crime reduction of any division. Officers, he said, have “put a lot of work into reaching out to the Hispanic community. They’ve put up a couple cameras there. And that’s where we put our latest edition of ShotSpotter.” He was referring to an gunshot detection system that quickly notifies police.

The center city saw one homicide in 2013. And an area of south Charlotte extending from South Boulevard to Independence Boulevard had no killings.

Changing tactics

In the last five years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has averaged 56 homicides. In the five years prior to that, it averaged 77.

Police say several tactics have helped lower the number of killings, including an increase in the number of patrol officers and a stepped-up effort by police and prosecutors to arrest habitual criminals and secure tougher sentences.

“If someone is out in the community committing violent crimes and using weapons in the commission of those crimes, we want that person off our streets – not only for the sake of justice but for the protection of people’s lives,” District Attorney Andrew Murray said in a statement.

Police may also be benefiting from larger nationwide crime trends, like a decades-long decline in violent crime across the United States and a decrease in the number of crimes associated with crack cocaine.

Improved emergency room care can also be a factor, experts say. That gives victims a better chance of surviving otherwise fatal wounds.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have also closed 80 percent of the homicide cases they’ve investigated this year by making an arrest or otherwise identifying a suspect.

Monroe said that in the last five years, the department has brought more intensity to the first 24 hours of every homicide investigation. Investigators who specialize in gangs and narcotics typically converge on homicide scenes, as do several of the department’s highest ranking officers.

“Detectives work that case 24 hours continuously until they’ve followed every lead,” he said. “They don’t wait until tomorrow.”

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon said that closing most homicide cases may be a deterrent in itself – sending a message that people who kill will be caught.

“Seemingly across the board, people are asking themselves the question: ‘Do I really want to throw my life away by partaking in an activity that may cause me to do some time?’ ” Cannon said.

Monroe also credited community support with helping to catch killers. In the last five years, 35 tips called into the Crime Stoppers hotline have led directly to an arrest in a homicide. In the five years before that, 11 resulted in arrests.

Quincy Stevenson said the fact that his daughter’s killer remains at large still tugs at him. He feels the likelihood of bringing the shooter to justice decreases as time goes on.

“The police, they’re saying that they’re doing all they can, but I’m a little concerned with the information they might be getting ... because basically people don’t talk to the police,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they’re getting the runaround.”

Homicide trends

The year’s oldest homicide victim was 88-year-old Dorothy Gregg, whom neighbors often saw gardening behind her home near Tuckaseegee Road. Police say she was killed by a neighbor who broke into her house in June. The youngest victim, just 7 months old, was Kamdyn Barnell Johnson. His 11-year-old brother has been charged in connection with his death, and their mother has been charged with felony child abuse.

Among the trends in 2013’s homicides:

• Police say six homicides were directly linked to the sale of small, personal-use amounts of marijuana.

“We’re talking about somebody spending as little as $5 and a case ending in a homicide,” said Homicide Capt. Cecil Brisbon.

Another four homicides were tied to other drug-related crimes.

• A troubling trend continued in 2013 – African-Americans, especially young black males, made up a disproportionately large number of homicide victims. Blacks make up 35 percent of the population of the city of Charlotte, but accounted for more than 78 percent of homicide victims. Roughly two of every three homicide victims was a black male.

• Seven of the victims were teens or children, the same number of young people killed in 2012. And three were younger than 2 years old. In each case, a caretaker was arrested in connection with the killing.

• Charlotte saw a drop in the number of domestic violence-related homicides. In 2013, Mecklenburg saw three such homicides, down from seven in 2012. Over the past decade, the county has averaged more than seven such killings.

Mike Sexton, a spokesman for the Mecklenburg County Women’s Commission, said the drop may be the result of better tactics by police and victims’ advocates. For example, since November 2012, police have routinely asked victims questions from a checklist when responding to a domestic violence call.

If an officer feels a victim is in danger, he can call a 24-hour hotline to help connect victims to services, Sexton said.

“If there’s a firearm in the house or the victim has been threatened with a firearm, those would immediately raise a flag,” Sexton said.