Fayetteville struggles to stem tide of youth gun violence
Posted June 29, 2014
Fayetteville, N.C. — In his Facebook pictures, Kire McNeil flashes gang symbols and shows off his ink.
"Fear no Evil" is tattooed in fancy cursive just below his neckline. Jewelry juts from his ears and under his mouth, his navel and an eyebrow. In one picture, he holds what appears to be a marijuana cigarette.
Kire is a 17-year-old Hope Mills resident with a winning smile and a rap sheet that now includes murder.
Fayetteville police have charged him and four others with killing Pamela Ann Coe, 40, and Isaiah Manuel Sampeur, 25, on Jan. 20 at the former Cambridge Arms apartment complex off McPherson Church Road.
The oldest person charged in the killings is 24; the youngest, 14.
The homicides were the first of the year in Fayetteville. More have followed. From Jan. 1 through June 22, nine people were murdered in the city - the same number as last year through this period.
While Fayetteville made large strides in reducing property crimes in the time period - Police Chief Harold Medlock said burglaries fell by about 30 percent - it continues to struggle to reduce the number of murders and aggravated assaults.
"Our youth crime and killings are totally out of control," Fayetteville City Council member Ted Mohn said.
For the past seven months, The Fayetteville Observer has traveled to other cities as part of "Seeking Safety," its yearlong project to find potential solutions to Fayetteville's crime problems by exploring what has been successful elsewhere.
The Observer stayed home this month, largely because when it comes to curbing the problems of guns and violence among young men, there is no definitive answer.
Fighting for solutions
Programs such as Operation Ceasefire, Project Safe Neighborhoods and Project Exile have made dents in homicide and violent crime rates in some communities, but no city can say it has stemmed the shootings.
The problem hit home in Fayetteville as recently as last week.
That's when 19-year-old Ravon Detrail Jordan died after being shot at a house party. Police say two rival groups showed up at the party and exchanged more than 70 rounds from "high-powered" pistols and a 12-gauge shotgun.
City Councilman Larry Wright, who lives in the Southgate community where the shootings broke out, said he went to the hospital to pray with Jordan's family before the teenager died.
"To lose his life and not even realize who he is or reaching any type of destiny - too many young people are dying of gunfire and violence," said Wright, a minister. "We as a community have to take our streets back."
Kire is being held in the Cumberland County Detention Center without bail. The reason he is there is illustrative of the culture of violence in the community.
Police say Kire was not the shooter, that another teenager pulled the trigger. But police say Kire was there, and that could make him just as guilty under North Carolina law. If he is convicted of first-degree murder, Kire could spend the rest of his life in prison.
An affidavit attached to a search warrant provides the details of the double homicide at Cambridge Arms, now called Barrington Place Apartments.
According to the affidavit: Coe's niece told Fayetteville police that an unknown young man knocked on the door and asked her boyfriend, Sampeur, if he had any marijuana.
Sampeur told the man no and shut the door. The same person returned a few moments later, talked to Sampeur briefly and then started shooting him and Coe.
Video surveillance showed people running and getting into a car with an Alabama license plate, which was traced to 24-year-old Michael Williams.
Police learned that Williams worked at Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel and paid him a visit. Williams was later charged with the murders, along with McNeil, Rashawn Javone Hill, 17, and Albert Jackson, 19. All four live within a half mile of each other off U.S. 301 near the Fayetteville city limits. A juvenile also was arrested.
A 'systematic problem'
Kire and the three other adults arrested with him are all young black men.
That's not unusual, in Fayetteville and across the country. Since the beginning of 2013, there have been 34 homicides in Fayetteville. Seventeen of the people charged in those killings were young - between 14 and 26. Of those 17, all but one is black.
Nationally, homicide has become the leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. For every young homicide victim, 126 others in the age bracket suffered nonfatal injuries, the report said.
Law enforcement and other officials in Fayetteville all paint the same portrait of the young people most likely to commit violent acts.
Generally, Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons said, they are young black men who were raised by a single parent and dropped out of high school. They grew up watching violence on television and don't fully understand the consequences of their actions until it is too late.
"We have got to do something to help kids make the right choices," Ammons said. "If I knew the answer to that, I'd share it with you and we'd both be rich."
Ammons, the chief resident judge for Cumberland County, hands out a stern lecture with his sentence when he has a young and violent offender before his bench. He said he doubts it does much good, but he cannot resist the outside chance of getting through.
The Rev. Mark Rowden has been working for months to bring together clergy to do something to stop the violence. The pastor of Savannah Missionary Baptist Church in the Cedar Creek community felt called to act after three murders in a span of just a few hours in late October. All three of the victims were young - a 26-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman killed outside Mickey's nightclub and a 19-year-old man shot to death in a Rosehill Road parking lot.
Rowden does not mince words when he talks about the source of the violence.
"It's a systemic problem in the black community," he said. "Let's stop making excuses."
Violence has roots in racism
Renowned criminologist David Kennedy, the architect of Operation Ceasefire programs that have been used to combat violence in cities across the country, argues that the culture of violence in poor black neighborhoods is deeply rooted in America's history of racism.
Kennedy published a book in 2012 called "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in America."
In it, Kennedy contends that racism has led to severe disadvantages in education and economic opportunities for many blacks. The result has been the inner-city flight of whites and better-off blacks, leaving behind neighborhoods of poverty, squalor and despair.
The problems in those neighborhoods have led to harsh policing tactics that have bred distrust of and contempt for police, Kennedy contends.
That divide of distrust between residents and police was visible in Fayetteville's Loch Lomond neighborhood on Oct. 13, the day a police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Shaquir McNair.
Police reports at the time said Officer Christopher Hunt had responded to a dispute in the neighborhood and was arresting a man. The man's mother reportedly ran up and hit the officer on the head. A struggle followed and a crowd gathered, police said. Police said Hunt ordered everyone to stay back, but Shaquir kept coming and was reaching for a gun in his waistband when Hunt shot him.
Distrust continues to be a problem in neighborhoods where Fayetteville police are working to build relationships.
Lt. Jim Nolette wrote an application last month seeking a $1 million grant that would be used solely to improve the B Street neighborhood downtown, which police have identified as among the four most troubled in the city.
Police have been concentrating efforts in the B Street area, but so far little progress appears to have been made. Residents at a community watch meeting June 17 continued to complain about the homeless, the prostitutes, the drug dealers, and the abandoned homes and overgrown lots in the neighborhood.
Nolette acknowledged those problems and said police are doing more to deal with them. But he said one of the biggest problems police face is residents' failure to report suspicious activity.
Gina Johnson, head of the neighborhood's community watch program, said there are two reasons that police are not getting the tips they need. Many residents fear retaliation from criminals. And many still don't trust the police.
Kennedy contends that if residents do not trust police - if they don't see them as genuinely working to make their neighborhoods better - the violence will continue.
"If you want real, lasting change, if you want the cops and the neighborhoods and the streets to really see each other, hear each other, trust each other, you have to face how where we are now is infused with racial history, racial understandings, racial misunderstandings," he writes.
Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, contends that the problem is not that cops are racist. He writes that he has ridden with police for more hours than he can count and never heard one make a racist remark.
But the history of discrimination that still contributes to diminished opportunities and expectations in many black neighborhoods is present in every encounter between police and residents.
"The racist history, the long trauma of black America, makes relations between cops and black neighborhoods especially jagged, especially hurtful, especially explosive," Kennedy writes.
Bridging the gap
Medlock has made it a goal to close that divide.
After decades as a cop and a deputy chief in Charlotte, Medlock took over as chief of the Fayetteville Police Department in February 2013.
Medlock preaches community-oriented policing, a philosophy in which residents work hand in hand with police to help report and solve crimes in their neighborhoods. To work effectively, police and residents have to fully understand and trust one another. Medlock estimates it will take 10 years of work to spread that understanding across Fayetteville.
Charlotte has been using community-oriented policing for decades. The city credits the philosophy - along with myriad programs using the latest technology - with cutting violent crime by 27 percent between 2003 and 2012.
Medlock said Fayetteville has one advantage over Charlotte: It does not have the same level of organized gang violence.
Although Fayetteville has gangs, Medlock said, much of the city's violence is caused by small groups of young people who battle with guns over minor disputes, often involving girls or perceived disrespect from other groups.
Medlock estimates that the city is dealing with 200 to 300 people who have a total disregard for human life. Sociopaths, he calls them.
"They don't understand what they are doing to someone else," Medlock said. "I don't think that's a mental illness. I think that's a mindset, and we need to deal with those folks."
If police could take 100 of them off the streets, he said, "our violent crime would drop substantially."
One of the ways Fayetteville police have been attempting to do that is through collaboration with federal prosecutors in Raleigh, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI, federal marshals and the county District Attorney's Office.
The partnership works to convict repeat violent offenders in federal court, which can impose much harsher penalties for gun crimes.
Last year, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina announced that a federal grand jury had indicted a dozen repeat violent criminals from the Fayetteville area.
It also said that seven others had been convicted and sentenced. The shortest sentence among the seven was 10 years; the longest, 32 years.
Police statistics show that since June 2009, the partnership has led to 201 Fayetteville area residents being tried in federal courts.
There is no way of knowing how many more crimes those people would have committed had they not been taken off the streets for a long time.
But others have stepped in to take their place.
Earlier this year, Fayetteville Observer photographer Cindy Burnham was standing at a crime scene when she saw a young man spill over the handlebars of his bicycle. She hurried toward him to help, then backed away when she saw the handgun that had fallen from his waistband.
The youth picked himself up and tucked his gun back into his pants. Just one more kid with a gun in a city filled with them.
Medlock said that so many young people in the city have guns - illegal guns - that they have practically become a fashion accessory.
A lot of those guns are stolen in home break-ins. Fayetteville had one of the highest property crime rates in the nation last year, although Medlock said the rate has been cut significantly by community policing efforts and other initiatives since he became chief.
Figures from the Police Department show that 2,603 guns were reported stolen in the city between 2010 and 2013, an average of more than two a day.
Another way guns get on Fayetteville's streets is through "straw'' purchases in which someone buys a gun for a person who has been prohibited from buying it himself, often because of a felony conviction.
The U.S. Supreme Court made that practice harder this month when it ruled that people must report when they are buying firearms for other people.
That could help, but Medlock said the city will never get rid of illegal guns altogether or totally stop young people from using them.
There are just too many guns on the streets to get them all, he said.
Signs of improvement
In most respects, violence in Fayetteville is not nearly as bad as it was with the emergence of crack cocaine in the 1980s and '90s.
Back then, gang members sold crack and other drugs openly on the city's streets. The gangs were familiar to police: the Murk Mob, Hollywood Heights Hustlers, Court Boys of Grove View Terrace, the Bronx Boys of Spring Lake, the Powder Boys of Bryan and Branson streets.
Violence peaked in 1993, when at least three people were murdered at Bryan and Branson streets, where dozens of young people used to congregate under a large tree to buy and sell drugs.
That year, Fayetteville and Cumberland County law enforcement agencies reported 61 murders - a record number.
That same year saw the creation of Cumberland County's Violent Crimes Task Force, a collaboration of federal, state and local prosecutors and law enforcement officers who refused to play games.
People caught with illegal guns or dealing in serious amounts of drugs were prosecuted federally.
Among the first to be sentenced was Norman Harrington Wilson, a leader of the Court Boys, which was believed to have sold $10 million worth of crack cocaine in Grove View Terrace over six years. Wilson received a life sentence without benefit of parole.
By January 1996, task force investigations had led to 91 indictments and 72 convictions. By 1998, the task force had taken down at least 35 members of Court Boys and 45 drug dealers from the Campbell Terrace housing project.
In 1998, murders countywide fell to 27, a 56 percent drop in five years.
It's hard to argue that the Violent Crimes Task Force was not largely responsible for closing down the so-called "open-air drug markets" and lowering the county's homicide rate.
But crime fighting, the drug trade and the culture of the criminal element have evolved in Fayetteville and other cities since those days.
"You can't arrest your way out of the problem," Sheriff Moose Butler is fond of saying.
In many cities, law enforcement and the judicial system are going after the most violent repeat criminals in federal courts and putting the rest on notice - we'll help you, but the violence must stop.
High Point and other cities claim success using variations of Kennedy's Operation Ceasefire, an initiative first used in Boston in 1996 to reduce youth gun violence. Chicago, which uses Ceasefire, has seen its homicide rate drop to its lowest level since the 1960s.
In Prince George's County, Maryland, a combination of community policing and a program called Project Exile - a well-defined approach to convict violent repeat offenders in federal courts - is credited with reducing homicides by 38 percent last year and violent crime by 30 percent.
Those and other strategies have helped the county reduce violent crime by 40 percent since 1993.
Even so, youths are still killing one another - in Chicago, Fayetteville and almost everywhere else. Chicago recorded 415 homicides last year.
Fayetteville is trying similar tactics with its collaborative work with federal agencies. And it is taking an innovative tack as well.
Police used a grant from the state to produce a 30-minute film about youth and guns, "Decision Points," that will be shown to students. About 8,600 students in seventh- and ninth-grade health classes throughout the county will see it.
The intent is to make an impression about the trauma that gun violence can create and steer kids away from it.
Medlock said he attended a conference in San Francisco this month in which dealing with youth violence was the primary concern of everyone there.
The point was driven home again last week.
During his news conference announcing Jordan's death in the shootout in Southgate, Medlock acknowledged his anger and urged parents to keep a better eye on their children.
"Thank God more of these young people were not injured, killed or shot yesterday morning because of the actions of a few idiots in our city carrying weapons," he said.
This article is reposted with permission of the The Fayetteville Observer, a media partner with WRAL News. Observer staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3525.