How one city in NC cut violent crime by 60 percent
Posted December 22, 2013
High Point, N.C. — The Rev. Jim Summey was fed up. On his way to church in 1995, Summey counted 13 prostitutes standing on the sidewalk within three blocks of his English Road Baptist Church.
The prostitutes were not seeking salvation. They had become a scourge of the West End neighborhood, along with the drug dealers who occupied the street corners.
"It was tough back then, really tough," said Eddie McInnis Sr., who has lived in West End for 22 years.
Sitting on his front porch, McInnis pointed to two empty lots where crack houses once stood, making him fearful to go outside at night.
"The neighborhood is like 100 percent better compared to what it was 20 years ago," McInnis said.
The Fayetteville Observer traveled to High Point last month to see firsthand how its innovative strategies – combining prevention, intervention, community support and zero tolerance for violent criminals – have helped clean up neighborhoods and substantially reduce violence.
The Observer also went to Chattanooga, Tenn., to look at how that city is preparing to put High Point's methods into effect by early next year.
The examination of what other cities are doing is part of "Seeking Safety," a yearlong project by the Observer that aims to find potential solutions for the crime problems that have become a top-of-the-agenda issue in Fayetteville.
High Point and Chattanooga are similar to Fayetteville - and most other midsize cities - in that they have pockets of poverty and neglect where many of the violent crimes occur.
In High Point, police tried everything they could think of to rid West End of the street-corner drug dealers and crack houses that scarred the neighborhood, Police Chief Marty Sumner said.
"We arrested everybody we could every month," Sumner said. "Sting operations didn't change a thing."
Within days of a sting, he said, the drug dealers were either back on the streets or replaced by others.
That began to change in 2004, when High Point reconfigured a successful crime-fighting initiative called Operation Ceasefire that it had been using since 1997 to combat gun violence.
Operation Ceasefire is the brainchild of criminologist David Kennedy, now director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Operation Ceasefire's pioneer project was in Boston, aimed at cutting murders by young people. It started in 1996, and over the next two years brought about a sharp decrease in violent crime.
Hoping to replicate that success, Kennedy brought Ceasefire to High Point, which had one of the highest violent crime rates in North Carolina at the time.
Three years later, statistics from the State Bureau of Investigation show, violent crimes in High Point had fallen from 949 to 739 – a 22 percent decrease.
So successful were the results that High Point decided to branch out - using the core principles of Operation Ceasefire to go after street-level drug dealers.
Again, the results were notable.
Overall, crime in the West End neighborhood has fallen 26.2 percent since the initiative began in 2004, while violent crime has dropped 57 percent, according to statistics from the High Point Police Department.
The criminals targeted by police did not just move elsewhere, Sumner said. Most of them stopped committing crimes.
High Point has since used the initiative to substantially reduce crime in four other neighborhoods. The city has also used it to target gang violence, robberies and domestic violence.
"It's a complete victory every day," said Summey. "We don't have the violence."
Summey is still a minister, but he also serves as executive director of a core component of the program, High Point Community Against Violence.
Since High Point began Operation Ceasefire in 1997, the number of violent crimes has fallen 42 percent citywide, according to SBI statistics. In that same period, violent crime in Fayetteville has increased 34 percent.
Taking into account population changes provides a clearer comparison. Fayetteville's violent crime rate – the number of crimes per 100,000 people – has fallen by 27 percent since 1997. That reflects a national trend that has seen the overall violent crime rate in the country drop by 36 percent.
In High Point, meanwhile, violent crime has dropped by 60 percent over the same time period.
High Point police refer to the corner of West English Road and Kennedy Avenue as ground central.
No place in the city had more drug dealing, prostitution and violence than that intersection, which falls in the shadow of Summey's church.
Summey became so incensed by the crime that he fired off letter after letter to city officials and police. Nothing ever changed.
Summey said he didn't think the police cared until he stumbled onto something: City officials and community leaders were holding meetings to discuss the drug problems in West End.
In early 2004, at one of the first meetings Summey attended, High Point's new police chief at the time made a startling admission: If we failed you with our aggressive policing, Chief Jim Fealey told the gathering, it was not intentional. Summey said Fealey then told residents about a new strategy police were going to try against the drug dealers.
Fealey asked the neighborhood to join police. The residents – long distrustful of law enforcement - were so fed up with crime in their neighborhood that they jumped at the offer, Summey said.
Under Kennedy's direction, High Point began using computer analysis, audio and video equipment, and undercover detectives to build cases against the biggest drug dealers in West End.
Charlie Simpson, who owns a radiator repair shop at the intersection, remembers those days.
"Police would sit in here and take pictures," Simpson said.
In about three months, police had identified and built cases against 16 drug dealers, enough to send them to prison for years.
Because of their penchant for violence, four of those dealers were prosecuted swiftly and severely, partly to serve as an example for the other 12.
The remaining dealers were asked to attend a "call-in" on May 18, 2004, at police headquarters.
Nine of the 12 showed up. They were confronted by family members, clergy and community leaders, along with police and state and federal prosecutors.
The message from community members was clear: We are sick of your criminal behavior and we won't tolerate it anymore. We want to help you, but the drug dealing must stop first.
The message from police and prosecutors was equally clear: We have enough evidence to arrest you now, but we're willing to give you a one-time pass. Get in trouble with the law again, and we will punish you to the fullest extent possible, including using federal prosecutors to ensure the harshest sentence possible and fast-tracking your case through the courts.
In the past, Kennedy said, drug dealers knew they would not face significant jail time if they got caught. There was little incentive to stop selling drugs. Under the new initiative, Kennedy said, the dealers were in for a rude awakening.
As the call-in concluded, the nine dealers were given three days to quit their drug activities.
"Open-air drug dealing seemed to vanish overnight in the West End neighborhood,'' concluded a 2010 study by Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice.
The neighborhood remains troubled. Despite efforts by the city, Habitat for Humanity and federal programs to build houses and raze neglected structures, West End remains a poor and dilapidated community.
But residents say it is far better – and safer – than it used to be. They say they are no longer afraid to sit on their porches or grill in their backyards.
Simpson, the radiator repair shop owner, tells horror stories about the old days. From his window, Simpson said, he watched prostitutes get out of cars bloody and beaten. He said he saw drug dealers trying to tempt children on their way home from school and thugs knocking people off their bicycles. Hearing gunshots was routine.
"It's not perfect by no means," Simpson said. "But it's a whole lot better."
High Point's initiative is just one example of so-called focused deterrence strategies that have proved effective at reducing violent crime in dozens of cities across the country. These programs target a specific problem or neighborhood and pour resources – from the police and the community – into attacking it.
A 2012 study by criminologists Anthony Braga and David Weisburd found that nine of 10 cities using the approach had "statistically significant reductions in crime."
In North Carolina, statistics provided by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro show, 10 cities or counties using the methods have seen violent crime rates decline, including by 51.5 percent in Greensboro and by 46.7 percent in Winston-Salem.
Kennedy, who has been working to reduce crime for more than 20 years, acknowledges that the initiatives have failed in some cities.
Police cannot simply tell the criminals to stop what they are doing, Kennedy said. He said the formula for success is a sustained commitment on the part of police, the community and the multitude of other partners involved. High Point, he said, is one of the best examples of how it is being done right.
Sumner, the High Point police chief, said each step of the process must be followed exactly as prescribed, from the identification of criminals, to the call-ins, to the support offered and the continual follow-up. Leave out one step, he said, and the process is likely to fail.
Kennedy said officials often ask if his initiatives will work in their cities.
"The 'will it work here' question? It's over," he said. "We're done with that. The question that really matters is how serious is this community about doing it right.''
Fayetteville has been using the Ceasefire initiative since 2002 in an effort to reduce gangs and gun violence. Two or three times a year, police, prosecutors and community leaders hold a call-in.
But the Fayetteville program has not had the same commitment to follow-up as the High Point program.
Fayetteville's Ceasefire has struggled under a revolving door of leadership – six coordinators in 11 years. Lisa Jayne, the current coordinator, held the position once before. Ceasefire was inactive all of last year.
Those issues could help explain why half of the 282 people who have gone through a Fayetteville call-in since 2007 have returned to prison. By comparison, the rate of people slipping back into crime in High Point is about 10 percent, Sumner said.
In High Point, the call-in is just one step in the process. Summey and High Point Community Against Violence ensure that call-in participants requesting assistance get it, whether it's food, rent, utilities, education opportunities, jobs or just somebody to lend encouragement and support.
The nonprofit organization operates on a shoe-string budget of $47,000 a year to make referrals for more than 2,000 clients, Summey said. The money comes from a High Point foundation and private donations.
While Summey's group provides help, High Point police and the city's Violent Crime Task Force aggressively track the people who have been through the call-ins.
Sumner has designated one officer to be in charge of ensuring that anyone who goes through a call-in is paid a personal police visit whenever a fellow participant commits a violent crime.
Others associated with known criminals are handed what police refer to as custom notification letters outlining their past behavior and the harsh punishment they will face if they commit more crime.
"You don't have any choice but to be under the microscope and risk special prosecution," Sumner said.
That proactive strategy, Sumner and police Lt. Kenny Martin said, drives home the message that police are on high alert.
Residents are also part of the process, serving as extra eyes and ears for police.
"This is most effective when the community involvement is high and the level of trust is high," Sumner said. "If you have a lack of community trust, none of this is going to work or be sustained at those levels."
In Fayetteville, the Ceasefire program offers resources to call-in participants, but police say they do not notify participants when someone in the group commits a violent crime.
In High Point, Summey said, police not only notify the other participants, community activists knock on doors and blanket neighborhoods with fliers to let people know of an arrest.
Fayetteville police Lt. Mark Geske with the department's Major Crimes Division has oversight of the Ceasefire program. He acknowledges that it could be strengthened.
"This is a program, and I think what (High Point) is running is a focused-deterrence philosophy. That's all that they do," Geske said. "I think we are slowly getting there."
Jayne, the Ceasefire coordinator, seemed doubtful that Fayetteville could one day duplicate High Point's success.
"We're not High Point," she said. "Our community, having a large military population here, a transient population, being right off (Interstate) 95 ... I think High Point is doing great, but we can't implement exactly what High Point is doing here."
Harold Medlock, Fayetteville's new police chief, is open to learning from High Point's program but does not see it as a cure-all.
"If they are convinced that that is helping them, I am going to go look at it," he said. "I'm going to tell you right now that I'm not afraid to borrow, steal anybody else's ideas if we can reduce crime in this city."
But Medlock said he does not favor the path chosen by Chattanooga, which agreed in October to pay Kennedy $240,000 to bring the High Point initiative to that city.
"Not at the cost of other things that need to be done before we get there," Medlock said. "It's a lot of money for a consultant for a city our size."
There are less expensive alternatives to beef up the Ceasefire program.
UNC-Greensboro has been working on focused deterrence initiatives throughout the state since High Point hired Kennedy in 1997.
Terri Shelton, UNCG's vice chancellor for research and economic development, said university researchers could help Fayetteville analyze and map violent crime problems to determine where to focus its initiative, provide guidance and education, and help ensure that the work to reduce crime is sustained.
Shelton said the work could be done at cost - roughly between $50,000 and $75,000. Other cities have gotten grants to pay the fees.
Medlock is urging patience.
"The community has to give me a chance to show that what we are doing is working," he said.
After becoming police chief in February, one of the first things Medlock did was to carve three police districts out of two. From those, he created nine geographic sectors and named lieutenants to head each one. By creating small patrol zones, Medlock believes, commanders and officers will become better known in the neighborhoods they serve and more capable of fighting crime and responding to residents' needs.
Fayetteville police have touted the virtues of community policing for years. Medlock is trying to take the concept to the next level.
Every Wednesday, the sector lieutenants, district captains and others attend a police focus meeting to discuss what happened in their sectors the previous week and what they plan to do in the week ahead. The lieutenants had better come prepared, Medlock said.
At a focus meeting on Dec. 11, Medlock pressed each lieutenant on the crime in his sector, sometimes offering nontraditional, proactive suggestions. In one case, the chief directed officers to meet with the parents of several teenagers suspected of an escalating number of crimes.
Assistant Police Chief Charles Kimble, who has been with the department since 1995, believes Medlock's approach is more effective than those of the past.
"We are not just reviewing crime, kind of what we did before," Kimble said. "We are reviewing, and we are anticipating and we're looking for trends, and, more importantly, we are looking at what we are going to do for the next seven days, for the future."
Although the new system has been in place only since July, Medlock is certain it is working. He says about 700 fewer home break-ins have been reported so far this year compared with the same period in 2012. Total crime – violent and property crimes combined – is down 4 percent, he said, although violent crime is up by 2.3 percent and robberies, by 9.6 percent.
Medlock acknowledged the failures of some of the department's past initiatives. In the past few years, police concentrated on some of Fayetteville's most crime-ridden neighborhoods - Bonnie Doone, Murchison Road at Jasper Street, Bunce Road, B Street and others.
In operations like the stings in High Point's West End neighborhood, Fayetteville police would clear out the criminals, only to see them return after the officers left.
The difference now, Medlock said, is that police are not going away. He pointed to Jasper Street as an example.
"It's just not an issue right now because we are giving that area particular attention," he said.
Sumner, the High Point chief, said that if police properly stabilize a neighborhood, the residents will ensure that it stays that way.
"That's where the community trust comes in," he said. "Once they see things better, they won't let it go back the way it was."
Dorothy Joel, who owns a hair salon at Jasper Street and Murchison Road, said she has seen a stepped-up police presence, especially at night. Joel said it has reduced the number of people milling around.
"What I would like to see is more beautification, but one step at a time is better than none," she said. "It has improved some."
Medlock said he is exploring other ways to reduce crime in Fayetteville.
Among them, he said, is an initiative that analyzes social networks to help map the relationships among Chicago's most active gang members and then ranks them on their likelihood of being murdered or committing murder. Chicago officers then use that information to hand-deliver letters to the gang members in an attempt to head off violence.
Kennedy said he and other criminologists have been working on the Chicago initiative for years. In the past year, he said, a combination of programs has begun to show results. The city's homicide rate, which had been the highest in the country, is nearing levels not seen since the 1960s, he said.
"If Chicago can make it work then there isn't any place in the country that can't make it work," Kennedy said.
Although encouraged by such initiatives, Medlock cautioned that he does not believe there is a "silver bullet" that will solve all of Fayetteville's crime problems.
Medlock said the city needs more programs for troubled kids, including mentoring, recreation and programs designed to better educate children and steer them away from crime.
"I think that Ceasefire is a great program, but I don't think it's the end-all," Medlock said. "I don't know of any program that is going to provide this city with an overnight answer."
In his inauguration speech this month, new Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson pledged to fight crime and gave Medlock a ringing endorsement, calling him "the right man for the job."
A couple of days later, Robertson said he had just met with the City Council, which has four new members and one member returning after a two-year absence.
"Every single one said crime is our number one problem," Robertson said. "If this council cannot come together and focus on this one common issue, I'd be very, very surprised because we are tunnel-visioned right now.
"We can do it if this is what we want to do. But it's going to take buy-in and it's going to take ownership, and we've got that. This didn't happen overnight, it didn't happen last year. We'll have to dig out of a hole, but we'll get there."
Robertson said he wants to hold quarterly crime summits with judges, law enforcement officials, prosecutors and others to discuss crime and find solutions.
He said he has not explored any possible solutions on his own.
"I'm not the criminal justice major," Robertson said. "I'm depending on our staff, our professional staff, and our police chief to bring the solutions to the table."
But he vowed that changes are coming. City leadership seems poised to give Medlock additional resources to continue a path of community policing that is showing signs of reducing crime in some areas, especially home break-ins.
Medlock and City Manager Ted Voorhees have hinted that the city will be hiring more police officers early next year. According to FBI statistics, Fayetteville had 361 uniformed officers in 2012, compared with 537 in Durham and 547 in Winston-Salem. Fayetteville's population is slightly smaller than those cities.
Fayetteville leaders say the key to the city's economic development is reducing its crime rate.
"We can't create jobs without a handle on crime," Councilman Bill Crisp said.
The faith community seems poised to help. In November, preachers from black churches held a rally calling for an end to violence.
The preachers vowed to establish a crisis hotline, host youth rallies, provide educational opportunities and set aside a day in which young people will be given incentives to turn in their guns.
Since then, the preachers who organized the rally have met with Medlock and gotten predominantly white churches to join their effort to stop violence, including Village Baptist Church and Berean Baptist Church.
On Wednesday, rally organizers met with Medlock, Robertson, District Attorney Billy West, schools Superintendent Frank Till Jr., Councilman Crisp and others to continue the momentum.
Among the new ideas from that meeting: developing a list of all preachers in the city and urging their involvement; helping people with felony records get jobs; re-establishing a boot camp for at-risk youth; and using a vacant fire station on Rosehill Road as a stop-the-violence center.
But perhaps the biggest recommendation was to devise a way in which everyone with a stake in ending violence pool resources and start working together.
"What we are doing right now is more than 50 different things so nothing is aligned with a common goal," said Tim Kinlaw, an associate superintendent of Cumberland County schools. "Everybody has the same objective, but there is not a common goal of how to achieve that.
"Right now, we are all doing our own thing."
Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3525.