In Fayetteville, fighting crime is community-wide concern
Posted November 17, 2013
Fayetteville, N.C. — Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock was exasperated.
The day before — on Halloween — 19-year-old Dontez Woods had died of a gunshot wound during a robbery attempt. A few hours later, Cornelius Jackson, 26, and Melissa Neal, 24, were shot to death outside a Fayetteville strip club.
Three murders in five hours is far from normal for Fayetteville. But the night of violence did add weight to a growing perception: Fayetteville is a city under siege, a place where crime is out of control.
“If you sense the frustration in my voice, it’s because I am frustrated,” Medlock told reporters hours after the killings.
Community forums and City Council campaigns indicate that many Fayetteville residents also are frustrated. And frightened.
Bryan Tyson became a Fayetteville crime statistic on Nov. 5 when he was severely beaten by two men wearing ski masks and hoodies who were attempting to rob him at gunpoint.
“You can bet on one thing: When I have the opportunity, I’m leaving this town, and I grew up here,” said Tyson, who is 56. “There is no pride in Fayetteville, North Carolina, anymore. You’re not safe to walk the streets. You’re not safe to go in your backyard. You’re not safe to go into a store. You’re just not safe in this town anymore.”
The numbers tell part of the crime story. Twenty-four homicides have been reported in the city this year, eclipsing the total for all of 2012. Violent crime increased nearly 13 percent last year, and there are no signs of it letting up.
When it comes to property crime — mostly burglaries and larcenies — Fayetteville ranks among the country’s worst cities with a population of more than 100,000. According to FBI statistics, Fayetteville’s property crime rate is 14th in the nation among almost 300 big cities.
Crime is not a new problem. It isn’t even a lot worse than it has been historically. Fayetteville has struggled with higher crime rates than the rest of the state and much of the rest of the country for decades.
Police and others point to the same list of problems that have contributed: drug abuse, a high poverty rate, transient residents, blighted neighborhoods, and too few resources to battle crime and give teenagers constructive opportunities.
But something is different lately about the way Fayetteville residents see the crime. More people are demanding that something be done.
They are like Tyson, the man who was attacked at gunpoint. They are scared. Or fed up with the lack of progress on the problem. Or both.
In the just-completed City Council election, every candidate pledged to address crime. The city brought in Medlock as police chief in February with the expectation that he will chart a new course against crime.
The crime problem is not confined to Fayetteville’s poorest neighborhoods. City Councilman Bill Crisp lives near Jack Britt High School in a neighborhood with homes valued at more than $250,000. Crisp said he has begun sleeping with a pistol in his nightstand, and he leaves the floodlights on all night in his backyard.
“I don’t like living like this,” he said.
In August, the council approved Crisp’s proposal to form a task force to study the crime problems and ways to solve them. That task force has not yet been created.
Crisp said he realizes it will take far more than a task force to chip away at the city’s crime. It will, he said, take unity.
“We’ve got to self-deputize,” he said. “Every citizen has to understand that he or she has an important stake in this. Our economy and our livelihood are at stake.
“We’ve got to clean up Fayetteville, or we can’t survive.”
Fayetteville is not the most violent big city in North Carolina. Durham, for instance, which has a slightly larger population, had about the same number of murders and rapes last year, significantly more robberies and almost double the number of aggravated assaults as Fayetteville.
The difference, according to State Bureau of Investigation statistics, is that Durham’s overall crime rate — violent crimes and property crimes combined — dropped 8 percent last year, while Fayetteville’s increased 2 percent. Fayetteville’s overall rate was higher than any other city in North Carolina in 2012.
And while violent crime gets the headlines, property crime touches many more lives. According to the FBI, there were 13,166 reports of property crime in Fayetteville last year — about one incident for every 16 people.
Few people know more about Fayetteville’s crime problems than Dr. Robin Jenkins, who served as deputy director of the state Department of Public Safety’s Division of Juvenile Justice before leaving office this summer.
Jenkins, who is from Fayetteville, was instrumental in the 1990s in establishing and directing the forward-thinking Communicare, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk children and their families. Jenkins has was chairman of the National Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and he worked with children for Cumberland County Mental Health for nearly 14 years.
Jenkins says there is no better time than now for the city to unite in a fight against crime.
“I refuse to accept that we can’t do this,” Jenkins said. “I have been doing this for 33 years, and I’m telling you that if we accept the apathy, the hopelessness that comes with this issue, it will rule our lives. We have to be bigger than this, we have to be better than this, and we have to be more creative in our thinking.”
Part of that creative thinking involves the recognition — expressed clearly in Crisp’s call for unity of effort — that the search for solutions has to extend beyond the Police Department.
In more than two dozen interviews with police, government officials and residents, one theme was clear: Everyone has a potential role in reducing crime in Fayetteville. The list of necessary components includes the court system, the District Attorney’s Office, elected officials, schools, churches, nonprofit organizations, neighborhood watch groups, families and individuals.
Most of those interviewed also talked about the difficulty of getting enough organizations and people involved. Or about a failure to work together to improve existing crime-fighting strategies and introduce ideas that have proved successful elsewhere.
“Sometimes, we continue to work in silos because we continue to work on immediate needs,” said Sarah Hallock, director of Communicare.
City officials and police are working to tie their efforts more closely together. Some initiatives have been introduced, and others are in the works, officials say.
Shortly after Medlock became police chief, he reorganized the department, carving two police districts into three and naming commanders for each of nine geographic sectors. The thinking: By shrinking the area that officers patrol, they will become more familiar, accessible and accountable to residents in each neighborhood.
Medlock wants residents to know his officers, believing that crime can be curbed if people are comfortable reporting suspicious activity. At a Nov. 7 forum, Medlock said the number of home break-ins in the city fell by 600 from January through October, compared with the same period in 2012. He credited vigilant residents and an increased police presence in neighborhoods for the reduction.
Meanwhile, city officials are about to unveil a “community investment team” that will hold meetings in each of the three police districts to hear from residents about problems under the city’s control, such as overgrown yards and dilapidated homes, City Manager Ted Voorhees said.
“The idea is to be more responsive, more engaged,” Voorhees said.
Next month, police and the court system expect to start a program in which some people who have been charged with crimes repeatedly will be monitored by electronic ankle bracelets as a condition of their pretrial release from jail. That program, along with the soon-to-be-completed addition of 322 beds to the county jail, is expected to help stop a carousel of repeat offenders. Too many times, officials say, people out on bail commit more crimes while their cases grind slowly through the court system.
Over and over, the chorus echoed through the fall foliage at a Stop the Violence rally this month at Martin Luther King Memorial Park.
“What do we want?” the Rev. Mark Rowden implored the crowd.
“Stop the violence.”
“How do we do it?”
Rowden and pastors of other churches from across the city vowed to bolster mentoring programs, create a crisis hotline, offer counseling, hold youth rallies and set aside a day in which young people can turn in their guns. Rowden said pastors plan to meet with Medlock and develop a course of action within the month.
“This ain’t no dog-and-pony show,” Rowden told the gathering. “People are losing their lives.”
The rally drew several hundred people — most of them members of the predominantly black churches that organized it — along with law enforcement officers from across Cumberland County.
But city officials, school officials and others who can make a difference in the fight against crime stayed home.
Medlock did not criticize anyone for not showing up at the rally, which was held on a Sunday afternoon. But he did say this:
“Until we all come together as part of the solution, it’s not going to happen.”
Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3525.