Seeking Safety: High Point an example of community, police partnership
Posted September 28, 2014
High Point, N.C. — Jacob Walker never knew how much he changed High Point.
Jacob was a standout on the local high school football team. After a game in the fall of 1997, he went to a popular hangout in the Five Points neighborhood. As he sat on a car, a gangbanger across the street started shooting randomly. A bullet hit Jacob, killing him.
The next morning, a group of angry residents marched into the office of Louis Quijas, at the time the chief of police in High Point.
Marty Sumner was Quijas' administrative assistant. Sumner sat just outside the chief's door, listening as the residents implored Quijas to do something about the violence.
"'My question to you is: What are you prepared to do about it?'" Sumner remembers Quijas asking them. "'Where were you on the last 16 homicides?'"
That was the day that residents began to band together to turn around a city so violent it had come to be known as "Little Chicago."
It was the moment residents said they had had enough of the gangs, the violence and the senseless deaths.
Before Jacob's death, High Point was like Fayetteville today. There were groups of people who wanted to do something about the violence, but their efforts weren't unified for a broad, sustained attack on the problem. Churches and other groups would hold vigils and talk about ways to stem the violence, but little ever changed.
"That was the norm. You'd have a vigil and you'd go back to business as usual," said Gretta Bush, a High Point community activist.
High Point Regional Hospital was conducting research, finding that young people in the city were being shot almost as often as they were being injured in car accidents. Hospital officials began their own meetings on crime reduction.
Police, meanwhile, were trying to arrest their way out of the problem, digging an ever-deeper divide between officers and too many of the residents they were sworn to serve and protect.
Jacob's murder was the tragedy that brought the community together.
A few days afterward, Quijas, social workers, victims' advocates, community groups, government workers, other law enforcement officers and anyone else with a potential role in reducing violent crime came to the table.
The first meeting took place at the hospital. Bush - who seemed to know everyone in the city through years of overseeing parks and recreation centers in High Point - said the group quickly decided on first steps. Those included identifying who was behind the violence and what could be done to stop it.
Seventeen years later, the group now known as High Point Community Against Violence still meets monthly. The police chief attends every meeting possible, and residents have a forum to voice their complaints.
The nonprofit organization is believed to be the longest-serving body of its type in the country. It has become the glue between the High Point police and the community - a bond formed through trust, cooperation and respect.
The Fayetteville Observer returned to High Point this month for "Seeking Safety," its yearlong project examining potential solutions for Fayetteville's crime problems. This is the 11th monthly installment in the project.
The first visit to High Point, in December, was to see its anti-violence programs in action. The return this month comes on the heels of rioting, looting and violence that has followed the shooting in August of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The aftermath of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown raised a question: What city has a model for building trust and collaboration between police and residents of minority communities?
The answer is High Point, and a primary reason is the nonprofit High Point Community Against Violence - or CAV as it is commonly called.
"You can't do it without that group," said Sumner, who is now the city's police chief.
The relationship between High Point's black residents and police had always been tense - a tangle of tensions created by misunderstanding and mistrust on both sides.
Sumner, who grew up in High Point, said he had no idea how bad the relationship had gotten until he joined the police force nearly 20 years ago.
"We weren't really aware of how little trust there was," Sumner said.
Gretta Bush had no such blinders. She recalls the time a white officer stopped her then 12-year-old son to ask why he was pushing a lawnmower down the street. Bush said that when she tried to intervene, the officer told her to "shut up."
Another time, she said, police wrongly accused her son of robbing a pizza deliveryman.
"They were the police, and we were the citizens," Bush said.
And that was the problem.
Police had their hands full back then - in the 1990s - trying to deal with a growing drug and gang problem.
Rob Lang, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, remembers those days well.
Lang, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of crime in High Point, attributes much of the 1990s violence to a small group led by a gang member who moved from California to High Point because he had a cousin in town. The man, a member of California's Rolling 60s Neighborhood Crips, had a source for cocaine in Cleveland and began importing it to High Point.
As the gangs and the amount of drugs grew, so did the violence.
And then came Jacob Walker's death and the formation of the High Point Community Against Violence.
About the same time, two High Point police detectives went to neighboring Greensboro to hear criminologist David Kennedy speak about his successful Ceasefire efforts against gangs in Boston. Within two years, police had almost quelled Boston's gang activity, largely by identifying the most violent gang members and getting them off the streets.
In 1998, High Point implemented its own version of Ceasefire. The number of murders in the city fell from 13 in 1998 to four the following year.
"We didn't have a homicide from October of '98 to August '99," Lang said.
While police were concentrating on Ceasefire, High Point Community Against Violence began to see progress. Bush said leaders could see the relationship between black residents and police changing. The changes were small and incremental, but noticeable.
Then came another milestone. In 2003, High Point again called on Kennedy - now director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City - this time to implement a new form of focused deterrence that became known as the High Point Drug Market Initiative.
The idea was to go after the top drug dealers in the poor, drug-infested West End neighborhood and warn the others that their operations must stop.
Before kicking off the initiative, new High Point Police Chief Jim Fealy outlined the plans at community forums.
During at least one of those meetings, Fealy made a startling apology, saying he was sorry about the traditional police tactics that had led to such distrust in some neighborhoods.
"We said that police methods from previous decades weren't working and were, in fact, harmful," Fealy recalled in an interview years later. "I apologized to the community. We talked about how we'd be doing things differently, and we worked to dispel misconceptions about the police. We told them we needed their participation and asked, 'Will you give us another chance and re-engage with us?' ''
The Rev. Jim Summey, executive director of the High Point Community Against Violence, said the apology resonated with residents. Little by little, Summey and Bush said, residents and police started working more closely together.
These days, no one in High Point is claiming the relationship between police and residents is perfect. "There is still a huge divide," Summey said. "Everybody likes to think it's open and Kumbaya and all that. But it's not."
Summey says, however, that it is far better than before.
Mike McFadden thinks so, too. Earlier this month, McFadden, 34, sat on his front porch in a neighborhood off East Kearns Avenue that had experienced a rash of recent violence.
McFadden said he knew of two drug houses a couple of blocks away, and he's not afraid to call police when he sees something suspicious. He said he makes sure to keep a close eye on his three daughters. But at least now, he said, they can play outdoors.
In the mid-'90s, he said, "you couldn't even come down this street after about 6 o'clock, when it got dark."
McFadden said he and other residents are on much better terms with the city's police than they were years ago.
So could what happened in Ferguson - the violence that followed the teenager's shooting and the initial police response to it - happen in High Point?
Community leaders - including Rev. Summey, Bush, Chief Sumner and Lang - were all posed that question. Their responses were strikingly similar:
Their consensus was that it is possible that residents would protest if there were similar circumstances, but they would not resort to rioting and violence, and police would not resort to the tactics used by the officers in Ferguson.
The primary reason, they all agreed, is the bond forged through High Point Community Against Violence.
"CAV is the glue because it keeps the community engaged and it keeps the law enforcement community accountable," Lang said.
Among its many duties, High Point Community Against Violence is responsible for helping people who have committed violent crimes and are released on probation or parole.
The most violent go through a Ceasefire call-in, where law enforcement reads them the riot act and advocates promise resources so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
Rev. Summey has been coordinating those efforts for more than a decade. Summey, a bear of a man with a bushy beard and eyes that squint when he smiles, is the person violent offenders who go through the call-ins turn to for help. One of them, Jerome Moore, was among the first call-in participants.
Moore walked into Summey's office this month to say that he may not be able to finish a woodworking class provided through Community Against Violence.
The office, in a donated storefront on Main Street, includes a woodworking shop in the back and a large meeting room up front. As part of the woodworking class, students receive a little pay for helping Habitat for Humanity build houses.
Moore told Summey about a recent car wreck that requires him to see a doctor in Winston-Salem. Summey listened, then told Moore that if he misses only a couple of classes he should still be able to finish the course and get a certificate that could lead to a job.
Before leaving, Summey allowed Moore to take some of the toiletries spread out on a table, then opened his wallet to give him a couple of bucks for bus fare.
Summey estimated that he manages 20 to 30 people at any given time; about 120 every year. The key to his job, Summey said, is to sit down and talk with the people who need help. "It takes a lot of intentional work," he said.
Gretta Bush holds the office down the hall. Unlike Summey, she doesn't get paid for her work, which is largely to build community collaboration and trust.
Bush said a critical part of the organization's work is to respond to a neighborhood every time a violent act happens there, or if someone has been arrested for a violent act or a drug crime.
Members of Community Against Violence knock on doors to tell residents about the crimes or the arrests. They also post fliers saying the neighborhood will be receiving special police attention.
"Police set the tone and the pace, and we fall in and support them," Bush said.
The group also notifies parents of children who are hanging out where they shouldn't be. Bush said she fields countless calls from people who are more comfortable talking to her than to the police.
"CAV is like our community voice," police Detective B.J. MacFarland said. "Not everything has to be police go out and arrest somebody. With HPCAV, we have the ability to go out and talk to a problem area."
Every third Wednesday, the group holds a meeting. Sometimes, 50 to 60 residents show up, especially when a neighborhood is having problems. When things are quiet, attendance lags, Summey said.
Attendance was sparse at this month's meeting, which Summey opened with a prayer that included asking God to watch over a man suspected of robbing drug dealers.
The man was mentioned because some people in High Point want him dead. They shot at two houses this month where he was suspected of hiding out. Community Against Violence responded in its usual way - by knocking on doors and posting fliers.
Chief Sumner said police keep the group informed of every major issue on which they are working.
During the meeting, Sumner told the group about an epidemic of heroin abuse. He said police have seized 1,100 grams of heroin this year, compared with only 50 grams the year before.
Early this month, a lengthy investigation led police to conduct raids that resulted in 19 people being arrested on heroin charges.
The task now, Sumner told the group, is to stop the demand, which has led to 98 overdoses and 11 deaths this year.
Sumner also told the group that a lot of people have been asking him about the violence in Ferguson. The group agreed with Sumner that a community forum should be held to discuss the issue. Sumner said he wants to hold forums on important issues regularly. Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock has instituted a similar practice.
Lang, the assistant U.S. attorney, is among those who say Community Against Violence is the force behind the city's ability to sustain a reduction in violent crimes, which declined 42 percent between 1997 and 2012 and 72 percent since 1994, according to police statistics. Sumner said violent crime is down an additional 9 percent this year from the same point in 2013.
High Point, with slightly half the population of Fayetteville, has recorded just three murders this year. Since 2009, the highest annual number of murders has been five. Fayetteville recorded 22 murders in 2012. Seeking Safety: Taking on Fayetteville's Crime Problem
Sumner attributes much of the drop in violent crime to the relationships police have forged with the community by being transparent and willing to discuss tough topics.
Police across the country "are awful at having real honest conversations about things that polarize us," Sumner said. "We do that here. We do have those conversations here."
Fayetteville's Jacob Walker moment may have come on Halloween night last year, when three people were shot to death in a span of less than six hours.
Afterward, a group of preachers held a rally attended by a couple of hundred people.
The ministers, led by the Rev. Mark Rowden of Savannah Missionary Baptist Church, have continued meeting since then. Among their planned initiatives is a gun buyback event. The group has raised about a quarter of the $20,000 that will be needed, Rowden said.
A second motivator happened in June, when 19-year-old Ravon Jordan died after being caught in the crossfire of rival gangs during a party in west Fayetteville.
A second rally was held, this time at the Cumberland County Courthouse. Speakers urged that the city move beyond racial lines and take decisive action to end the violence.
"If the truth be told, it is black boys and black girls - black young men and black boys - that are killing one another in our streets and it's got to stop," The Rev. Larry Wright told the crowd, which again was largely black. "We've got to take action."
Since then, Mayor Nat Robertson has urged the city to pass a youth curfew, and Wright, a Fayetteville city councilman, has formed "The Action Group."
The group of preachers, educators and other activists is trying to organize a youth sports league to give children something constructive to do in their spare time. Wright said the group also is working with the city and the county to re-establish a youth council and is planning community block parties and other projects aimed at encouraging children to succeed.
Wright said his group wants to do more than just talk about violence.
"We have rallies and marches and it eventually dies off until another death occurs," he said.
The school system and the United Way have joined forces with mentoring groups in an effort to double the number of mentors in the city.
What High Point has and Fayetteville lacks is an organization - like Community Against Violence - to pull all the efforts and programs together into a sustainable, goal-driven approach to ending violence.
Bobby Washington, a director of the mentoring organization Great Oak Youth Development Centers, said a collaborative effort is needed to move Fayetteville forward in its battle against crime.
"It would be so wonderful if we could integrate our approach," Washington said.
Wright feels the same way. He said he hopes to merge his organization with the group of preachers so they are all working toward the same goals.
Lisa Jayne, coordinator of Fayetteville's Operation Ceasefire, said she would like to see a group similar to High Point Community Against Violence form in this city.
Jayne said such a group could assist Operation Ceasefire, which in May learned that it will receive a $298,000 federal grant to battle guns and gang violence.
Jayne's responsibilities include coordinating the Ceasefire call-ins and making sure its participants get the resources they need, whether it's help with housing, transportation or job-skills training.
She said a separate, nonprofit group could provide mentors to the call-in participants and help them find jobs. Bush said the High Point Community Against Violence regularly provides mentors to its Ceasefire participants.
Jayne said she also sees the bigger picture - using such a group to help build community relations. That's a focal point of Operation Ceasefire in Fayetteville. The organization sponsors five movie nights in neighborhoods each year and is expanding them into all-day community events with free food, drinks and games. Jayne said an expanded movie night in the Lake Rim community drew about 2,000 people in April.
The Observer has visited 10 cities for its "Seeking Safety" project. Most have used extensive collaboration to unify efforts, pool resources, land major grants and tackle social problems involving crime or other complex issues.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton explained why collaboration is necessary.
"This is not a one-agency challenge that we have," Wharton said back in January. "You can't hire enough police officers, enough probation officers. You can't rent enough buildings. But by George, if you get everybody - from our umbrella organization all the way down to the neighborhood level - you can make a difference. I'm convinced."
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.