Local News

Project Safe Neighborhoods targets 'gun-toting criminals'

Posted November 23, 2009 12:32 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2009 7:01 p.m. EST

— Project Safe Neighborhoods is cracking down on gun crime, gangs and repeat offenders in communities across eastern North Carolina, federal prosecutors and local law police officers touted at a press conference Monday.

The operation is a joint effort by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that started in the 1990s.

"We're here as a team to assist the communities and community organizations to take back these communities from gang members and drug dealers and gun-toting criminals," said George Holding, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

In the 1990s, the Eastern District prosecuted fewer than 100 gun crimes a year. Since the creation of the Safe Neighborhoods and Anti-Gang task force, that average has jumped to 300. Last year, the district ranked fourth in the U.S. for firearms prosecutions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Jackson described the kind of criminals Project Safe Neighborhood intends to put behind bars.

"(We're after) the worst of the worst – the kind of people out there shooting it up in convenience stores, and they fire guns, those kinds of people. (We're after) the people out there robbing people for no reason and committing violent crimes where guns are fired," Jackson said.

"We are taking those cases and prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law."

(See cases prosecuted by Project Safe Neighborhoods.)

Convictions for gun crimes in federal court results in significantly stiffer sentences than state courts could impose.

"The federal sentences are an absolute hammer, and that's the hammer we use to get these folks to go straight," Holding said.

For example, in August, a federal judge sentenced Kendricus Marquell Williams, 21, of Raleigh, to 226 years in prison after a jury convicted him of a robbery spree in which a store clerk was shot in Wake Forest.

"To be slinging rocks (of crack cocaine) and having guns in your pocket 24-7 will get you more than 24 years," Raleigh Police Chief Harry Dolan said. "We've got to send that message to change their lives and to help so many young people."

Those stiff sentences are only part of the strategy of Project Safe Neighborhoods, though, officials said.

Team leaders utilize neighborhood outreach programs to reach offenders before they commit serious crimes. The program employs community housing, employment and substance abuse resources.

Community activist Van Alston said so far, the program has paid off with safer streets.

"They've spent much time helping us define what the problems are. And then they react to the problems," Alston said.

Of a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to Wake County, $1 million is dedicated to gang prevention and $500,000 to anti-recidivism directed at gang members who have served time. Raleigh is focusing its efforts on the southeastern section of the city that has the highest rate of gang-related crime.

"This strategy gives identified offenders a second chance to turn their lives around and become productive citizens," Holding said in a release.