Homicides in Charlotte this year are on track to hit a total not seen in nearly 25 years, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney believes officers alone can’t reverse the trend.
Putney said the city’s overall violent crime has stayed almost flat in 2017, but the rise in homicides – 73 lives lost so far – is concerning. The loss has fallen disproportionately on the black community: the city is one-third black, but four out of every five homicide victims is black.
Putney said groups across the city will have to cooperate to make a difference.
“Sometimes I feel like the lone voice in the wilderness screaming, ‘We have to do something,’ ” he said.
Previous spikes in homicide have been attributed to crack cocaine, in the early 1990s, and at least partly to gangs, in the mid-2000s.
So far in 2017, CMPD hasn’t attributed a single homicide to gang activity, and a fraction have died through drug-related violence.
Experts say it’s hard to identify a specific reason for the increase.
At least 28 homicides this year have been tied to arguments or domestic violence. Putney said too many people are grabbing guns to end disputes.
▪ Nearly 30 percent of all victims were black men in their 20s.
▪ More than half of the homicide victims know the person who kills them. Seventeen of those cases are classified by CMPD as domestic, with about half involving romantic relationships and the rest including people who were closely connected in other ways.
▪ Five victims this year are believed to have been killed by a son or son-in-law, police say.
Improving communication skills and increasing self-esteem for vulnerable young people are two ideas community activists and police leaders cite as ways to decrease the homicide rate – but neither will happen overnight.
That’s why one of CMPD’s priorities is helping people resolve arguments peacefully.
CMPD staff trained in mediation and conflict resolution sometimes respond to disputes while they’re happening, Putney said, and they also reach out to people charged with lower-level offenses like assault and communicating threats to try to prevent future arguments from escalating.
Are community programs the answer?
At a July public forum on Charlotte’s rising homicide count, Putney talked about how economic frustration can make people more likely to resort to extreme measures during an argument.
If someone thinks their most valuable possession is their self-respect, he said, it’s easier to react strongly to a perceived slight.
In a conversation with the Observer this month, Putney urged young black men not to lose hope, despite Charlotte’s low ranking for economic mobility.
“You don’t want to end a life because you’re mad and upset,” he said.
Because of the connection between removing economic roadblocks and reducing crime, CMPD is launching an initiative that seems more related to economics and healthcare than crime. That’s intentional, police say.
Putney has called the Community Empowerment Initiative “90 percent community, 10 percent policing.” It’ll involve a range of government agencies, nonprofits and organizations that help people with everything from finding a job to kicking an addiction.
The program is launching in a few of Charlotte’s neighborhoods, including Hidden Valley and Lakewood, this fall, though leaders say they want to expand it across the city eventually. It’s supposed to help families, and Putney said he specifically wants to reach young people through the program, so they can find success and avoid the kind of anger that can turn into violence.
Judy Williams, a founder of the Charlotte-based organization Mothers of Murdered Offspring, which has worked to memorialize homicide victims for nearly 25 years, said focusing on families, especially young families, will be key to reducing the homicide rate.
Williams said she hasn’t heard much about the Community Empowerment Initiative specifically, but she’s seen that trying to help children without helping their families is “like a dog chasing its tail.”
“A community can’t be any stronger than the homes are,” she said.
She also said self-respect is key. Practically any kind of program that shows kids someone cares about them can be effective, she said.
“They’ve got to see themselves as valuable commodities so that they see other people as valuable commodities...and don’t take someone’s life away,” she said.
Call to action
Charlotte’s homicides spiked in the early 1990s – in 1993, the worst year on record, more than 120 people were killed, including Williams’ goddaughter – and again in the mid-2000s, when homicide counts hovered in the low 80s.
The numbers started to increase again in 2015, when the city had 60 homicides – a 36 percent increase above the year before. In 2016, Charlotte had 68 homicides, more than at any time since 2008.
Cities around the country, including cities often compared with Charlotte like Atlanta, Denver and Nashville, Tenn., saw homicides spike in 2016. Atlanta’s homicides have declined substantially so far in 2017, while in mid-October, Denver is only a few homicides away from passing its 2016 total.
Nashville, like Charlotte, has already crossed its 2016 total.
Some activists say it’s time for a group of people to sit down and take a hard look at how to reduce Charlotte’s homicides. Robert Dawkins of the group SAFE Coalition NC said he wants people to examine the issue from a public health perspective, focusing on measurable outcomes and models that have worked in other cities, such as the public health-based Cure Violence model, which began in Chicago.
“It treats crime and homicide as an epidemiological problem instead of just having pastors and people sit around and talk about it,” he said.
Like Putney, Dawkins said reducing homicides is partly about teaching people – especially middle schoolers and teenagers – how to talk to each other and resolve conflicts.
Before forming another task force or working group, City Council member and community safety committee chairwoman Julie Eiselt said the city needs to look at the recommendations from older groups to see what progress has been made and where more work is needed.
Those recommendations encompass 12 years’ worth of discussion on violence and community policing, from the 2005 homicide task force, which formed during another spike in Charlotte homicides, to the Citizens’ Review Board recommendations after its August 2017 hearing on the Keith Lamont Scott case.
Putney has called the 2005 task force’s recommendations a “road map” – but he said he sometimes feels like CMPD is alone on that road. He urged other groups to step up, and he said he’s encouraged by the commitments some organizations, like Goodwill and Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, have made to the Community Empowerment Initiative.
Eiselt said local groups aren’t having “coordinated conversations” about violence. She pointed out that homicide isn’t rising in every city – Atlanta is one example – so Charlotte should find out what it can learn from those cities.
“What’s wrong with asking that question?” she said. “It’s not a sign of weakness.”
Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer who is now a professor in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said the disproportionate way homicide affects poor communities and racial minority groups has contributed to a lack of political will to address the problem.
“Many parts of the country are not impacted,” he said, adding that people who can afford to “buy security” usually do so, whether that means an apartment building with a doorman or a gated community in the suburbs.
If the situation was reversed, O’Donnell said – if homicide victims were disproportionately wealthy and white – he expects outrage would be immediate.
“It’s a giant civil rights issue,” he said.
Reporter Adam Bell contributed.