August 10, 2014

Charlotte police rookie works to repair east Charlotte neighborhood

For years, Terrybrook has been considered a high-crime problem area. One new police officer is not willing to let it stay that way.

What started as a neighborhood beautification project has become an ongoing relationship between the kids who live on a previously neglected street in east Charlotte and a rookie police officer who knows what growing up in such an area can be like.

Terrybrook Lane, off East Sugar Creek Road, is about a block long and ends in a cul-de-sac behind Garinger High School. For years, police say it has been considered a “high-call area,” with crimes ranging from noise disturbances and domestic issues to drug activity.

“To outsiders, it’s a problem area with high crime, and they don’t want to come in,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Shannon Finis.

Finis, 33, is the first-year rookie whose ongoing relationship with Terrybrook started as a required service project that all new officers must complete, said CMPD Capt. Demetria Faulkner-Welch, who was Finis’ mentor while in academy.

These Neighborhood Portfolio Exercise projects focus on problems that certain areas face and the resources needed to address them, Faulkner-Welch said. New officers have to do a presentation of their project to complete their last phase of training.

“Most recruits don’t do followup,” Faulkner-Welch said of the projects. “Once they hit the streets, they don’t have time. ”

Finis, who joined the Eastway Division in January, said graffiti, boarded-up homes and garbage have been all too common in the neighborhood. Students from the nearby school were coming to vacant homes to do drugs. Area pedestrians use the school property and Terrybrook as a cut-through to nearby streets.

“The area has a lot of negativity around it,” she said, noting it exemplified the broken-window theory, a widely held concept within the law enforcement community. If a broken window isn’t repaired in a neighborhood, it indicates that residents and the larger community don’t care about the area, she said. It’s inferred that more windows can be broken without consequence, and smaller crimes evolve into larger, more serious crimes.

Firsthand experience

After growing up in a similar neighborhood in south Minneapolis, Finis said, she has firsthand experience with some of the challenges that Terrybrook residents face, especially the children.

“The drugs and the discord in the neighborhood is their future if no one comes in and tells them otherwise,” she said, noting the majority of the children who live on the street are under 12.

On June 14, Finis organized nearly 200 volunteers from CMPD, the city’s codes department, Terrybrook property owners, members of Faith in God Restoration Church – Finis’ church congregation – and others in a daylong clean-up and beautification effort.

In her free time leading up to the event, Finis solicited donations of water and supplies from businesses in the area, as well as help from within the department. A tree company came out and provided services, flowers were planted, and free food and entertainment helped draw in Terrybrook residents and children, Finis said.

While the event technically fulfilled her project requirements, Finis said she’s not finished.

More can be done to help Terrybrook residents, she said, calling the June 14 cleanup a stepping stone to creating a more positive environment for neighborhood children. Though mainly a cosmetic fix, “it opened doors to get us into the community.”

In the past, the approach officials took with the neighborhood was ‘Hey, you need to do this and fix it.’ Now, it’s ‘Let’s work together’ – and they’ve been very receptive,” Finis said.

“The property owners were out there with us, and that’s huge, because it shows they’re invested in their community as well.”

Faulkner-Welch, who was familiar with neighborhood’s history, believes Finis can make a long-term impact. “She is probably one of the strongest people you’ll ever meet. This is a new beginning (for Terrybrook),” she said.

“Sometimes a neighborhood just needs a makeover.”

More than the job

With a background in coaching youth sports and education, Finis said she has always enjoyed helping others. While the Terrybrook project keeps her involved with kids, Finis said, her role within CMPD is “an even better opportunity.”

“We work around the clock and have so many resources available to us,” she said. “There should be no reason we don’t do more to help out the people of the communities we serve.”

Finis hasn’t always had such an optimistic outlook on police work. Growing up, she witnessed a wide range of criminal activity in her neighborhood: a shooting in her driveway, drug abuse and sales, prostitution, fights, gang activity and more.

“I didn’t really have a great image of the police growing up (because) they didn’t really have a positive influence in our area,” Finis said. “I just always thought they could do more.”

“I could have easily fallen into the life a lot of people chose in our area,” she said, crediting her parents and sports – particularly basketball – with helping keep her out of trouble.

“I guess I always wanted to be a police officer, to work with kids and get them on a good path, as well as be a help to the people in the community,” she said.

“It just took me a while to really be sure.”

Moving forward

Finis is winning over Terrybrook residents who were initially cautious of an unfamiliar face.

“The more I go out there, the more they see I’m coming back. More people are coming to talk to me; that’s key,” she said.

On a Friday night in mid-July, Finis and a few volunteers from her church set up a projector screen for an outdoor viewing of “How to Train Your Dragon” for the neighborhood.

More than a dozen kids and their families gathered on blankets and lawn chairs to watch the movie.

Lakeisha Weathers and her 7-year-old son were among them. Weathers has lived on Terrybrook about three years and said she used to run from her car into her home after getting off work around 9:30 each night.

But since Finis has been involved with residents, “What an improvement,” Weathers said. “I’m overjoyed.”

“This time last year, there were a lot of break-ins, a lot of domestic violence, a lot of everything. Of course there’s more work to be done,” Weathers said of neighborhood crime.

“But (Finis) has knocked down the hard part. Thank you, Jesus, I don’t have to be running to the door now.”

In the past, other groups have tried to help the neighborhood, Weathers said, but the difference is that Finis’ efforts are “consistent and persistent.”

Remaining engaged

Harvey Gouch Jr., who has owned property on Terrybrook for nearly 20 years, said he’s been impressed with Finis’ efforts, particularly with kids.

“Her goal to help the children feel they are important will help them grow up realizing they can play an important role in society. It should help them reach their potential and break the cycle so many on Terrybrook are stuck in,” Gouch said.

“For a street that is not given much hope, I feel it was a step in the right direction and hopefully will be the beginning of many good things to come.”

In her time off, Finis has been devoting one day a week to helping Terrybrook kids with their reading skills. She visits Terrybrook almost every day, whether as part of her duty patrol or in her off time.

While Finis credits Faulkner-Welch’s support for the project’s initial success, together the two women have many ideas on how to remain engaged with the neighborhood, such as a weekly youth group and taking kids on regular trips to go horseback riding, Finis said. An urban garden could be in the neighborhood’s future, as well as recruiting volunteers to make repairs to some of the rental properties on the street.

And while change can be a long process, Finis said, she saw it happen in her own childhood neighborhood.

“They did a good job cleaning up the area. I’ve seen change, and I know it works,” she said. “I like to look at the bigger picture. I know people can change. They just need that door opened.”

Finis will remain a rookie for a few more months, but Faulkner-Welch said Finis’s enthusiasm, kind spirit and determination will serve her well in her career.

“I don’t know of any other recruit who has followed through with their project the way she has done. I tell her, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, you will touch a life,’ ” Faulkner-Welch said.

“I don’t think she realizes how special she is. She is an asset to that neighborhood and will be an asset to the department.”

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