Homicides in 2014 fell to historic lows in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. But in the police department’s Metro Division, a collection of neighborhoods that have struggled with gangs, drugs and street violence for decades, the homicide count remains agonizingly stubborn.
Metro, which is northwest of uptown and includes communities along Beatties Ford Road and Freedom Drive, saw 11 homicides, nearly twice as many as any other police division and the same number of killings as the division had in 2013. All the victims in Metro were black. All but two were male.
Among the dead: an 18-year-old who was shot outside of a convenience store on a warm afternoon in May and a 22-year-old whose body was found in a park nearly a day after he was shot in November. His killing remains unsolved.
Killings dropped in other parts of the city. Charlotte-Mecklenburg had 42 homicides, the lowest since police began keeping records in 1977.
In 2015, the police department plans new tactics to reduce homicides in Metro. Chief Rodney Monroe said police leaders are looking at increasing patrols on foot and on dual sport motorcycles, which can go off-road to get officers in woods and grassy areas between apartment complexes.
But Monroe said the city can’t simply arrest itself out of the problems in Metro, which have roots in drug use and protracted poverty. About 39 percent of the residents in Metro division neighborhoods live below the poverty line, U.S. Census Bureau data show. That’s more than twice Mecklenburg’s average of about 15 percent.
The city is making improvements in the Metro Division, including a proposed streetcar to Johnson C. Smith University. City Council members recently approved a rezoning for 2.7 acres near Wesley Heights to allow for the construction of 45 townhouses.
“We already have developers who are interested in that area,” said City Council member Al Austin, who represents much of the Metro Division.
But most of the city’s efforts in Metro stop at the gates of Johnson C. Smith, or affect the Metro neighborhoods closest to the center city. Drive farther north and the challenges are bigger.
Metro’s longtime problems make it harder to combat violent crime than in the other 12 divisions, city leaders and criminologists say. For example, police make more drug arrests in the 13.3-square mile Metro Division than any other in the city, Monroe said.
“The neighborhood didn’t just get bad overnight,” said Joe Kuhns, a criminologist with UNC Charlotte. “Those are challenged areas and they’re areas where the people are not quite invested in growing out of their situations, and the community and city may not be invested as well.”
Complicating crime reduction efforts: controversial shootings of blacks by police in Charlotte and across the nation. Criminologists say such shootings make it less likely people in minority neighborhoods will cooperate with officers.
CMPD is not as diverse as the community it represents, a fact neighborhood leaders have taken note of. Charlotte’s population is 35 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The department that serves it is about 19 percent black.
“They don’t have enough black policemen,” said Herbert Weathers, the former leader of the Enderly Park neighborhood along Tuckaseegee Road. “It just doesn’t work. When you’re working in a mixed neighborhood – a black neighborhood or a Hispanic neighborhood – you’ve got to have police who look like the people they’re dealing with.”
For years, Weathers was the president of the Enderly Park neighborhood association. But he says he quit in 2011 because only a handful of other people ever got involved. Many people who move to the neighborhood don’t stay for long and were unwilling to do much to improve the area, he said.
About 41 percent of the residents in the Metro Division own their home, compared with 60 percent for the county overall.
“I’m 81 years old,” Weathers said. “I can hardly walk now. Most people that live in the neighborhood, they don’t work together with you. They don’t come to meetings. That’s why I threw in the towel.”
Charlotte’s Metro Division is one of the city’s smallest, but most densely packed. Besides Enderly Park, it includes neighborhoods such as Washington Heights, Biddleville-Smallwood, Glenwood and Wesley Heights.
For decades, housing covenants prevented blacks from owning homes in most parts of the city, so the Beatties Ford Road corridor became home to a thriving black middle class.
As covenants eased in the 1960s, many prosperous families moved out of the westside. The ratio of people who rented their homes in Metro increased in the 1970s and 80s, about the same time as center city neighborhoods began to struggle with illegal drugs and the crime that followed.
Ninety-five police officers patrol there – about the same as other police divisions – including a handful of detectives who focus on solving violent crimes. Monroe said the majority of the department’s drug and gang units are deployed in Metro.
The department has also shifted some of its latest technology to the Metro Division. Police department cameras look out onto the intersection of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street, a high-traffic area. Automated license plate readers scan cars coming from uptown, looking for stolen or suspicious vehicles.
In 2010, a national crime report ranked part of the Metro Division 11th on a list of the United States’ 25 most crime-ridden areas. Police disputed the claim, but investigated 18 homicides in the division that year, a number Chief Monroe called alarming.
Police say they have made progress, bringing down total violent crime by 10 percent last year and seizing hundreds of guns.
“Ten percent down for violent crime in Metro is a significant hit,” said Capt. Mike Harris. “Everything kind of hinges on that number.”
And during a summer initiative, officers from the Metro, Freedom and North Tryon divisions targeted “the baddest of the bad,” Harris said. In 2014, officers in the division seized 217 guns.
“We made significant seizures in weapons,” he said. “We made significant seizures in narcotics and currency associated with narcotics.”
Most neighborhoods in the Metro Division have had to battle issues with drug sales and large transient populations at some point. The neighborhoods that have rebounded typically have a loud and strong nucleus of neighborhood leaders willing to push the city – and others in the community – for change.
“When I moved to Wesley Heights you couldn’t pay people to live there,” said Shirley Fulton, a retired judge who headed some of that community’s redevelopment efforts starting in the 1990s. “Crime was up, employment was down, houses were declining and you could drive by and see drug deals going down on the street corner.”
The Wesley Heights Community Organization formed a nonprofit to buy and renovate old houses, then sold them to families willing to live in Wesley Heights for several years, Fulton said. And they lobbied the city to transform an old rail bed – where people once dumped appliances – into the Irwin Creek greenway.
In Washington Heights, near Johnson C. Smith University, Mattie Marshall said she and other members of the neighborhood association pestered the city and police to remove nuisances like boarded-up houses and an apartment complex with long-standing crime problems.
She says she also rallied neighbors frustrated with crime, telling them: “You don’t have to move to live in a better neighborhood.”
To bring down homicides and other crimes, city planners say the community needs more involvement of residents and business owners.
“We’ve got the bones,” said John Howard, with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department. “We’ve got the infrastructure. It’s just: Will someone come and invest? And when?”
Derrick Johnson, the owner of the One Way Smokehouse, said friends tried to dissuade him from relocating his restaurant from uptown to the intersection of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street.
He said he’s only had one issue – a broken window shortly after he opened. He had more problems uptown.
“The stigma is worse than the reality,” he said. “This is an environment where we can do business. We as a neighborhood have to be honest about what’s going on here. We have to clean up our own space. ... That’s what people who live and work here have to do.”
Staff writers Steve Harrison and Gavin Off and researcher Maria David contributed.