Concern over crime grows in Charlotte

As crime has ticked up, Charlotteans appear on edge about their safety and express only moderate confidence in the police department.

In a recent poll of 407 Mecklenburg County residents, 42 percent said they feel less safe than they did a year ago, while only 7 percent said they feel safer.

Just a third of those polled expressed high confidence that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will keep them safe.

Following a recent spike in officers' use of deadly force, only a third of respondents expressed strong confidence that police will use force only when absolutely necessary.

At the same time, nearly half of those polled said they have strong faith that new police Chief Rodney Monroe will do an “excellent” job.

“I'm giving him the opportunity to show his stuff,” says Joyce Smith, 55, a center city resident. “He is more of a hands-on person. … It will have the ripple effect, and officers will be inspired by him.”

Monroe has been on the job less than three months and already has shaken up the department. He has added officers to the gang unit, reorganized youth violence programs, and disbanded specialty units to put more officers on the streets. Last week, he revamped the public information office – forcing out its director and increasing its focus on “building community and media relations.”

“He's taking a critical look at all functions of our department,” Deputy Chief Kerr Putney said on behalf of Monroe, who was unavailable for comment last week. “What he is trying to do is strengthen and develop relationships, and this is one area he's trying to focus on in a different way.”

The department is trying to improve relations in several neighborhoods, where residents complain that police are too quick to use force or not aggressive enough in responding to crime problems.

The rate of violent crime per 100,000 people had fallen steadily for more than a decade as Charlotte has grown, though the rate of property crime has risen four of the past five years.

But this year, the number of crimes is up compared with last year. And several brazen killings and robberies have sparked fear – prompting some residents to march on city hall, and some neighborhoods to hire their own police patrols.

The Carolinas Poll is conducted annually for the Observer and WCNC, and the margin of error for the crime questions was plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Although crime-related questions were slightly different last year, more respondents gave police high marks then. Asked in 2007 to rate the job police were doing fighting and preventing crime, 55 percent said the police performance was excellent, while 33 percent said it was fair.

Joyce Smith said that, while she believes residents lack confidence in police, “It's also true that neighbors aren't looking out for neighbors. The only time people seem to care is when it affects them personally.”

Other results from this year's poll:

37 percent said they had been a victim of crime in the past five years.

69 percent of black respondents expressed high confidence that Monroe will do an excellent job, compared with 38 percent of whites.

42 percent of whites were highly confident that police will keep them safe, compared with 29 percent of blacks.

42 percent of whites said the police will use force only when it is absolutely necessary, compared with 13 percent of black respondents.

Police officers' use of force jumped nearly 27 percent in 2007, according to an internal affairs report released last month.

“In a lot of cases, (force) is a good thing,” said 63-year-old Jeffrey Kaiser, who lives in the Hickory Grove area. “I think they'll only use it when necessary and not exceed it hopefully.”

Sometimes, though, the results are deadly.

Officers have shot five suspects since Feb. 27, killing one.

In March, 22-year-old Aaron Winchester was shot twice in the back by an officer as he ran from police in a case that has drawn protest from civil rights leaders.

“I think sometimes their fear takes over and they are more aggressive than necessary,” said Smith. “They are probably facing more danger than they were before.”

While police say they are facing more suspects with guns, University City resident Joe Katon said police seem too quick to use Taser stun guns on suspects.

Darryl Turner, 17, died in March after an officer shocked him twice – once for 37 seconds.

“I'd like to see a re-assessment of the impact of using those,” said Katon, who moved here from Miami.

“I live in a nice neighborhood, but I don't always feel safe,” Katon said. “My wife works at home and I worry about her being there by herself during the day. …

“And I don't see signs out here saying ‘zero tolerance.' I want more of a presence to get something done.”

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