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A Charlotte apartment complex struggled with crime. Then police showed up with books.

CMPD officer Brian Russell, left, watches as officer Mike Travis laughs with the kids while holding the book “Bad Kitty.” As a community service project in its first year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers in partnership with Woodstone Apartments have made a strong connection with the residents and especially the youth. During the summer months CMDP officers mentored the youth through reading and other activities.
CMPD officer Brian Russell, left, watches as officer Mike Travis laughs with the kids while holding the book “Bad Kitty.” As a community service project in its first year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers in partnership with Woodstone Apartments have made a strong connection with the residents and especially the youth. During the summer months CMDP officers mentored the youth through reading and other activities. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

The Woodstone Apartments is one of those odd places in Charlotte that is not on the way to anywhere, having been built off a two-lane service road that parallels Interstate 85 just outside of uptown.

“Charlotte doesn’t know we’re back here,” says Rindy Kirkman, property manager of Woodstone since 2008. “We’re kind of undiscovered.”

The neighborhood is technically known as Derita Woods/Tanglewood. For years, the Woodstone section has been a magnet for trouble, including a 2011 murder and a notorious 2012 incident in which people wearing bandannas over their faces surrounded a crowded Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus and threatened to kill the driver. Police said the four suspects were juveniles.

When I first started to work here seven years ago, children were intimidated by the police. … Now, kids see us and they come running to us.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer B.K. Russell

Those days appear to be over, however. Police say most of the drug dealers, petty criminals and wannabe gangsters have been forced out or are now in jail, including one former tenant who was convicted of murder and sentence to life in prison.

In their place?

One recent day, it was a pack of giggling preteens, who sat listening to police officers read books like “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Bad Kitty.”

Later, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools activity bus showed up with free lunches. Then, adults and children alike gathered under a tree and danced “The Nae Nae,” which is this generation’s “Macarena.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer B.K. Russell says the turnaround has been dramatic. He’s among those officers who regularly show up to read to the children at Woodstone, a Section 8 apartment community of 50 units.

“When I first started to work here seven years ago, children were intimidated by the police. And if their parents saw us talking to their kids, they’d pull them away from us and go into their homes,” said Russell, a 27-year veteran of the department. “Now, kids see us and they come running to us.”

The change is credited in part to Woodstone manager Kirkman, a former luxury hotel manager who took over the privately owned apartments in 2011.

These children are learning that people other than their mom and dad care about them. These officers care what happens to them.

Rindy Kirkman, property manager of Woodstone

Kirkman says she immediately began trying to push out troublemakers, including both Woodstone residents and their cohorts who were hanging out in the community. It was a personal campaign that eventually brought her to the attention of the police, who began working with Kirkman to evict or prosecute drug dealers.

Mug shots and names of the 24 worst offenders remain pasted to her office’s bay window (facing toward the street), with a warning that they’ll be arrested if spotted on the property.

The second part of Kirkman’s plan called for recruiting community organizations to start programs in Woodstone, including the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Second Harvest Food Bank, the Center for Community Transitions and the Friendly Dental Van program.

Tenants of Woodstone now have access to school tutoring, job placement, free food, dental care and even sign language classes.

Kirkman’s efforts were recognized in January when she was named Charlotte’s Mentor of the Year as part of The Mayor’s Mentoring Alliance program.

She says it’s the police partnership that had the biggest impact on Woodstone. Officers don’t just read to the children, she says. They act as mentors to the kids and as friends to their parents. The effort started earlier this summer.

Example: This past week, Lt. John Thornton showed up for a reading session with 80 books his own children, ages 12 and 9, collected in their neighborhood for the 70-plus kids who live in Woodstone.

“I just think that it says a lot about the police helping out like this, particularly at a time when we hear all the stories across the country of people accusing officers of not doing the right thing,” said Kirkman.

One such story is playing out in a Charlotte courtroom this month, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick faces accusations that he wrongfully killed Jonathan Ferrell in a late-night encounter in 2013. Because Ferrell was black and Kerrick white, the case has taken on racial overtones similar to cases involving police-related deaths in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

Kansas Payne, a hairstylist, is a mother of five who lives in the Woodstone Apartments. She says her children are benefiting from the partnerships, including her 17-year-old son who won a multi-state contest designing anti-drug posters.

She believes the acts of kindness by officers like Thornton and Russell are countering the stories her children hear on the news of police targeting African-Americans.

“Not all police are bad, and we happen to be around the good ones,” she says, as her girls wait for the police to begin reading books.

“I teach my children to stay out of the way of police, because police are trained to be the way they are. They never know when someone will hurt them.”

Thornton, of the police department’s North Division, worked with Woodstone to help organize the mentoring program. His goal is to get all the officers in the response area to rotate through the weekly program. About 10 have so far volunteered, he said. After the start of the school year, the program will likely transition from reading to help with homework, he said.

Money to pay for the various efforts is coming from a variety of sources, including personal donations by the officers involved.

That’s the part that touches Kirkman the most.

“They are shaping young lives and views of children that will one day be adults in Charlotte,” she says. “They are having an impact, and not just with helping them learn to read. These children are learning that people other than their mom and dad care about them. These officers care what happens to them.”

How to help

Woodstone residents are seeking donations to fund a kids' trip to Latta Plantation. Donations can be made to Kids Rein and sent to Latta Plantation Equestrian Center, 6201 Sample Road, Huntersville, NC, 28078. In the memo section note: For The children of Woodstone Apartments.

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