Two deadly robberies in Charlotte in April have sent four teenagers to jail and three to juvenile detention. All seven have been charged with murder.
The most recent arrest was on April 23 at Garinger High School. A student brought a stolen car to school and had a gun in his waistband when the school's on-site police officer arrested him, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Lt. Susan Manassah said.
Four of the seven teens — a 16-year-old, two 17-year-olds and a 19-year-old — were charged as adults. But the Garinger teen and two other suspects are 15, police said.
When children younger than 16 get arrested, police try to help them get back on the right path, several officers said Wednesday.
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The young teens also have some special rights: Their names are not released publicly to protect their privacy. When they're questioned by police, they have to have a parent present.
Manassah watched the interview with the 15-year-old who was arrested at Garinger and said she could tell he was conflicted. After all, he allegedly was involved in a murder on a Friday and went to school Monday.
"There's some reason he went to school, right? Because he still knows what is the right thing to do, to get the education," she said.
Police say he and two friends shot a 26-year-old man off Central Avenue.
Manassah called that shooting "unexplainable," but she said investigators are getting a clearer idea of what happened in another shooting on April 3.
"They're not equipped to handle a gun, obviously they're not equipped to handle it safely and properly, so sometimes what you see is a kid with a finger on a trigger," Manassah said.
CMPD keeps track of its highest-risk juvenile offenders on a list called JPOST, or Juvenile Post-Offender Strategic Team. Sixty-one teenagers ages 13 to 15 are on the list now, which is about average, Officer Matthew Teague said.
Teens on the list have been charged with crimes such as breaking and entering, stealing cars, robbery and homicide, Teague said. Officers stationed across Charlotte work with the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office and the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice to get the teens on a different path and meet every two weeks to discuss each teen.
"What we try to do is help these juveniles realize that they have options other than continuing to commit crimes," Teague said.
He said officers get to know each family as they help the teens find jobs and activities to keep them away from trouble.
Police said each of the three 15-year-olds charged with murder this month had been arrested previously, and one of them was on the JPOST list. The 15-year-old charged in a fatal June 2017 shooting was also on the list.
Teague said he thinks of his role as a mentor and he dislikes being called a probation officer, even though he does visit the teens at home to check on them and see if they're following curfews.
One teenager moved to a town two hours away after he came off the list, Teague said, so he visits with him on the way to the beach.
Teague said some JPOST teens continue to get in trouble, but he's seen a real turnaround with one student, who came onto the JPOST list when he was just 11. At that age, he had 41 pending felonies because of a habit of stealing cars, Teague said.
"With the hard work of us and his family and his mother, this juvenile has completely turned his life around in a year and half," he said.
"He is no longer going to an alternative CMS school. He goes to a ... middle school where the staff love him, and he's doing great. Next year, he hopes to go on to high school and play for his high school football team."
Despite the spike in teens charged with murder this month, Manassah said she thinks it's part of the normal "ebb and flow" she's seen in crime data.
"I don't think this is a trend that we're going to see a bunch of 15-year-olds out there committing crimes," she said. "I think it's just a happenstance. ... If you look at the numbers, I don't see us going greatly off of that skew or off of that curve."
Most children under 15 don't go on the JPOST list when they get in trouble, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said. The department's youth diversion program aims to teach life skills, and kids who complete the program won't have an offense on their record. About 700 kids go through the diversion program every year, Putney said.
"Our goal is always to keep our recidivism rate under 20, and right now we're at 7 percent. So 93 percent of the people who complete the course don't go on to commit further crimes," Putney said.
Teague said police are looking for community members who can visit young people at school and serve as positive role models. He asked anyone interested to reach out to him through the police department.