Crime & Courts

Charlotte matched 2018 homicide total in less than 6 months. What happens now?

A broad-daylight shooting on a commercial block in northwest Charlotte attracts a crowd.

At least 20 Charlotte-Mecklenburg police cars pull up. Eventually, they block Beatties Ford Road completely. Curious bystanders crowd into the shade of sparse sidewalk trees, trying to find out what’s going on across the street.

A girl, the rumors said. Shot right there. Died at the scene.

A young woman staggers up to the corner of Lasalle Street and Beatties Ford, sobbing, unable to walk without support from a companion.

She ends up sitting blank-faced on a curb at American Deli, almost directly across the street from where 17-year-old Alysha Johnson was shot and killed. CMPD Victims’ Services workers, who are assigned to counsel the families of homicide victims, hover nearby.

The first grieving woman doesn’t talk to reporters. Another woman, Evelyn Walker-Poe, does. Through tears, she says Johnson and her grandson had been living in her home while they waited on an apartment.

“She was nice,” Poe said. “She was kind. She was compassionate. She would do anything for anybody. I didn’t have no problem with this girl in my home.”

Poe said Johnson had woken up cheerful that morning, June 17. Poe dreaded going home and seeing the teenager’s belongings, a reminder that she wouldn’t be coming home again.

A CMPD major tells reporters the negative stereotypes about this part of Charlotte aren’t valid — the neighborhood’s been doing better, crime’s going down, local pride is going up.

One man was killed a few blocks from here at the end of April, but it’s true that the city’s deadly crime has been dispersed all over.

What’s not getting better is the homicide rate. Johnson was the 56th person killed in Charlotte in 2019.

On Wednesday evening, 22-year-old Kenneth Armstrong became the 57th.

By the end of 2018, CMPD had counted 57 homicides for that year. One person was assaulted in October and died from his injuries in February, bringing the CMPD total to 58. Such events can minimally change CMPD’s annual homicide counts. For the purposes of historical comparison across nearly 50 years of homicide data, the Observer is using year-end totals.

The rapidly rising death toll in 2019 has provoked alarm from pastors, local leaders, community members and law enforcement — but no one is sure what’s causing the sudden jump.

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Who’s dying?

Victims range in age from a 7-month-old baby to a 71-year-old woman. They’ve been killed in their homes, in their cars, on the street and — in the case of two young men and a shooting that brought national attention to Charlotte — in their classroom at UNC Charlotte.

CMPD demographic data analyzed by the Observer show the victims are disproportionately black, male and young.

The median age of the victims is 28. Four out of five were men or boys. And about 75% were black.

CMPD has made arrests in just over 60% of the cases, and about three-quarters of those suspects are black.

If killings were to continue at this pace, the city would have more than 100 homicides in a year for the first time since 1993. But Charlotte has grown rapidly in recent decades, so the per capita rate is unlikely to set a record.

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For more information about historical homicide data, watch the video above. The Charlotte Observer

In 1994, the year the Charlotte and Mecklenburg County police departments merged, the new department reported a homicide rate of 16.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

In 2017, when the homicide count soared to 85 from a 10-year average of 63, the rate was 9.7 deaths per 100,000 people.

City response

Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP President Corine Mack said she wants to see a stronger response from city leaders, such as Mayor Vi Lyles and the City Council.

“It’s not like the chief of police hasn’t spoken about it openly. ... He has,” she said. “He’s crying out for help himself. It goes back to leadership, and leadership matters.”

Mack, who has been working with UNC Charlotte student activists in the wake of the deadly shooting on their campus April 30, said she was particularly surprised by the inaction after that case.

She thought the circumstances — the victims were white, they were killed at school — would bring a more powerful reaction. She hoped the city would support training on gun safety and cultural competency.

“When African Americans are killed, the response is usually a long time coming, if at all,” she said. “But in this case we’ve had a major tragedy at UNCC ... and the response was not as vigorous as I thought it would be, either.”

City spokesman Jeremy Mills said the mayor wants to gather quantitative data before she comes up with an action plan. Last month, through a partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, an analyst from Johns Hopkins began examining violent crime in the city with an eye toward reducing it, he said.

The city won’t see the effects of that analysis right away, City Council member Braxton Winston acknowledged, but he believes short-term and long-term solutions are both needed.

“The most important thing we can do is get out into our communities and get eyes, ears and mouths and hands on the street,” he said.

The City Council is trying to support immediate community work through a microgrant program, which gives money to people trying to create local change. Money for microgrants increased from $100,000 last year to $500,000 in the new city budget.

But in the long run, Winston said, solving economic inequality will make a big difference in the crime rate. He said victims and suspects alike are more likely to be housing or food insecure and to live far away from good schools.

“So as we look at building more equitable neighborhoods, we have to be honest that ... while there is definitely personal responsibility and individual responsibility in fighting these trends, there is the larger system at work here,” he said.

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Multiple shootings more common

Almost a quarter of the 2019 homicide victims died in shootings with multiple victims. Most often, the other gunshot victims lived, but three times, two people were killed together.

A 15-year-old girl, Jenna Elizabeth Hewitt, was killed alongside 51-year-old Matthew Allen Chaplin in a south Charlotte home on Feb. 24. Police said the man responsible for their deaths died by suicide.

Three days later, Ibn Marshall and Anu’bius Smith were killed — and a third person was shot — just west of uptown. Marshall was 17 and Smith was 18. Two 18-year-olds were charged with murder.

On the last day of classes at UNCC, six students were shot in a classroom, and two — 19-year-old Ellis “Reed” Parlier and 21-year-old Riley Howell — died, sending the campus and the state into mourning. A 22-year-old former student was charged with murder.

At least eight other homicide victims this year were shot alongside other people who survived.

Guns were used in the vast majority — nearly 85% — of Charlotte homicides this year. Nearly all were handguns, according to CMPD. More than half the victims were pronounced dead at the scene.

The increase in violence is reflected in non-fatal incidents, too. CMPD reported that aggravated assault increased 12% in the first quarter of 2019 compared with the same period the year before. Violent crime overall increased by 11%.

The police department is still struggling to fill its ranks, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney told the Observer in an interview Thursday. With a bigger staff, he said he could send more officers to develop relationships in neighborhoods and eventually increase the number of detectives solving violent crimes.

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Steps underway

While police have not attributed the recent rise in homicides to any exact cause, they’re paying special attention to resolving arguments without fatal violence. At least 15 of this year’s homicides were related to arguments, police say — more than any other single cause.

Putney has talked for years about teaching people to keep guns out of fights.

A decrease in homicides and in overall crime during 2018 seemed to reflect progress on that effort. Fifty-seven people were killed, compared with 85 the year before.

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Aggravated assault increased slightly, by 3%, in 2018, but Putney said in January that he could see the bright side of that statistic.

“I’ll take you having a scuffle, hate to say it, over pulling a gun out and ending somebody’s life any day,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to fully understand that, and it’s bigger than the police. I think it starts with the parents.”

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But in 2019, police are seeing more fights with guns, and fistfights haven’t decreased either. In early May, Putney and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Clayton Wilcox spoke about the importance of conflict resolution and mediation.

CMS students are learning how to end disputes peacefully in school, Wilcox said, and Putney announced CMPD would hold events to teach conflict resolution to the broader community.

Forty people attended the first conflict resolution event, which was held on May 9 in east Charlotte, CMPD Maj. Dave Robinson said.

“What we do is we try to reduce instances of violent crime before they happen and this is a Cadillac way to do that,” he said. “But we had 40 people out of 800 and some thousand people that live here — many of whom say they want to make a difference and just didn’t show up.”

A second event related to conflict resolution is scheduled for Tuesday evening in the Belmont neighborhood.

Putney and other police leaders say CMPD can’t reduce crime by itself. They’ve called on community members to speak up if they witness crime or conflict and to alert the police if necessary.

After Alysha Johnson was killed on Beatties Ford Road, witnesses gave good descriptions to police, Robinson said, and three young people were arrested within hours.

But ideally, police say, community intervention would come before the shooting rather than after.

“(We need) community members who step up and say, ‘You know what, that’s just not right,’” Robinson said.

Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.