Crime & Courts

Homicides in Charlotte rise to a 6-year high

Charlotte saw a dramatic increase in homicides in 2015 – the 62 people killed were the highest number in six years and a nearly 50 percent increase over 2014, when the city had an historic low 42 killings.

Police and city leaders hope the increase is an anomaly after a decade-long drop in crime across the nation. But the rise in killings is an exclamation point on a yearlong surge in crime.

Crime was up 10.6 percent through the third quarter of 2015. Violent crime was up 17.6 percent. And aggravated assaults, the most violent attacks that typically involve a weapon, were up 19.2 percent.

It follows a nationwide trend. Houston, St. Louis, New Orleans and Baltimore have all seen significant spikes in homicides this year. The totals are up in other cities, too, including New York and Chicago. Washington, D.C., which in 2012 recorded just 88 homicides, had 162 in 2015. Chicago police counted 480 killings last year.

“It’s unsettling,” said Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts. “We’re not certain that it’s specific reasons related to Charlotte, per se, but we absolutely want to reverse that trend and we want to make it a budget priority.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney has told city council he plans to request more officers to keep up with population growth and rising crime.

“For that you also need more personnel,” he said. “In order to have the ability to be flexible and have those innovative strategies, you also need the resources.”

Putney told city council members in November that attacking the root causes of crime – through economic advancement, educational opportunity and programs for reintegrating imprisoned felons into society – goes beyond police policy.

Nearly half of the city’s 2015 homicides stem from some type of toxic relationship, Putney said.

“Those are the things that drive homicides,” he said. “It’s cyclical. I wish I could account for every one but I can’t. There’s a lot of work that we do strategically in an attempt to prevent a lot of them but like anything else, if you’re in a toxic, violent relationship until you break that cycle, we’re kind of defenseless to assist in preventing some of these.”

Another concern: Antipathy toward police departments is increasing in the wake of highly publicized shootings of unarmed individuals, particularly minorities. The tension makes people less willing to cooperate with police to solve crimes, keeping violent criminals on the streets, criminologists say.

Some of the killings sparked outrage across the city. Five people were shot and killed on Labor Day weekend, for example, including 7-year-old Kevin Rodas. He was killed at a child’s birthday party in southwest Charlotte shortly after another child broke a piñata. No one has been arrested in his killing. Police said a total of 12 people were shot in Charlotte over that holiday weekend. In February, Mirjana Puhar, a former contestant on America’s Top Model, was found dead with her boyfriend and another man just north of uptown. Police say the triple homicide was drug-related.

Rodas wasn’t the year’s youngest victim. Luis Miguel Rodriguez Jr. was just 26 days old when he was killed. His mother, 17-year-old Daniela Susana Villareal is charged in his death. The oldest victim was 68-year-old Francis Rose Davis, who was shot to death in her northwest Charlotte home. Her son was charged with her killing. Investigators said he had been treated for schizophrenia and hallucinations and had been acting bizarrely in the days before the shooting.

The rise in killings amplified crime issues the city has struggled with. African-Americans made up a disproportionately high number of the year’s homicide victims. The number of killings associated with domestic violence doubled from 2014. And high-poverty parts of the city’s urban core continued to account for a disproportionate number of slayings.

Domestic violence

Eight of the year’s killings were people killed by their current or former spouse or intimate partner, according to domestic violence awareness advocates. That’s 13 percent of 2015’s killings. In 2014, domestic violence homicides accounted for fewer than 10 percent.

The 2015 domestic violence killings included Tamika McClelland, whose ex-boyfriend smashed through her sliding glass door and set her home on fire moments after her children escaped.

Bea Coté, the chairwoman of the Mecklenburg Domestic Violence Advocacy Council, said the uptick was not necessarily evidence of a trend. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police investigated four domestic violence-related homicides in both 2014 and 2015. The number of domestic violence homicides has been trending downward since 2008.

Still, Coté said, the increase signifies that the community still needs to work to raise awareness about domestic violence. One focus, she said, should be to help family members of victims become more aware of the warning signs of domestic violence.

“We’re really good about letting people know there’s help but what we’re not good about is helping victims identify as victims,” she said.

Victims are mostly black

African-Americans were disproportionately represented among 2015’s homicide victims, although the ratio decreased from 2014.

While blacks make up about 35 percent of Charlotte’s population, 70 percent of the year’s homicide victims were African-American, a total of 44 people. In 2014, 76 percent of the homicide victims were black.

Putney said the numbers are even grimmer for black men.

“Black males make up 17 percent of our jurisdiction,” the chief said. “But they’re 63 percent of homicide victims, and 68 percent of homicide suspects.”

Putney said that reflects other disparities among the city’s crime victims. Blacks account for 52 percent of all crime victims, and for 62 percent of violent crime victims, he told city council in November.

Patrick Graham, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, said the disparity is more about socioeconomics than race, although the two often intersect.

“What we are experiencing is a culture of violence in low-income communities where they are socially and economically isolated without the type of mentorship or visible signs of hope,” he said. “It’s the notion that you can’t rise above the circumstances in which you live. And a lot of times it’s very hard to envision something when you don’t actually see any examples of it.”

Kami Chavis Simmons, the head of Wake Forest’s criminology department, said recent high-profile police shootings of minorities may be intensifying the disparity. Crime victims and witnesses in minority neighborhoods may be less willing to cooperate with officers, leaving violent criminals on the street for longer, and increasing the chance that they’ll commit more crimes.

“If you can’t trust the police officers, it is very difficult to form partnerships and for people to want to cooperate with them,” she said.

Metro and North Tryon

Two parts of the city that have historically struggled with violent crime continued to account for a large number of the city’s killings.

The North Tryon Division, which starts just north of Interstate 277, had 10 homicides, four more than 2014. The bordering Metro Division, which consists of older neighborhoods along the Beatties Ford Road corridor, had 13 killings.

Combined, the two divisions accounted for 37 percent of the city’s homicides. That’s down from 2014, when the two divisions accounted for 39 percent of killings.

It was the second year in a row that Metro has had the highest number of homicides, despite police vowing last year to put more resources into the division.

Then-Chief Rodney Monroe said police leaders increased patrols on foot and on dual sport motorcycles, which can go off-road or in the grassy areas between apartment complexes to more effectively police.

But police warned then that they couldn’t arrest themselves out of the problem. Nearly 40 percent of the people who live in the Metro Division live in high-poverty areas. Officers made more drug arrests in the 13.3-square-mile division than any other in the city.

City council leaders and police had considered making some parts of the Metro Division exclusion zones, banning people who are arrested for up to a year. Entering the zone after being prohibited would be a misdemeanor.

The proposal was scuttled on worries that it would violate the constitutional rights of people who hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Critics also worried that the zones would just drive crime to other areas.

The two divisions are part of a pilot program to change the way police approach violent crimes, said Capt. Rob Dance, who heads the North Tryon Division.

Sergeants in the Metro Division have been relieved of some administrative tasks, and are increasingly being asked to identify crime trends as they happen and come up with a plan to combat the problems. They also have the authority to request officers from other divisions to deal with crime spikes immediately. Officers are also making quicker arrests in aggravated assaults and domestic violence crimes when the suspect remains on scene, preventing the opportunity for more violence.

“The way to be a more effective organization is to be more innovative and more responsive,” Putney said. “The sergeants can move resources and come up with innovative ways to deal with (crime problems) right now instead of having to funnel up to the next level to a lieutenant.”

Nasif Majeed, a former city councilman who is now president of Plaza Eastway Partners, which includes communities in the North Tryon corridor, said the areas with the most homicides are battling a number of problems: higher unemployment and poverty, and greater incarceration rates.

“It’s not just one straw that breaks the camel’s back, it’s a combination of straws,” he said. “Look at the unemployment rate in a lot of these areas. Look at the unemployed, the underemployed, and look at how many people in these areas have been incarcerated before and are back out in society with a felony on their record and it makes it that much harder to get employment in an already difficult situation.”

Majeed said communities have pushed for more recreational and mentoring opportunities for children and teens. He supports the police chief’s push for more officers, but said an expanded police force needs to spend more time community policing, getting at the root causes of crimes.

“We’ve been trying to help these police officers understand that some of these problem adults were once problem children who have grown up.”

A new focus

Mayor Roberts and other public safety leaders have offered glimpses of how the city will work to reduce violent crime.

At the forefront is Putney’s request for more officers. He has not detailed how many officers he will ask for, or how he will deploy them, but said there will be extensive talks at the city council’s retreat in January. Most of city council voiced support for the idea of hiring more officers, but some polled by the Observer said they were keeping an open mind until they learn more about how officers will be allocated.

“It’s not just officers,” Roberts said. “It’s about reaching our youth and jail diversion programs that keep young people on the right path sooner. It’s about mentoring programs and positive use of out-of-school time. We also want to strengthen our community policing and strengthen our relationship with police officers and the community.”

Roberts said she is planning a youth summit for March that she hopes will identify solutions for keeping Charlotte youth from committing crimes.

Julie Eiselt, a newly elected council member who now chairs the community safety committee said that in order for an expansion of the police force to be effective, Putney’s plan should work in harmony with community and government efforts to reduce crime. The city should enlist the help of churches, businesses and private citizens willing to help, she said.

“I think there’s a very acute sense that we have to really work with the community,” Eiselt said. “We have to work with problem areas. If we need more police officers, the community needs to work with CMPD.”

The Associated Press contributed.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046, @CleveWootson