In the line of fire: Gun violence reaches crisis point in West End
SALISBURY — Carolyn Rice and her granddaughters were asleep in their West Horah Street home when shots rang out just after midnight on March 22.
“Grandma, they are shooting again,” Kneeka, 16, told her grandmother.
The girls have grown accustomed to hearing gunfire in their neighborhood. Rice said it happens almost daily.
The next day, Miranda, 9, tried to turn on the new television in the tiny bedroom the girls share. Rice had given them the TV as a Christmas gift.
When they pulled the set away from the wall to figure out why it wasn’t working, Rice discovered that a stray bullet from the early-morning gunfight on nearby Grim Street had penetrated the bedroom wall and lodged in the back of the television, just a few feet from her granddaughters’ bunk beds. Three men were shot and injured during the incident.
“I put my finger in the hole and I started shaking,” Rice said. “I was overwhelmed to think a bullet come in their room. They in the bed. They asleep.”
With a slightly different trajectory, the bullet would have struck Miranda, Rice said.
“I wasn’t as angry as I was overwhelmed,” she said. “A stray bullet came in my grandbabies’ room.”
Gun violence and other violent crime in the West End has reached epidemic proportions, Rice and others say. Long-time residents who said they live in fear and neighborhood advocates frustrated with what they call neglect by the city have pleaded with elected officials to take action and end the shootings that are plaguing the West End.
City Council has agreed to meet with residents in May, and the Salisbury Police Department is launching several new initiatives this month to put more officers in the neighborhood. While the crime rate in Salisbury fell by 8.6 percent from 2009 to 2013, serious crime in the West End jumped more than 12 percent during the same period.
Three murders, including two shootings and a stabbing, occurred in the West End within 10 months in 2013. Two remain unsolved. Aggravated assaults, which include gunshot wounds, almost doubled in the West End from 15 assaults between April 2012 and April 2013 to 26 between April 2013 and this month.
A student was shot and injured in February outside Salisbury High School, located on the periphery of the West End.
Three weeks after the men were shot near Rice’s house, another man was shot and injured, also on Grim Street.
Two days later, gunfire erupted at West Bank and Craige streets, and two bullets struck the home of Kenneth Hardin’s parents. One bullet entered the home through a wall and skimmed across a bed, striking a dresser and cracking the glass top.
“The scary thing is that my oldest brother and his wife had visited a few days earlier from Maryland and had slept in that bed,” Hardin said. “Had they been there still, they would have certainly been struck by the bullet.”
His parents, who are in their 70s and have lived in their home for 42 years, are terrified, said Hardin, who moved out of the West End 10 years ago after bullets fired near his house shattered a neighbor’s window. His parents declined to comment for this story.
Several West End residents who talked about gun violence and other crime asked the Post not to use their names because they fear retaliation.
Slightly larger than one-half square mile with about 2,150 residents, the West End as defined by the city is bound by streets including South Caldwell, West Innes, Hedrick, Burton, Grace and West Thomas. Old Duncan School on Monroe Street stands in the center of the mostly African American neighborhood, which includes Livingstone College, Old Plank Road and parts of Brenner Avenue.
Deedee Wright moved to the West End 27 years ago. She said she has watched drugs and guns take over her quiet, quaint neighborhood. Wright, who said she used to confront drug dealers on her street with a pistol in her pocket, got rid of her gun, but plenty of others in the West End have the weapons.
“Not only are the criminals carrying guns, but good, innocent people are carrying guns too and unless we want a whole lot of bloodshed in this town, something has to change,” said William Peoples, who does not live in the West End but grew up there and said he visits nearly every day. “If we don’t curb the violence, we are going to have a civil war here.”
Peoples, Wright and others said they can spend hours in the West End and not see a police officer. Residents said they feel like second-class citizens, neglected by city services from police protection to tree limb pick-up.
Distrust of the city runs so deep, one resident said she believes the city taxes the West End at a higher rate. Another resident said he suspects police do not crack down on criminals in the West End because they want to keep the crime there, so it does not spread to other neighborhoods.
Residents complain about slow police response times, incomplete investigations and unsolved crimes. But city officials say people who witness crimes or have information that would help lead to an arrest often will not talk to police.
Detectives have spent hundreds of hours investigating the two unsolved homicides in the West End, Police Chief Rory Collins said, but “it is often difficult to bring the suspects to justice without the cooperation of witnesses who, on an increasing basis, refuse to talk with police.”
Police encourage anyone who sees suspicious activity to call 911, but many residents in the West End do not make the call out of fear, frustration or apathy. Some residents are afraid police will tell others that they called, putting them in danger. Others said they don’t call 911 because it does no good.
“There seems to be a lackadaisical attitude on behalf of the police about the West End,” Wright said. “There is not a sense of urgency.”
Gunshots and suspicious activity are “like a common, everyday thing and nobody shows up,” said Rice, who did not call police to report the gunfire that put a stray bullet in her granddaughters’ room.
Rice said she did call police when she found the bullet the next day, and they responded promptly. But Rice said officers did not come a few days later when she called to report that the teenager who Rice believes broke into her home and ransacked it after the shooting was standing near her house.
People are afraid to call 911 because they believe they will be questioned, Wright said.
“What do we have to do to make people feel comfortable in talking to the police?” she said. “I think it has a lot to do with how the police talk to the community.”
Law enforcement officials said people who call to report suspicious activity can remain anonymous.
Mayor Paul Woodson said the city is committed to finding a way to curtail the shootings in the West End, but police cannot stop the gun violence by themselves. Residents need to make the call, he said.
“If they know a certain group is doing it, if they help us, we will respond,” Woodson said. “It’s very frustrating for me and City Council and the chief. We want to stop it, but you know it’s just a situation where we’ve got to have their help.”
All City Council members have expressed concern about the shootings and a desire for residents to live in a safe neighborhood free from gun violence and stray bullets.
“I have a grandchild, and I feel for them,” said Woodson, who advocated considering a return to community policing in the West End. “It’s horrible to have someone shooting into your grandchildren’s bedroom.”
Woodson said he has high hopes for a new community relations officer who started work in the West End last week, as well as tripling the number of patrol officers in the neighborhood from one to three and adding a second Police Interdiction Team, which also will focus on the West End.
But at a recent City Council meeting, NAACP President Scott Teamer said another aggressive PIT team is not the answer. African Americans in the West End continue to be stopped by five or six police cars at a time for a traffic violation, Teamer said, adding that he has been stopped by police “excessively.”
City Council plans to meet with the NAACP as well.
Some residents complain the only time they see a police car is when several cruisers race down their street. Instead, they said they would like officers to patrol the neighborhood on foot, meeting people, building relationships and getting to know the community.
Woodson said he wants officers in the West End to do just that. He said he personally called many victims of a string of home break-ins in the West End last year that contributed to the steep jump in burglaries. Police arrested Arthur James Jackson III, 38, of Old Wilkesboro Road, on Dec. 30 and believe he is responsible for 15 home break-ins.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make it as safe as we can,” Woodson said.
The city wants to beef up the neighborhood watch program in the West End. Although “community watch” signs are common, there is no organized program. The neighborhood does not have an association, email list or newsletter, but neighbors quickly call each other to discuss suspicious activity.
Although some residents say the city does not have enough police officers, Woodson disagreed.
Salisbury has between 2.8 and 3 officers per 1,000 citizens, Woodson said, while most cities Salisbury’s size have 1.8 to 2.2 officers per 1,000 residents.
Salisbury has 95 police officers, he said, while comparable cities have about 65.
“We are well-staffed,” Woodson said.
According to Collins, the Salisbury Police Department has 89 employees, including 81 sworn officers and eight civilians. The department has three vacancies in sworn positions, Collins said, and he anticipated hiring one officer this week. There are no vacancies in the civilian positions, he said.
A void left
The death of Sgt. Mark Hunter left a void in the West End, many say, and gun violence has increased since he passed away from a heart attack in April 2013. Hunter policed the West End for years as a patrol officer, canine handler, drug investigator and finally, police sergeant.
Residents said he helped keep a lid on crime in the West End with strong law enforcement but also sincere concern for the neighborhood. Simply put, Hunter liked being in the West End, they said.
“Where are you at now, because we sure need you,” Cindra Bognuda said at a candlelight vigil on the one-year anniversary of Hunter’s death.
When Hunter died, some community leaders warned that crime in the West End would rise, and law enforcement officials met to discuss what to do.
A controversial cop, Hunter was involved in several incidents that spawned lawsuits against the city and monetary settlements with plaintiffs. But no one on the force knew the West End like he did, many say.
“Mark Hunter did a tremendous job for us,” City Councilman Pete Kennedy said. “… I’m not so sure that other police officers that we have know what’s going on. That may be part of the disconnect.”
Residents say they need officers who want to spend time in the neighborhood and are not afraid to patrol the West End. Peoples suggested the city should fix up some of the vacant houses and let police officers live there for free for a year or two.
City officials say they need residents to cooperate with police, and Kennedy said the city needs to listen to residents’ concerns.
“I think this is an issue that can be solved and will be solved, but the citizens and the police department need to be on the same page,” said Kennedy, an alumnus of Livingstone College and the only African American on City Council. “I thought we were, but evidently we are not.”
Kennedy said like the home break-ins, he suspects the shootings are being committed by a handful of criminals who are giving the West End a bad reputation.
Most of Livingstone’s professors and the city’s black business owners used to live in the West End, he said. The neighborhood has two groups — West End Pride the West End Community Organization — that keep elected officials on their toes, he said.
The economic downturn has hurt the community, like other neighborhoods in Salisbury, and absentee landlords have let their property deteriorate.
“The West End at one time was the beacon of the black community,” Kennedy said. “The West End, I think, still is a beacon.”
The city, Salisbury Housing Authority and a steering committee have been working for years on the West End Transformation Plan, an ambitious $18 million vision that would bring health care, child care, job training, veterans services, transportation, housing and potentially commerce to the neighborhood. While much of the plan remains unfunded, organizers won tax credits to help finance the $9.7 million redevelopment of Civic Park, a public housing complex in the West End.
The housing authority plans to break ground this spring on the first phase, 80 new apartments for working families.
Neighborhood advocates are calling for more and better-paid police officers in the West End. They suggest additional street lights and 24-hour patrols until the gun violence is under control. They want faster response times, more thorough investigations and a sense that someone cares about their community.
But they agree that residents need to do more, too.
“We need to be more vigilant as a community,” Wright said. “We can’t put it all on the police officer. Parents need to parent their children and know where their children are.
“If they see something, they need to call.”
Rice said she will call 911 now when she sees something suspicious or hears gunshots, and she’s encouraging her neighbors to do the same. She said she has invested too much in her home to give up the fight and move out.
She has posted signs on her front door, back door and window warning criminals, “Someone is watching today.”
After the stray bullet came into the bedroom, Miranda slept with her grandmother for several nights and still refuses to sleep in the room by herself, Rice said, while Kneeka was “devastated.”
When Rice hears a noise at night, she said she immediately gets up to check the house and inspect the walls for bullets. She said she had to quit her job due to stress.
“This has been more than I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “I’ve had to overcome fear.”
Contact reporters Emily Ford at 704-797-4264 and Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.
Coming Monday: Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins addresses residents’ concerns about gun violence in the West End and details new strategies to combat crime in the neighborhood.