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In the Line of Fire: Police responding to West End concerns

SALISBURY — Salisbury Police Officer Reuben Ijames slowly approaches Beatrice Addison, who is sitting in her car. He asks the South Ellis Street resident a few questions, which she answers.
The officer gives her a business card and his personal cell phone number, the two shake hands and he walks away.
The brief conversation is the kind of exchange the new community relations officer hopes to have with all 2,152 residents of the West End, where residents have pleaded with the city to address gun violence and other crime.
The officer began his new role a week ago and already has met more than a dozen residents. Some people haven’t come to the door when he knocked, but Ijames said he is determined to make a connection.
“My primary duty is to make the West End a safer place to live,” he said.
Ijames said he hopes to begin building trust in the community and open lines of communication. He will not only try to get to know residents but will walk the streets, help residents establish Community Watch programs and make arrests, if necessary.
Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins has acknowledged West End residents’ concerns about violent crime and said he has developed several new strategies — many put into place this month — to make the community safer.
Police can only do so much without the help and cooperation of West End residents, Collins said.
“We need them to be our eyes,” he said.
He understands some residents do not want to get involved, fearing retaliation. And he admits some residents simply do not trust police.
“If I’m being honest, there is a lack of trust between the community and the Police Department. I’m trying to rebuild relationships and the trust in our community on the West End and the entire city,” Collins said. “It’s crucial to have the help of the community and the trust of the community.”
While aggressively fighting crime is important, he said, law enforcement will not be able to “arrest our way out of the problems of society. And it’s important for us to get to the bottom of the problem and try to stop the cycle of violence and crime.”
He said one way to stop the cycle of violence is with the help of the communities and churches. Some area churches have programs aimed at youth, he said, and other churches could incorporate similar programs.
He said programs like the Salisbury Police Department’s cadet program and Police Athletic League work with teens, providing them mentors and positive outlets.
“It’s important to get to the youth early to understand the importance of making those life choices,” Collins said.
Collins publicly unveiled his new strategies earlier this year during a City Council meeting. The chief detailed his plans to educate the community, change police response and work with other agencies.
Collins said his department has worked with Salisbury’s Code Services Division to identify vacant homes that could potentially be a hiding place for criminal activity. Police personnel have made contact with property owners who have completed trespass agreements, allowing officers to check for intruders. Several times a week, officers go to those vacant homes and check doors, windows and behind the properties to ensure they are secured.
He said educating residents on how to keep their homes safe is also a key strategy to combat crime, not only in the West End, but the entire city.
Salisbury Police Officer Annice Chunn visits with residents to provide individualized recommendations on ways they can protect their homes and become less of a target for criminals. Chunn gives residents tips that include trimming hedges, using a dead bolt lock or adding exterior lighting as a way to deter criminal activity.
Chunn was the first community relations officer with the Salisbury Police Department. Ijames is the second.
While Chunn splits her time between educating residents and working as the department’s victim advocate, Ijames will spend his time talking directly with residents about their concerns and immediately addressing them through enforcement.
“I want people to be able to sit on their front porch,” Ijames said.
He said he realizes residents will not see a change overnight, but “hopefully with the community’s help, we can make the west side safer.”
Collins said following the death of Sgt. Mark Hunter, who died a year ago after a heart attack, his department feared there would be a void in the West End, where Hunter patrolled for years.
Collins said he met with his command staff to ensure the officers they placed in the West End had the same balance of forcefulness and concern for the community as Hunter.
“I did not want there to be even a perceived gap of caring,” Collins said.
Collins said the perception is that Hunter was one of few officers who cared about the West End, but that is not true. He said Hunter did build personal relationships with the residents in the neighborhood but given time, the officers working in the community now will build the same kind of rapport.
Ijames will work closely with the patrol officers assigned to West End as well as with a second Police Interdiction Team, or PIT, assigned to the area.
Collins said he had long considered changing patrol beats to have more officers covering a larger area and finally was able to implement the idea by redesigning patrol beats into a four-quadrant system.
Collins and his command staff looked at areas with the greatest need, how many officers could be placed there and what type of incidents had occurred in the past.
Collins acknowledged that “stronger enforcement is definitely needed. Stronger presence is definitely needed. The bottom line is police presence can be a deterrent to crime.”
The new system places three officers in a quadrant that includes smaller areas formerly covered by just one officer. The patrol officers within the quadrants also will work with Ijames and members of the PIT street crimes unit.
“The quadrants are a larger area, but they are able to focus their attention on the areas within the quadrant that need the most attention,” Collins said.
Once Collins fills a vacancy this week, the Police Interdiction Team will have five members. The team includes officers and a sergeant.
“The team is designed to be aggressive in ‘hot spots,’ ” said Sgt. R.B. Willis.
Willis heads one of the street crimes units and said the hot spots are determined by the amount of activity in an area. Officers rely on tips from residents, but some people in the West End have said they do not want their names associated with tips to police.
Willis said residents can provide a tip without giving their name. A name helps if the officer needs to follow up, he said, but it isn’t necessary.
“It’s an excellent starting point to work in the areas people have concerns about,” he said.
Willis said PIT team members are aggressively pursuing hot spots throughout the city, not just in the West End. He estimates half of what the PIT unit responds to comes from residents and the remainder is what an officer may notice while on patrol.
Willis encouraged residents to attend Salisbury Neighborhood Action Group, or SNAG, meetings to voice concerns and hear what others in their neighborhood are saying. The meetings are open to the public and held monthly at the Salisbury Police Department. Officers sometimes find out about concerns through the SNAG meetings.
Collins said he instituted the PIT unit out of a need to have officers whose sole responsibility is to be proactive.
“The first PIT were found to be so successful,” Collins said. “They went into crime-filled areas and literally pushed the crime out.”
In the last two weeks, he said, the PIT unit has seized two weapons from incidents related to drug activity.
PIT officers work with the detectives in the criminal investigations unit, probation officers, other law enforcement agencies, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco as well as Alcohol Law Enforcement.
Some residents say they are fearful after several murders in the city, including three in the West End. To date, one homicide in the West End has been solved.
Collins’ new police strategies in the neighborhood are in response to these crimes:
• William “Billy” Henderson, 68, West Bank Street, stabbed to death March 19, 2013
Henderson was found by a caretaker inside his home across from J.C. Price High School. Police do not believe the killing was random, and there was no forced entry into his home, where some items were taken. No arrest has been made.
• Abraham “Abe” Jenkins, 19, West Horah Street and Institute Street, shot multiple times Sept. 16, 2013
Jenkins was fatally shot as he walked toward Livingstone College to meet his girlfriend. Suspect Andre Rynell Bognuda was arrested an hour after the shooting during an unrelated traffic stop at Knox Street. He remains in the Rowan County Detention Center without bond.
• Richard Neri, 30, Old Wilkesboro Road and Brenner Avenue, shot multiple times Dec. 7, 2013
Neri was the victim of an early morning drive-by shooting and was found inside his car. Witnesses said a sport-utility vehicle drove around Neri’s car and someone inside it fired multiple shots. Neri’s vehicle came to a stop as it hit a reinforced barrier on Brenner Avenue. No arrest has been made.
Residents in the West End say they are concerned about other gun violence that has taken place, some in recent weeks. At least two homeowners have reported stray bullets coming into their bedrooms, including one incident where a bullet penetrated a bedroom wall just feet from two children in their bunk beds.
Four people were injured following two separate shooting incidents, both on Grim Street.
On March 22, three people were shot near Grim Street and Alexander Lane. None were killed, but all were taken to area hospitals. Police have not charged anyone.
Police responded to a second shooting April 12 where two men argued following a card game at a home on Grim Street. Thomas Edwin Brown turned himself in April 23 and is charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon. The victim was shot once in the chest and taken to the hospital.
Salisbury High School freshman Shaleek Williams was shot in February outside the school, which is on the fringe of the West End. Williams was shot in the stomach trying to break up a fight.
The teen accused of shooting him, DaJuan Russell, 17, remains in the county jail under $1 million bond.
“With the shooting incidents, we are making sure our street crimes unit (Police Interdiction Team) are spending the majority of their time on the West End to coincide with the patrol officers that work in that area,” Collins said.
Contact reporters Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 and Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

Coming Tuesday: Livingstone College partners with the community to tackle part of the West End problem, cleaning up vacant houses the college owns.

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