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Council candidates differ on lowering crime rates

City council candidates are split on a starting point for improving crime rates in Salisbury.

A plurality of the 16 candidates — seven total — focus on Salisbury’s police department when asked how he or she would help facilitate change in crime rates. Five candidates focus first on community issues — education, economic development and poverty — when asked the same question.

Candidates Stephen Arthur and Troy Russell did not respond to requests for comment about crime and policing. Candidate Constance Johnson refused to comment on crime and policing.

Crime quickly became a hot topic among council candidates following a recent uptick in violent crime and four consecutive gang-related shootings.

Candidates uniformly agree Salisbury’s crime rate is an issue for the quality of life in the city. Ideas about how to improve crimes rates differ significantly.

Candidates who focus on the Salisbury Police Department when asked how he or she would help facilitating change include: Roy Bentley, Kenny Hardin, Rip Kersey, Mark Lewis, Brian Miller, Todd Paris, Tamara Sheffield and Jeff Watkins.

Candidates who focus on community issues such as education or economic development when asked the same question include: Karen Alexander, Maggie Blackwell, Scott Maddox and William Peoples.

Businessman and attorney David Post, when asked how he would facilitate change, started by stating council members’ specifically enumerated powers. However, Post said council members do have a “bully pulpit.” They can set the tone for dealing with issues, he said.

The Salisbury Post solicited answers to a series of crime-focused questions from council candidates. A deadline of at least one week was given to candidates.

In answers, no candidate specifically called for Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins to be fired. In his answers, Hardin proposed studying whether leadership changes are necessary. During a council candidate forum last week, Paris, Peoples and Watkins called for the firing of Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins as a way to improve the police department.

A summary of candidates’ answers are included below.

Karen Alexander

Alexander said crime in Salisbury is a product of poverty, low education attainment, broken families and drug use.

“Crime and social degradation is complex, has many causes and must be addressed in a comprehensive manner from the whole community,” Alexander said. “The faith community, social services, education and jobs are pillars of support in the work to reduce poverty and crime.”

She said Salisbury’s crime statistics are similar in many ways — crime rates, police officers per population and police officer pay — to other cities.

It’s important to recruit young police officers, especially minority police officers, Alexander said.

She said it’s important for the community to respect police officers and contribute information about crimes when possible.

“I would rather go to a community that respects and appreciates the essential service that these men and women provide,” Alexander said. “Therefore, I think that it is unfair that citizens are denigrating our police department.”

Compared to other candidates, Alexander provided the lengthiest and most detailed responses to crime-related questions.

Roy Bentley

Bentley focused on funding additional police officers when asked how he would help facilitate change in Salisbury’s crime rate.

“I believe that the police department does not have enough sworn officers to cover the city effectively,” Bentley said. “I think the key to retaining officers is increasing morale, which I think is primarily affected by the need to increase pay and benefits to a level competitive with our neighbors.”

He proposed an anonymous, yearly feedback program to evaluate police officers.

In Salisbury and other police departments, younger officers occasionally leave to take higher paying jobs in larger cities. When asked about retaining young officers, Bentley said “retaining more officers at all would benefit the police department. Turnover in general is high, and very harmful from the perspective of morale and community relations.”

He didn’t say why retaining more officers was important.

Maggie Blackwell

Blackwell’s first focus was jobs when asked about facilitating change in Salisbury’s crime rate.

“The key way to reduce crime is to bring jobs to our city,” Blackwell said. “The types of crimes we experience evolve from our citizens not having jobs. When people turn to drugs, they often turn to crime to pay for the drugs.”

Blackwell said it’s important to retain more young officers. She cited a number of reasons why a police officer might leave.

“We find them, recruit them, train them and soon they are out the door for greener pastures,” she said.

Blackwell didn’t elaborate on why it’s important for officers to stay.

Blackwell said she was disappointed when a former city manager eliminated nine police positions “a few years ago.” She didn’t say which city manager she was referring to.

Kenny Hardin

Hardin said it’s important to evaluate efficiencies in the Salisbury Police Department, specifically saying any leadership changers should be made without a “blind sense of loyalty.”

If elected, Hardin said he wouldn’t waste time on initiatives such as a former police substation in Salisbury’s West End community.

If graded, Hardin was among the few candidates who said Salisbury’s police department wouldn’t pass. However, Hardin said the Salisbury community is also partially at fault for crime rates.

“The community has to get out of this victim mindset and pattern of sitting back and waiting to be rescued,” Hardin said. “If black lives matter and all lives matter, then we should act like it. Residents need to take the lead in protecting their own communities and stop begging others for what we can do ourselves.”

Hardin said he isn’t trying to build a name or resumé off of being critical of the Salisbury Police Department.

“I’m not a ‘Johnny come lately’ culture hustler who only looks for opportunities to agitate and antagonize,” Hardin said. “I’ve been invested for years and I’m out walking in the streets in the dangerous neighborhoods weekly talking to our misdirected youth and our concerned elders.”

Rip Kersey

When asked how he might help facilitate change in Salisbury’s crime rate, Kersey first focused on funding.

“Addressing the crime problem must be the No. 1 priority of the city and receive the funding and focus due a No. 1 issue,” Kersey said.

He said cities who make crime a No. 1 priority have experienced rapid and lasting change.

“Measures of improvement must be analyzed on a regular basis,” Kersey said. “Individuals creating high levels of criminal incidents must be arrested and receive the toughest of consequences. We need to utilize experts in the law enforcement world to assess and consult with our local leaders.”

Kersey said the police department does the best it can with the resources it receives. He said Salisbury should put a greater focus on recruiting experienced police officers.

He also talked about other factors that have an influence on crime rates. He said the city council creates an environment for schools to flourish.

Mark Lewis

Lewis outlined five specific items Salisbury City Council members could do to address the city’s crime rate. All but one specifically focused on the police department.

Lewis’ five items included: investing in community policing, hiring a diverse group of police officers, training officers to prevent racial profiling and de-escalate situations, fund body cameras and boosting investment in job readiness programs.

Lewis said Salisbury must also participate in regional conversations relating to crime.

Although he mostly focused on improving the police department, Lewis talked also talked about how poverty contributes to increased crime rates.

“I don’t have the answers for this problem, but I am willing to provide the leadership to devise strategies to address the rising poverty rate in our community,” Lewis said. A coordinated effort will bear much fruit if properly implemented.”

In contrast to Alexander’s claim, Lewis said Salisbury has the lowest minimum salary for police officers and third lowest maximum salary.

“If we don’t pay them, they will come get their training from us and then move on to another city with better salaries.”

Scott Maddox

When asked about facilitating change in Salisbury’s crime rate, Maddox said Salisbury’s leaders have to do more to prevent crime.

“Crime is a society problem,” Maddox said. “Normally, when the police get involved, a crime has already happened.”

He said education, improved unemployment rates, positive activities, better jobs and strong families are the most important when combating crime.

Maddox also suggested that Salisbury residents should more regularly contribute information to police department investigations.

“The ‘don’t snitch’ mentality many people adhere to makes it difficult to solve a crime,” he said.

When asked about retaining young officers, Maddox said it’s important to have a well-balanced police force.

Brian Miller

When asked how he’d facilitate change in Salisbury’s crime rate, Miller said the most important thing council members could do is provide enough resources to attack a problem.

He said one issue is that the community isn’t willing to contribute information in criminal investigations.

“There needs to be more outreach and engagement between not only the police department and our neighborhoods, but also city leadership, Miller said. “We need to work to rebuild trusting relationships between our officers and the communities they serve, but we also need to enforce the law.”

In an answer to a different question, Miller stressed the role that education has in preventing criminal activity.

He said Salisbury needs to do its best to retain both young and experienced officers.

Miller also said addressing criminal activity’s effect on quality of life must be a central issue for city leadership in the coming year.

Todd Paris

When asked how he would facilitate change in Salisbury’s crime rate, Paris said he would propose allocating $700,000 in additional funds to the police department.

The money would be used to increase police officer pay to the market rate and fund six new officers. Money would come without raising taxes, Paris said. Instead he would take the money from Salisbury’s general fund and stop Salisbury from using $1 million from its general fund to pay for Fibrant’s operations.

It’s unclear whether Salisbury generates enough tax revenue to cover Paris’ proposal and the $1 million he proposes eliminating from the general fund.

“Fibrant should stand on its own, not keep us from resolving the issues in our police department,” Paris said.

If graded, he said the Salisbury Police Department would get a poor rating. Paris said he would want to contract with an independent consulting firm to evaluate the police department.

Paris said he’s different than other candidates because he has a concrete plan to improve Salisbury’s crime rate.

William Peoples

When asked about improving Salisbury’s crime rate, Peoples focused on jobs and economic development.

“Crime is not just about what’s on the surface,” he said. “What people have to remember is that there’s a disproportionate amount of unemployment of young black men in this city. There’s a conglomerate of things that are going on and causing problems in the city.”

Peoples said Salisbury’s leaders have to look at crime rates from a “big picture mindset.” He proposed the city partner with local businesses to offer convicted criminals a chance at a job. Companies may want to choose the “cream of the crop,” Peoples said, but the community would benefit more from giving criminals a second chance.

Peoples also issued some criticism of the Salisbury Police Department. He wondered why more of the command staff aren’t patrolling Salisbury’s streets.

He said the city’s leaders have known for years that crime is a problem in Salisbury. Yet, nothing has been done, he said. Some of the blame for Salisbury’s current crime rate should be directed at incumbent city council members, Peoples said.

David Post

When asked how he could help facilitate change, Post said city council members have specific powers as elected officials, but can advocate for ways to deal with issues.

“Crime is not free,” Post said. “In the long term, the cost of curing the cause and prevention is significantly less and a much better investment than paying for the aftermath of crime.”

Post talked extensively about the need for Salisbury to adopt “zero-base budgeting.” Salisbury would start it’s budgeting process each year at zero instead of the number for the prior year.

“Given limited resources and a still slowly recovering economy, increased spending on safety and crime can only be accomplished by reductions in other parts of the budget,” Post said. “Salisbury’s budget has not been scrubbed hard in many years and contains a lot of cutting and pasting.”

Post said the high poverty rate, below average performance in schools and lack of quality jobs also play into crime rates.

He said Police Chief Rory Collins deserves respect and support from the city. Excessive criticism erodes public confidence, Post said.

Tamara Sheffield

Sheffield said city officials and Salisbury residents need to work toward improving crime rates, education rankings and poverty.

“All of these are tied together,” Sheffield said.

She said Salisbury needs to hire a community relations officer in the police department. The officer would specifically focus on reducing the “snitch mentality,” gang reduction and prevention at early ages, Sheffield said.

She said a top priority would be ensuring cuts to the police department are replenished in the 2016-2017 budget.

Taking steps to retain officers is important, she said. However, the Salisbury Police Department’s officers have to reflect the diversity of the city.

“We need to basically demilitarize them so they do not look or act like an invading force when that is not needed,” Sheffield said. “They need to reflect the mantra of ‘to protect and serve.”

Jeff Watkins

When asked how he would facilitate change as a council members, Watkins proposed creating a gun buyback program.

He also mentioned purchasing new police cars, body cameras and motorcycles for the department.

“The protection needs to be more visible in the communities,” Watkins said. “This will bring trust in the police.”

He said retaining more young officers would improve the quality of Salisbury’s police department.

When asked how he was different than other candidates on the issue of crime and policing, Watkins said “I am an African-American male who has never been arrested. I have watched other African-Americans harassed and arrested for stereotypical issues.”

Watkins said he wants more transparency in how the police force combats crime.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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