Salisbury Police chief details worsening crime trends, hiring troubles

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, May 19, 2021

SALISBURY — Police Chief Jerry Stokes on Tuesday gave the city council an update on his department’s activity during the previous year, including increases in violent crime and major hiring difficulties.

Stokes started by reviewing crime statistics for the current year, previous year and 2019. A few areas in 2021 improved compared to the previous year so far, but there were others where numbers had deteriorated significantly. Among the worsening trends, some metrics that saw some improvement in 2019 were back in up 2020.

For example, there were 33 incidents of shooting into an occupied dwelling in 2020 compared to 23 in 2019. Auto theft was up slightly in 2020 along with commercial burglary cases. Residential burglary and larceny from vehicles were down in 2020 compared to 2019.

Motor vehicle theft was up in 2020, too, jumping from 92 reports in 2019 to 102 in 2020.

Numbers shift significantly for more recent figures on property crime spanning from the beginning of the year to the end of April 2021 and the beginning of 2020 to the end of April 2020.

Residential burglary has doubled in that period in 2021 compared to the same period from 2020. Commercial burglary, however, was cut in half.

Aggravated assaults are up significantly this year and there have been five murders in 2021 already, which Stokes said is a record.

Stokes also talked about high rates of overdoses. In April, there were 21 incidents, and there have been 10 or more overdose cases reported each month since November.

Violent crime similarly has seen some major increases as well. Murder, notably, jumped from two cases in 2019 to six in 2020, though that number is below average when compared to a span from 2016-2018. Aggravated assault, similarly, jumped from 93 cases in 2019 to 127 in 2020, but was below the 2016-2018 average.

Rape cases for 2020 were cut in half compared to 2019. There were seven reports in 2020 as opposed to 15 in 2019. Stokes attributed the change to fewer students on campus at local colleges.

Robbery was also down significantly, from 69 cases in 2019 to 46 in 2020. That’s a continuation of a downward trend compared to the 2016-2018 time frame. Burglary and robbery are defined slightly differently by state law. Robbery occurs when a person takes or attempts to take property through the use of force.

During the same presentation, Stokes walked the Salisbury City Council through staffing and recruiting problems — an issue Stokes faced when he first became police chief. The department has sworn 83 budgeted positions, but only has 72 officers currently employed. At the end of 2019, the department had 83 sworn staff.

“Unfortunately, here I am back to what my problems were before in that staffing and crime’s going up,” Stokes said.

Three people are waiting to enter basic law enforcement training, but four staff are actively seeking other positions.

“Frankly, our number of qualified candidates is not good at this point,” Stokes said. “We’re having a struggle with that.”

The department has mostly been able to hire more people than leave the department. In 2017, 12 staff members left, but the department hired 18. In 2018, nine staff left, but Salisbury Police hired 22 people. In 2019, the department hired the same number of people that left — nine. In 2020, 12 people left, but the department only hired four. So far in 2021, seven people have left, but the department has only hired four.

The Salisbury Police Department is expecting a turnover rate in excess of 20% this year, up from 14.5% last year and 10.6% in 2019, Stokes said.

The police chief said 2020 was particularly difficult for hiring because the department had no ability to process applications because of the pandemic. Stokes said the department also could not perform background checks or face-to-face interviews.

Stokes noted the department has made a concerted effort to hire more minority staff in recent years, but the department is still mostly white men.

Six applicants are scheduled to come in for written tests later this month. Three people have been interviewed, two were subject to a polygraph test and one is awaiting a background check.

Salisbury City Councilman David Post asked if increases in crime and staffing issues are national trend. Stokes said they are, and every department is struggling with hiring and attrition.

In society today, Stokes said police officers are not very appreciated, noting police often are involved in negative things in a person’s life.

While large cities have some areas where police officers are only tasked with parking enforcement, Stokes said most places in Salisbury feel touched by crime because of its small size. He noted negative nicknames the city has developed on social media. People often call the city “Shotsbury” when commenting on stories about violent crime.

“And that doesn’t help our economic development, that does not help our community’s attitude, quite frankly, and it’s very sad,” he said.

The department also has been embattled recently with a chain of scandals. In March, two officers were arrested and charged with felonies. Another officer resigned in March after a video surfaced of him choking and striking a police dog. In April, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a woman who was pulled from her car by her hair in 2019.

Stokes acknowledged the two arrests of officers who were hired in the last five years.

“What are we going to do going forward and make sure that’s not a problem in the future?” Stokes asked.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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