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Salisbury Police talk worsening crime data, initiatives at first Neighborhood Action Group meeting

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — In its first Neighborhood Action Group meeting of the year on Wednesday, Salisbury Police talked with local residents about worsening crime trends and asked for the community’s help with various initiatives.

Before the pandemic, the Salisbury Police Department held monthly Salisbury Neighborhood Action Group, or SNAG, meetings on the first Wednesday of each month to stay updated on neighborhood concerns, related investigations and code enforcement issues.

At Wednesday’s in-person meeting, Chief Jerry Stokes shared crime data as of Aug. 3, which shows that violent crime across the board is already 42% higher than it was this same time in 2020. Homicides and aggravated assault are among the driving factors for the increase. At this same time last year, only three homicides had occurred compared to the eight reported this year. Stokes said he can’t recall a time the city has had eight homicides by this time of year.

Aggravated assault cases are up by 47%, with 106 cases reported as of Tuesday. The department has responded to 290 shots fired calls, which is an increase of 5% by this same time in 2020. There have been a total of 35 cases related to shooting into occupied dwellings, which is a 150% increase.

Additionally, police have responded to three cases of rape and 25 cases of robbery, which are up by 50% and 9%, respectively.

The total number of violent crimes amounts to 137, which Stokes said is close to the total after all of 2019 when crime reached a 20-year low.

For property crimes, which includes burglary, arson and larceny, there is a 2% decrease, with a total of 732 property crimes reported so far this year. Residential burglary is up by 31%, while commercial burglary has decreased by 47%. Larceny has increased by 16% with 467 calls so far this year, while larceny from motor vehicles has decreased by 31%. Three cases this year are related to arson.

Rowan County Democratic Party Chair Geoffrey Hoy was among the attendees Wednesday and asked Stokes about whether police are seeing any cultural and socioeconomic factors contributing to the violent crime rate. Stokes said a lot of violent crime is interpersonal, with Black males being the most frequent repeat offenders and also the repeat victims.

Stokes added that many of the neighborhoods struck by the violent crime are impoverished.

“But there are jobs everywhere,” he said.

Salisbury’s trends, Stokes said, are in line with a nationwide rise in violent crime. And like other police departments across the nation, Salisbury Police is working to recruit and retain officers. Stokes reports 12 vacancies, though a few candidates are undergoing the hiring process at this time.

Stokes noted, however, that the pool of candidates applying for the department have been lacking in diversity. He and Community Relations Sgt. Daniel Lancaster called on attendees to spread the word about the department’s new incentive package and “help them plant the seed” for recruiting.

“Who better to serve our community than our community,” Lancaster said.

To address ongoing recruitment and retention challenges, the city adopted the 2021-22 fiscal year budget with a 6.5% pay increase for police officers and a 2% cost-of-living increase for all employees. The base salary for all officers increased to nearly $42,000, which will increase again when the 2% COLA is implemented on Jan. 1. After the city’s required 12-month probationary period for officers, the salary would increase by 5% to $44,892. The package also includes various incentives for new hires and transfers, such as educational and relocation bonuses.

Lancaster highlighted ongoing initiatives to increase public safety and community relationships in Salisbury, including the now yearlong Cease Fire initiative, which aims to reduce gun violence throughout the community with the help of Salisbury residents. The neighborhoods in focus include Lafayette Circle, Celebration Drive, Jackson and Fulton streets and Zion Hills. With Cease Fire, officers frequent local neighborhoods to engage with the community, “show a smiling face” and make Salisbury residents feel comfortable approaching officers or seeking police services, Lancaster said.

He reiterated throughout the meeting a call for locals to “sit down and think of solutions” with neighbors when possible as most concerns begin in the neighborhood.

Salisbury Police Homeless Advocate Dennis Rivers, who was hired in June, said he’s “hit the ground running” in engaging with the local homeless population, as well as businesses and residents, to make the community aware of what services are available to those without shelter. His work also includes working with officers and the city’s code enforcement department to help respond to cases where homeless residents are involved. Rivers said he visits homeless campsites with the health department and Rowan Helping Ministries several times per week.

Hoy asked about the annual homelessness population count conducted by RHM in January. In 2020, the Point-in-Time Count found that there were 180 homeless people in Rowan County, with 28 living in an unsheltered location. This year, using numbers collected by Rowan Helping Ministries and Family Crisis Council, the count yielded that 132 people were homeless throughout the county, with 26 in an unsheltered location.

Rivers said he’s successfully identified about 27 unsheltered individuals at this time in Salisbury.

Also at the meeting, Salisbury Code Services Manager Michael Cotilla provided data on the number of code enforcement-related cases in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The city reports a total of 2,289 nuisance calls between April 2020 and July 2021, with 782 of those abated by the city at a total cost of $65,000. Nuisance violations typically include overgrown grass, trash and abandoned or junked vehicles.

There were also a total of 18 demolitions that occurred between April 2020 and July 2021. For the current fiscal year, Cotilla said 23 homes are on the list for demolition.

With City Manager Lane Bailey’s announcement at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that the city will reinstate a mask requirement in its buildings and return to virtual council meetings, Stokes said he’s unsure whether a September meeting will be held. Bailey’s decision comes as cases among city employees are on the rise, with 14 taking emergency sick leave because of COVID-19 throughout the month of July, he says.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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