Spencer community determined to address recent shootings

Published 12:10 am Sunday, January 22, 2023

SPENCER — On Wednesday night, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 75 residents gathered at town hall to hear what Police Chief Michael File had to say about a recent spate of shootings in the community, and to ask questions.

The meeting was billed as a “community Neighborhood Watch meeting,” and File said the town is small enough he does not think a Neighborhood Watch needs to break down into smaller groups, “but if folks want to do that, I’m not going to discourage that.”

File released information on two arrests Tuesday following several shootings, and said there were more and will be more, but said he continues to be cautious about releasing details since the investigation is ongoing. There have been four recent incidents of “shots fired,” File said, and for inside the town of Spencer, that is a lot.

But he did have a request of the community: “Call us.”

“If you don’t call and we don’t have a report on it, it didn’t happen, essentially,” he said. “We have to have a reason to target a house, a neighborhood. We need that input from you.” A high number of reports of illegal or alarming activity in a neighborhood is how police departments, especially smaller ones, know where to direct their attention, he said.

“We are a small department. Right now I have two cars on the road at a time,” File said. He said the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office is also assisting and does have unmarked cars patrolling and running speed and stop sign checks, but knowing where the problems are occurring is essential.

In addition to concern about a few properties in town, primarily on the south end, a number of those in attendance asked about addressing speeding and running stop signs.

“Look, if you are going even one mile an hour over the speed limit, you are technically breaking the law,” said File. However, he said some speeds are unenforceable, because he does not have enough staff to be constantly running speed tracking, and because the court does not have the staff to process that level of speeding citations. In addition, “the goal is to change the behavior, so if I can change it with a warning, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He said the town is getting a new piece of equipment, a hidden radar, and while it cannot result in a ticket, it can provide data on problem areas in town that his officers can then give more attention to. “So tell us where you are concerned about speeding, and we can put that location on the list, and we’ll set up that hidden radar for two days and collect the data and see if it really is a problem that we need to address.”

File pointed out that currently, on average, the department has 1,200 interactions per month with the community, and he is hoping in the not-so-distant future to have a dedicated traffic division in the department. Currently the department has patrol and criminal investigation divisions, so patrol officers essentially respond to every call that is dispatched.

As for problem properties, File said the town has a remedial actions program.

“Every time there is a call, it generates a report,” he said. “So if we have a problem property, especially a rental, we can track the number of calls. When we hit three full interactions with a property within a particular amount of time, we send a letter to the landlord advising them there is an issue. After four, the owner has to attend a mandatory meeting with our department to try to resolve the issue.”

Residents wanted to know if tenants can be evicted, and File said yes, but there are other ways to address it, since evicting one tenant can just mean another problem tenant moves in. The goal is to change the owner’s behavior.

If a property accrues enough complaints to become designated a “nuisance” property, the town’s code enforcement officers can begin to issue fines, and depending on compliance, those fines can increase in cost and in frequency.

“This is important to all of us,” said Mayor Jonathan Williams, who thanked everyone for showing up and for participating. “We are all impacted by the recent events, one way or another. Our board of aldermen fully stands behind our police department. Some of this is new, some is not, but we are going to address it. And we want to be proactive where we can. We need you to call because when the data is built that shows repeated activity, we can address it.”

A resident asked File if he could clarify why one of the recent arrests included a charge of possession of a weapon of mass destruction. File explained that the man had an AR15 but the barrel of the gun was sawed off, which is illegal and which places it in a different category. The person said he worried about the town’s safety.

“Do I feel like the community’s safe?” said File. “I feel like it is. But I also think it will be even safer if we work together. You are not bothering us if you call us. Please do.”

Angela Alford, one of the directors at the central office of the schools, and a member of Spencer’s Police Chief Advisory Board, said it also helps if residents see school-aged children who should be in school who are instead out on the streets.

“If we keep kids in school where they belong and not on the streets, we can head off some problems that way.”

Williams agreed, saying prevention is part law enforcement, but part community, outside law enforcement.

“Some 0f this behavior and learning starts in elementary school,” Williams said. “We need to engage kids in positive activities. We are beginning to talk about a youth center, for instance. We need to engage them in productive activities. and look at broad solutions to this complex problem. I hope we have community support in developing programs.”

One woman told others at the end of the meeting that “one other way to help is to attend town meetings, like this but also board meetings. Get involved.”