Year-end homicide total marks a 7-year high for Charlotte

Year-end homicide total marks a 7-year high for Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jane Wester/The Charlotte Observer) - In the past two years, Charlotte's dip in homicides has reversed, with the 2016 total reaching a seven-year high.

Cities from Raleigh and Columbus, Ohio to Chicago and Los Angeles also saw their numbers increase this year.

Charlotte's total homicide count as of Dec. 30 was 67, a higher number than at any time since 2008. It's significantly above the city's 10-year average of about 61.

Fifty-four of the victims were male and 13 were female, including the oldest – Charlene Norris, 79 – and the youngest, 10-month-old Taraya Shanae Beecham. At least one, Donsha Seren Rankin, was pregnant.

Three of the victims were too young for kindergarten; 13 victims were 20 or younger.

Most were shot; at least five were stabbed. One, Amanda Strous, died in an intentionally set fire at her Steele Creek apartment.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts said the statistics tell her Charlotte has a lot of work to do.

"I'm very distressed by those numbers," she said. "It's not acceptable. And we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure that instances like some of these shootings we've had don't occur again. We need to do everything we can to make the city safe for every resident as well as for our police officers."

Doing everything means looking at the big picture, Roberts said – from education and job training to making sure police officers are getting to know people in the neighborhoods where they work.

"We have systemic racism still in our community, in a number of systems," Roberts said. "And we have to be very conscious about ways to break the barriers and to bridge the gap. Housing is part of it. Trust in the community is part of it."

A racial imbalance

Though census data shows that about 35 percent of Charlotte residents are black, about 80 percent of the 2016 homicide victims were black.

That imbalance is a little bit higher than the national average, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University.

The high rate of black victims nationally isn't about "race itself," Fox said, but socioeconomic and other factors that together create precarious circumstances.

Not included in the 67 homicides are six cases in which a law enforcement officer killed someone in Charlotte this year.

After Keith Lamont Scott was shot by officer Brentley Vinson on Sept. 20, Charlotte joined a list of cities where major protests against police violence have broken out in the past few years.

The outcry surrounding the Scott case forced city leaders to discuss race and privilege more urgently, though solutions are harder to find.

"We have to recognize that there are systemic barriers," Roberts said. "There are multiple barriers to everyone having access to opportunity. A lot of it based on race. We have to acknowledge that and move forward. That is going to be one of my top priorities moving forward."

Some experts, including Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis, say one possible explanation for recent homicide increases is "the Ferguson effect," a term coined by Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald.

The Ferguson effect theorizes that police have withdrawn, to some extent, from communities that have objected to police behavior, and that this could lead to increased crime.

Rosenfeld said another possible explanation is a reverse scenario – if community members don't trust the police, they might resist calling for help.

"They might be more likely to take matters into their own hands," he said.

Fox said he doesn't think there's enough evidence to support the Ferguson effect.

'Until we don't have a reason to march'

Domestic violence accounted for the deaths of three men and six women or girls in 2016. That's 13 percent of all homicides, the same proportion as 2015 – but in two years, the number of people killed in domestic violence cases has more than doubled.

At a memorial march for Daphne Ellis, who died Dec. 11, Domestic Violence Advocacy Council chairwoman Elyse Hamilton-Childres said awareness of domestic violence has increased, but their work is far from over.

"We will be here raising awareness and marching until we don't have a reason to march anymore," she said.

Mecklenburg County has a domestic violence shelter, a 24-hour hotline and a police unit dedicated to domestic violence. That's more resources than many places can claim, but Hamilton-Childres said areas like mental health assistance still need improvement.

"Domestic violence has tremendous intersections with trauma, and substance abuse, and severe and persistent mental illness, and all of those things overlap and contribute to each other," she said.

The county needs to provide more long-term support, too, she said.

"If they choose and are able to leave a violent situation, (people need) to be able to get a sustainable job, for example, be able to manage their own sustain their family long-term without having to feel that going back to the abuser is their only option for making that life work," she said.

In the new year

The 2016 data included a few bright spots. Even though killings increased overall, homicides in the Metro Division, which covers neighborhoods along Beatties Ford Road and Freedom Drive, fell back to the 2014 level.

And even though the numbers are going up, 67 is still well below the 2008 high of 83 or the city record of 122, set in 1993. Rosenfeld said he hopes we're seeing a temporary break, nationally speaking, in a long-term decline.

This year's increase was smaller than the year before, when killings increased nearly 43 percent. This year, homicides are up 12 percent.

Near the end of 2015, with violent crime spiking, Chief Kerr Putney announced he was going to ask city council for more police officers. In June, council members approved a version of his request, agreeing to add 63 officers to the department.

The new officers will be staggered across classes in the police academy, police spokesman Rob Tufano said – a process that will likely start in 2017.