A new Greensboro council gets tough on crime

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro City Council’s recent special emergency meeting has come on the heels of two high-profile double homicides, a recent spike in overall homicides in the eastern and southern portions of the city, and a rise in robberies.

The city has had 32 homicides so far this year, exceeding the yearly totals for the past three years. Capt. Gary Hastings, commander of the criminal investigation division, noted that the city experienced “an unusual spike” of seven homicides in the previous two weekends, but added that 32 homicides “are not outside of the norm for Greensboro.”

Two spectacular crimes took place earlier this month at Jabs Ultra Bar on West Lee Street and Marisqueria Las Jarochitas Restaurant on High Point Road. Two men police identified as Born God Supreme Thompson and Shuntae Watson, both 26, were killed at Jabs on Dec. 2, while Pedro Castro Sanchez, 31, and Manuel Garcia Salinas, 42, were identified as the victims of a double homicide at Marisqueria Las Jarochitas on Dec. 8.

Greensboro police said on Dec. 12 that the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department arrested Alejandro Enrique Umana in connection with the Sanchez/Salinas homicides. Umana’s arrest reportedly resulted from cooperative efforts between the Greensboro and Charlotte police, along with the FBI Safe Streets Task Force.

With a few exceptions, the city’s 32 homicides have been concentrated along two corridors – West Lee Street/High Point Road and Summit Avenue – and in a cluster near the intersection of East Market Street and East Wendover Avenue, with incidents scattered throughout the eastern and southern parts of the city. The average age of a Greensboro homicide victim is 31. Ninety four percent were men. Seventy-two percent were black. Three out of 32 victims possessed Spanish surnames.

The council directed City Manager Mitchell Johnson to appropriate $500,000 to assist patrol in call answering, to pay detectives overtime for follow-up investigations and to enhance the robbery suppression unit – areas strained after the department shifted resources to create a gang enforcement unit at the direction of council this past summer.

The measure passed unanimously. Mayor Yvonne Johnson also directed Mitchell Johnson to identify the sources of the funding, and directed the chief to itemize how the money will be spent.

With the cost of the gang enforcement unit estimated at $1.5 million, the initiative remains an unfunded mandate.

Police reported that 237 commercial robberies have been logged this year to date, more than the year-end totals for the past two years. Robberies peaked in 2004 with 287 offenses. Capt. George Holder said the west-side neighborhoods of Sunset Hills and Old Starmount have seen a marked increase in auto larcenies in recent weeks in what he termed “crimes of opportunity.” In 80 percent of the incidents, victims’ cars had been unlocked. Thieves have swiped iPods, laptops and at least one handgun.

Along with funding, the police department asked council to lobby the NC General Assembly for passage of tougher sentencing guidelines.

“We will ask local municipalities to support legislation that will strengthen gang laws,” said Capt. John Wolfe, who commands the department’s gang enforcement unit. “I think there is some legislation proposed adding sentencing months and years to crimes by validated gang members.”

The council did not take official action on the request, but Mayor Yvonne Johnson asked Assistant City Attorney ToNola Brown-Bland to add the item to the city’s legislative agenda. Council members did not discuss the relative merits of the proposed legislation.

A coalition of North Carolina mayors, among them former Greensboro Mayor Keith Holliday, last summer called for the passage of the Street Gang Prevention Act. The bill passed the NC House 109 to 4, but died in the Senate Committee on Appropriations/Base Budget, which is co-chaired by NC Sen. Kay Hagan, a Guilford County Democrat who is a candidate for US Senate.

Newly-elected Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, at-large, seized on the discussion of the recent homicides to raise questions about the role of immigration in local crime.

“I understand that one of many groups coming in from El Salvador to California – I don’t know what kind of PR we’re doing for gangs from California because these gangs have been known not only to walk into restaurants and shoot people but just go from individual to individual but also political activity that they have been involved with.”

She quizzed Detective Ernest Cuthbertson, the department’s gang specialist in the special intelligence section on patterns of movement by gang members and others who commit homicides. Cuthbertson tactfully dodged the immigration question and used his answer to pump up support for the gang legislation.

“Every state that borders North Carolina has established gang legislation,” he said. “North Carolina does not. As a result, people know this. That’s one of the biggest reasons why gangs are migrating to this state. California has three strikes in penalties. New York State the same thing. Also Illinois and Florida, the like. We don’t have anything here. A lot of gang members feel they can operate within a cloak of secrecy due to the fact that law enforcement is not aware of their actions, their issues of migration and how they impact.”

Chief Tim Bellamy informed Rakestraw that the police have confirmed the presence of MS-13, a gang with origins in El Salvador also known as Mara Salvatrucha, in Guilford County. Police have said they do not believe the Marisqueria Las Jarochitas incident was a face-off between rival factions.

“We don’t have any evidence to suggest that the victims were gang members,” Wolfe said. “We believe with a high probability of confidence that the perpetrators of this crime were gang members but we don’t have any evidence to suggest that the victims were.”

Police and elected officials also discussed the disproportionate role played by non-white youth as both perpetrators and victims of gang activity, displaying a significant level of consensus across political lines.

“The majority of the youth involved in these gangs are minorities,” Wolfe said. “We have to acknowledge that. We said that upfront. We can’t deny that. That is a fact that exists. Myself and members of the gang unit believe that there are people in these gangs who have to be removed, and there are kids in these gangs who are just as much victims. That’s always been our desire to divert these kids into community groups instead of having them end up in what we consider an unjust criminal justice system.”

Bellamy said the police come up against resistance when they try to enforce the law against juvenile offenders from the public schools and members of the community because of a perception that youth of color are being targeted.

“We have acknowledged this, all of us of all races, that eighty-eight to ninety percent of gang members are black and Hispanic,” said Councilman Mike Barber, whose District 4 has seen a relatively low number of homicides. “Why would that matter anymore, because the ones that are trying to learn that are black and Hispanic are the ones that are suffering?”

Bellamy responded: “To the police department it doesn’t matter; with the community is where it matters. They’re the ones who are complaining that the police department will have targeted minorities.”

Councilwoman Goldie Wells, whose District 2 has taken the brunt of the year’s homicides, expressed agreement with Barber.

“I don’t know which groups push back and say, ‘We don’t want to be targeted,'” she said. “No, we don’t want to be targeted, but we have to save our children.”

Councilman Robbie Perkins, at-large, asked: “Have we got any representatives of the school system here today?”

The mayor replied, “I did see one of the school board members, Deena Hayes, here in the back.”

Hayes left in the middle of the meeting without speaking. The school board member has criticized Cuthbertson’s presentation on gangs, suggesting that the police’s focus is more on targeting and criminalizing youth of color than prevention and intervention. More recently, her objections have focused on Darryl Kosciak, a parks and recreation employee who heads up the city’s gang prevention efforts. “Darryl does not have a comprehensive approach to the gang issue,” Hayes wrote in a mass e-mail circulated last month. “He has a narrow perspective and without a greater understanding and integration regarding race and poverty, he and others can be very harmful to the youth and the communities suffering most from this condition.”

Perkins questioned why District Attorney Doug Henderson was not using the state’s nuisance abatement law to shut down Jabs Ultra Bar, where Thompson and Watson were killed on Dec. 2.

Bellamy said the department had requested in the past that Henderson file civil suits to shut down Studio 508 and Lost Dimensions, two clubs in the Randleman Road area of south Greensboro, but the district attorney had declined.

“Two homicides occurred at Jabs Ultra Bar and we discussed it within our staff,” the chief said, “and we decided not to pursue it because we’d already been told no.”

Assistant Chief Harold Scott said Henderson’s position was that it was not his responsibility, and instead the city’s legal department should sue the businesses to have them shut down.

Perkins alluded to former District Attorney Stuart Albright’s use of the nuisance abatement law to shut down illegal massage parlors through civil suits.

“Stuart Albright had 100 percent participation from us and from him and he backed it up,” Scott said, “and he was 100 percent successful with nuisance abatement.”

Perkins rejoined, “And I’m convinced that it saved lives in this community.”

Police received praise from many of the council members, but Rakestraw pressed Bellamy on when council members would receive a report about an administrative investigation into Lt. James Hinson’s involvement with a home for troubled teenagers.

“I think we realize that we have problems,” she said. “On the campaign trail, ladies and gentlemen, people asked us certain questions. People felt distrust of the police department, but then they also backed it up with saying, ‘I know we have a lot of fine men and women on the police force.’ And we don’t want to forget that. But we are going to have to address issues that have been in the past so that we can move to the future. And with that, Chief Bellamy, you told us in your orientation that you were going to have a report on the investigation that you had initiated on the officers who had opened a home without your knowledge, and you said that was going to be on the Friday, and that’s been two Fridays, so what Friday shall I expect that report?”

Bellamy answered, “We ran into some complications with some federal issues, and so we have to investigate that that we discovered on that issue. I really can’t give you a time frame on that because of the follow-up we have to do with the federal….”

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