Twenty-seven people have been murdered in Charlotte since the start of the year. That's about double the number a year ago, and mirrors a local and national trend of growth in violent crime. Experts are trying to understand why, and more importantly, what to do about it. WFAE reporter David Boraks was at a conference on Youth Violence Prevention Friday in Charlotte and talked with WFAE’s Lisa Worf.
WORF: David, what do the numbers tell us about the increase in violent crime?
BORAKS: That it's up unexpectedly over the past two years, after two decades of improvement. That's both nationwide and in Charlotte.
An organization called the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University looked at crime statistics in 30 major cities last fall, including Charlotte. Nationwide, the violent crime rate is still relatively low compared to two decades ago, and some cities are still improving, according that report.
But the report showed others are rising - including Charlotte. Violent crime here was up more than 22 percent in 2016 - one of the fastest increases in the country. One of the speakers noted that the violent crime rate is highest among young people ages 10 to 24, and African American males in particular.
Criminologist Michael Turner of UNC Charlotte said African American males are 10 times more likely to be murder victims than white males. That's actually down from 20 years ago, Turner says.
TURNER: And that, we have to pay attention to. That is a disturbing thing that we have to do something … So when you start and think about what is it that that problem is, and how we're going to deal with this problem, that is probably a pretty good place to start.
WORF: Well, that's the big question, right - what's causing this trend?
BORAKS: Lots of reasons - more guns, drug use, a lack of mental health services, institutional racism, and the re-segregation of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools were all mentioned.
And there was lots of talk about poverty and lack of economic opportunity in Charlotte. CMPD Deputy Chief Jeff Estes says many young people start out at a disadvantage, and grow up in a culture of violence.
ESTES: They have many times very little, if any, support at home, in fact violence is normalized. It's socialized as a way of resolving conflict.
Estes says that has prompted CMPD to start programs to introduce people to police at a young age, and to work with other organizations to head off violence early. He says the goal is to cut off the school-to-prison pipeline.
A couple of breakout sessions today looked at the “Ferguson effect.” That’s a theory that police and citizens have become disengaged since the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri. And that police are avoiding criminals and making fewer arrests, because they’re worried about winding up in a viral video or facing misconduct charges.
WORF: You mentioned guns - is that really a new problem?
BORAKS: It is and it isn't … Of course guns and violent crime have always gone together. But there's evidence that the problem is getting worse. We heard that from several speakers today.
Darrel Stephens, head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and a former Charlotte chief, blames it on the easy availability of guns and high-capacity magazines. Those let people fire off more shots than you could with older style guns.
STEPHENS: Guns in America are involved in about two-thirds of all the homicides. Chiefs report that the number of shell casings recovered at crime scenes continues to increase.
Stephens said if a shooter can get off more shots, that makes it more likely they'll hit the target, and bystanders. He says because it’s relatively easy to buy a gun here, Americans are 25 times more likely to die of a gunshot than any other major economy.
WORF: What are some other solutions?
BORAKS: Several speakers said when it comes to preventing youth violence, better schools are the key. J.D. Williams is a CMPD School Resource officer in CMS, and he actually asked panelists a question about that.
WILLIAMS: At some point, are you guys gonna find a way to get with CMS? Because the problem that we see, as officers and of course being a black male, is that there's a disproportionate education system. Even though we're in 2017, if you go on one side of town, kids get a different education and different exposure than you do to another side of town.
BORAKS: CMS is actually struggling with this right now. The end of court-ordered busing in the 1990s has led to higher concentrations of poverty in some areas and re-segregation by race. The school system is currently working on new plan for how to assign students to schools.
And then there's the broader problem of economic opportunity. That was the focus of a report and recommendations last month from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force. It's not something you can solve at a conference like this. But there are lots of people thinking about it right now in Charlotte.
And one final point, Lisa – we all worry about crime. It’s true violent crimes are up in the past two years. But the statistics show that the U.S. today is safer than it was a couple of decades ago. It’s not clear yet if the recent uptick is a trend, or just a blip on the radar.