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Drastic Measures 

Mecklenburg County considers controversial crime programs

On Friday, a reality that could prove awkward began to dawn on the members of the city's homicide task force. If Charlotte-Mecklenburg wants to get a handle on its murder and violent crime problems, it will have to confront issues that could cause public tension.

"I hope they aren't going to pull any punches," said UNCC criminology professor Paul Friday, a member of the committee. "There are some things that are important to talk about that aren't politically correct."

For starters, those "things" include race and guns, said Friday, who is white. He was quick to add that what he was really talking about was socio-economic status. Several African-American members of the group were more blunt. They know that 70 percent of known suspects in last year's homicides were black, as were 52 percent of the victims. They said they want to target young African-American males who are on a path to violence before they reach high school. At the same time, they said they had reservations about the implications of targeting young black males.

It's a contradiction faced by other communities that have used the solutions the committee is studying. But the delicate issue of race is not the only problem: The other important part is targeting guns and getting them off the street, said Friday.

If all of that weren't controversial enough, the school system may need to begin identifying and targeting problem children who display specific behaviors that predict violence later on in their lives. Disciplining children is already a controversial issue within the school system; targeting troublemakers would be an even bigger political battle.

Cities like St. Louis have dramatically reduced escalating homicide and violent crime rates with programs patterned after the Boston TenPoint Coalition and Operation Ceasefire. The TenPoint Coalition was founded by African-American ministers who took to the streets after youth homicides spiked in the city.

As the effort grew, social services and law enforcement teamed up to offer help to a select group of repeat offenders who committed a large percentage of the city's crime -- and harsh punishment for those who refused to mend their ways. Since most of the crimes were gun-related, local, state and federal law enforcement teamed up to target illicit firearms traffickers who were supplying young people with guns.

"In every city where they have done this it has been met with resistance, but ultimately been very successful," said assistant city manager Keith Parker.

Making an Operation Ceasefire-style program work here would mean dramatically reforming Mecklenburg County's chaotic, under-funded court system. Removing a city's worst criminals from the streets requires targeted prosecution and a refusal to plea bargain. For a criminal justice system like Mecklenburg's, which uses plea bargains to stay afloat, that could prove to be a challenge.

But with gang members moving to the Charlotte area in record numbers, and the city's homicide rate at a 10-year high of 85, something has to give. After robberies jumped 32 percent in 2005, police learned armed robbery was becoming a gateway crime for young gang members.

Nearly a third of robbery suspects under 18 were identified by police as gang members, while only 11 percent of suspects between 21 and 30 were.

While the upfront costs of combating Charlotte's growing crime problem could be steep, the good news is that programs like TenPoint and Operation Ceasefire have great track records across the country. In 1990, Boston's murder rate spiked to 152; just nine years later, after Operation Ceasefire and the TenPoint program were put in place, the rate was down to 31. Youth homicides fell by two-thirds. The strategy was so successful that more than a dozen other cities implemented it.

St. Louis has had the most dramatic success. The city lowered its homicides from 267 a year in 1993 to just 69 in 2003 using the same type of programs. But cities must to stick to it. After turf battles broke out between the African-American ministers, TenPoint and Operation Ceasefire began losing steam, and murders and violent crime spiked again in Boston.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Capt. Sean Mulhall said part of what may be fueling the crime wave locally is another problem the city hasn't dealt with -- teenage runaways who flee bad family situations for the streets.

"After they become the victim of a crime one or two times, they start to become the perpetrators," said Mulhall. "They go on to commit auto theft and more serious crimes."

It's important to reach potential offenders while they are in middle school, Mulhall said, because by the age of 16 they will have dropped out of school.

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