City’s top topics: Crime, crime and crime

Crime and how to fight it dominated the discussions at the Municipal Building on Monday night.

Three of five speakers during the Speak Up Henderson forum, which ran from 6 to 7:30, talked about crime, and during a City Council meeting that lacked much action, the hottest, lengthiest topic was Mayor Clem Seifert’s fourth request for a written strategy on how Henderson can break free from the grip of drugs, violence and larceny.

“I’m not comfortable with being able to answer the question ‘What are you doing about crime?’ ” Seifert said. “It comes up every single day.”

The issue certainly came up during the monthly Speak Up forum.

Robert Gupton, the first speaker of the forum, kicked things off by questioning the deployment of city police officers on Interstate 85.

Gupton raised the issue before the City Council a few months ago, and Police Chief Glen Allen explained that the city has the responsibility to patrol the interstate within the city limits. Allen cited the many deaths and serious injuries on the interstate during his eight years as chief to justify devoting manpower to interstate safety. He also noted that Henderson police have jurisdiction countywide and thus often station themselves outside the city limits to catch traffic heading into town.

But Gupton said council member Mary Emma Evans told him recently that the police patrols on the interstate are all about drugs — finding them, seizing them and getting rewarded with a share of any seizure proceeds.

“It was not the traffic thing,” Gupton said Evans told him. Neither Evans nor Allen attended the Speak Up forum, and neither could be asked about the highway patrols before the council’s regular meeting began.

Gupton also said he saw a police cruiser parked in the I-85 median the other day only 0.7 mile from the Granville County line.

He said the patrol cars out at any time — Allen later said four to six would be a normal number — need to be on the city streets where crimes are occurring, not on the interstate. But if drug hunting on the highway is the city policy, he said, the city should be honest about it.

Seifert deferred to Allen’s previous explanation and said Evans’ comments were just her opinion, but the mayor said he would ask the police chief to write out the purpose of placing patrol cars on the interstate.

“I think you’ll get an honest answer,” Seifert said.

Lewis Edwards spoke next, and he made a plea for the city to make crime its No. 1 priority.

Edwards recited a litany of crimes his family and neighbors have suffered since he moved to Oxford Road in 1994. In addition to a couple of burglaries at his home, he said, his daughter had a handgun held to her head during a bank robbery, and he once unknowingly had a murder suspect in his class when he was a substitute teacher at Southern Vance High School.

“We have got to do something about crime in Henderson,” he said.

Edwards argued that fighting crime is the key to the city’s economic future. He said Henderson is poised to become a bedroom community for the Triangle, but the city needs to be able to sell itself as a safe, clean, old-town place. And that’s impossible while crime is so common.

He pointed to a lack of respect for the law or law enforcement and cited speeders on Oxford Road, where he lives. Despite police cars regularly being parked in highly visible locations at Flowers Funeral Home and a convenience store, “it is not unusual for people to do 65 to 70 mph in front of my house,” Edwards said.

“That is the epitome of what is wrong with our city,” he said. “Nobody believes we have taken a strong position on crime.”

Andrea Harris took up the crime drumbeat. She spoke after Irene Turner made a request for a four-way stop at the intersection of Young Avenue with McBourne Street and Park Avenue, as well as a yellow center stripe down Young Avenue, and before a Wake Forest resident appealed to the city to allow Kerr Lake water to keep flowing to four houses that are in the middle of a Franklin-Wake border dispute. (The houses were marketed as being in Wake County but actually are in Franklin, and they were hooked up to the Franklin water system even when the builder and buyers thought they were in Wake. The two counties have agreed to redraw the border to put the houses in Wake. Franklin’s contract with Henderson forbids the county to sell water in Wake County, a potentially lucrative water customer base if Henderson can overcome concerns about interbasin transfers and fears of losing control of Kerr Lake water. Henderson could solve the homeowners’ problem by agreeing to a fifth amendment to that water contract. Or the homeowners could solve the problem by accepting Franklin as their county.)

“We must address crime,” Harris said. “I think we have to step it up.”

She said the city needs to use any resources possible and deploy any manpower it can get, including the National Guard if need be. And she urged the city to increase patrols of park areas to attack the drug activity near basketball courts.

“People aren’t going to come here if crime remains the way it is,” Harris said.

Seifert agreed, saying the Police Department must “tell us what do we need for crime to go to zero,” even though that’s an impossible goal.

To that end, the mayor made his request, with the council’s backing, for the police chief and City Manager Eric Williams to prepare a written strategy that explains what tactics the city is using to reduce crime, how those efforts mesh with the Police Department’s mission statement to protect the citizenry, and what the chief would need if he could have limitless resources to battle crime.

“If you need to double the budget and double the men and three helicopters, then you need to tell us that’s what you need, and you need to tell us what you’re going to do with it and how you’re going to accomplish it,” Seifert told Allen. It will then be up to the City Council to find the money, the mayor said.

The chief said he reports on the Police Department’s programs and goals each spring in his budget submission. He said crime in Henderson hit an eight-year low in 2004 and is at or below those levels this year.

Seifert said he wants to know how the efforts of groups such as the Vance County Coalition Against Crime, the Vance Organization to Implement Community Excellence and the Clean Up Henderson Committee fit into the overall anti-crime strategy.

Allen said those groups are crucial because they represent community involvement. That grass-roots movement is a necessary step toward changing the city’s reputation on public safety.

He also said it’s impossible to create a fantasy plan involving infinite resources because you can’t stop crime by throwing a pile of money at the problem. He said the Police Department must build its strategy piece by piece.

Williams said the number of police officers is only one of 10 factors affecting crime, and Allen said socioeconomic factors play the biggest role in the rising and falling crime rates in the city.

Allen said it would be nice if the city unfroze four positions for sworn officers, but at this point that step wouldn’t make a difference because he can’t recruit and retain enough officers to fill the current jobs.

That’s where money truly came into the discussion. Henderson has the lowest starting pay of any comparable police force in the state, despite having one of the heaviest workloads. That makes it hard to recruit officers, and those who join the force often leave for better pay as soon as they can.

“He’s already told you what he needs,” council member Mary Emma Evans said about the police chief. “We know what the Police Department’s problem is. We already know.”

Allen said a big boost in police salaries would be a major first step for the city in a comprehensive anti-crime strategy.

Council member Elissa Yount asked the chief for a specific list of proposed salaries throughout the department, and Allen said he can provide that proposal in short order.

Seifert said that addressing the pay problem would give the city a basis to hold the Police Department accountable. If the city raised salaries and crime didn’t fall, Seifert said, money would no longer be an issue. “I like to eliminate excuses.”

The mayor expressed confidence in the Police Department, and the police chief said he knows the City Council does what it can to help his department.

“I think we’re doing a lot more than people realize,” Seifert said about the city’s anti-crime efforts. He said he wants to be prepared to explain those efforts when Congressman G.K. Butterfield visits Henderson and tours the proposed Weed and Seed area Aug. 8.