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Fayetteville sees record number of homicides in 2021

'Every single homicide disturbs me,' Fayetteville Police Chief Gina Hawkins says.

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While Fayetteville saw the highest number of homicides in its history last year, Police Chief Gina Hawkins says the overall crime rate in 2021 was the lowest ever recorded here.

 The city had 48 homicides last year, Hawkins said in an interview Thursday.

That compares with 30 in 2020 and 25 in 2017 and in 2018, according to data provided by the Police Department.

The number, the data indicated, dipped to a low of 21 in 2019.

During the interview, Hawkins touched on the high rate of murders in Fayetteville in 2021 as well as public safety, violent crime and the role the community has in trying to keep residents safe.

Of the 48 homicides last year, 13 remain unsolved, Hawkins said. Citing those open investigations, she declined to discuss individual homicides.

“Every single homicide disturbs me,” Hawkins said. “It’s different, too, even if the suspect was doing a crime in the midst of it. Every single homicide disturbs me.

“Because of last year, we did talk about for the entire year how the homicide rate was up. That’s not a secret," she said. "That’s probably a hot topic because that’s the worst crime that could happen in your life. We also saw across the nation that was an anomaly that was happening – the fact that homicides were up for everyone.”

She said she can’t pinpoint the exact cause for the increase in homicides, whether it’s social unrest, the pandemic or more guns on the streets.

The city saw an increase in gun violence last year as well, she said.

“I think they all play a role in everything going on,” Hawkins said. “There’s not one city that can say, ‘I have the answer to everything.’ Because if that were it, we’d have numerous books on that subject.”

Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin said the high number of homicides is "definitely" alarming to him. He said this has been a focus for him and members of the City Council because that's their primary duty - public safety. So, even though overall crime is down and heading in the right direction, he said, homicides are the most visible and egregious types of crime.

"We're all concerned with that," Colvin said. "There are a number of factors that we think play into that in our community and communities around the country - trying to get to the bottom of all that."

This is a comprehensive problem, he said, and one of the key factors that plays a role in it includes a shift on the judicial side, such as how bonds are granted and how repeat offenders and violent offenders are being treated because of COVID-19. As a result of the pandemic, jail capacity has been greatly reduced, he said.

"So, some of the people who normally have a violent history are back on the streets, and it's frustrating for our officers doing their jobs, making the arrests,’’ Colvin said. “These folks will be out by the time they get home. I think this is something the district attorney and the judges and the courts have to have a role in. Because this has been a shift in their policy. We're seeing that. This has not been a Fayetteville thing.

"This is nothing that we've done any different than what we've been doing in previous years," the mayor added. "But we're seeing a national trend of this where there has been a shift in policy in the judicial side. I think that's a big part of it."

New initiatives

Police departments nationwide are always looking for strategies and how to thwart crime.

Hawkins expressed excitement over the start of a community-based violent intervention advocates program that will be separate from her department but still work with police officers. Those programs are cropping up across the nation as a resource for communities to become engaged and focus on possible initiatives to reduce crime.

In other areas of the nation, these programs help victims of violence recover from the physical and emotional trauma by providing them with skills, services and opportunities so they can be empowered to make positive changes in their lives and contribute to building safer and healthier communities. They focus on reducing homicides and shootings by establishing relationships with people at the center of gun violence.

“If you are a victim of gun violence, you and your family," Hawkins said, "you’re highly likely to be a victim of a crime again. You might have a first shooting, but the goal is to not have a secondary or the third shooting.”

The results of these violent intervention advocate initiatives, she said, have shown decreases in homicide rates and other violence.

“That’s something we’re about to get started,” she said.

As for other steps the department has taken to reduce homicides in the city, she said: "So our programs have been focused on gun violence, have been focused on trying to take guns off the streets and have been focused on repeat offenders.

“Unfortunately, it’s not ‘Minority Report’ where we can know when someone is going to kill someone. Or use a weapon to kill someone," Hawkins said. "So if we’re focused on trying to keep guns off the street or repeat offenders, especially violent offenders, that’s going to help us eliminate a lot of violence from happening in our community.”

According to FBI crime statistics, Fayetteville saw 30 homicides in 1993. In 1997 and 2005, police conducted nine homicide investigations – the lowest number of murders in the city.

Over the years since homicide investigations in the city have progressively ticked upward for the most part.

Every resident should be alarmed by a homicide that occurs in their municipality, Hawkins said. She's a firm believer that the community plays a significant role in community safety - what she called “a shared responsibility.”

As one looks at the homicide numbers, Hawkins said, it’s difficult to ignore the other numbers. "If gauging that as the safety of the city and the department’s efforts – we definitely focus on violent crime, and we focus on repeat offenders because we know that’s going to drill down other things within the city," she said. “It’s hard for me to say why are we ignoring the overall crime that’s continuing to be decreasing in the city."

Update to City Council

On Monday, Hawkins is scheduled to present a fourth-quarter review of the Police Department to the Fayetteville City Council during its regular monthly meeting. 

The meeting is set to begin at 7 p.m. in the conference room of the FAST Transit building on Franklin Street.

“I can say, in general, even last year – the whole year – we have been on literally a 10-year decrease in crime. Year after year,” she said. “The closest number, that’s when you combine crimes against persons and crimes against property. … The basis of those numbers are gauged by the FBI where you see our crime data.”

The lowest year Fayetteville ever experienced for crimes against persons was 2019. The year after that, in 2020, Hawkins said, “We were almost flat. We were still a couple of crimes lower than the previous year – the overall crime.”

Though her department is allocated for 431 police officers, Hawkins said it is short about 50 officers. The Police Department is offering incentives to draw interest in those openings.

When asked to grade the Fayetteville Police Department, the chief gave her collective force an A-plus.

"People give it their all," she said.

A year ago, the city had double digits percentage-wise in the decrease of all crime, she said. “That’s a huge number. It was close to 1,500, meaning incidents that had been reported of crime happening in the city.

“If you’re looking at a year that overall homicides were lower, look at the overall crime, as well,” she said. “If we overall have had lower crimes in all categories, except for homicides – and this is the lowest we’ve had in previous years – imagine in the earlier years when we had lower homicides but we had an extremely higher increase in those other crime categories. So if you’re comparing the community as a whole of the victims – being victims of incidents – we are drastically down in what that trend is. You will see it on Monday.”

On Monday, Hawkins plans to present a five-year trend of the crime rate. For the annual department report, she will show a 10-year trend of what Fayetteville is doing as a whole when it comes to those overall crime rate numbers.

She attributes the lower crime rate to community involvement.

The city has more than 151 community watch groups keeping an eye on their neighborhoods. Those watch groups can be traditional, business and virtual.

“But the part that they are communicating with each other - giving each other crime tips - makes a difference,” Hawkins said. “I attribute the drastic decrease in overall crime to community participation and community involvement.”

Every single homicide needs to be worked on, she said, before adding, “But it’s very difficult to work on a domestic violence situation in a house where you don’t know what’s going on.

“It’s very difficult to prevent a homicide that involves a narcotics deal gone wrong because they know each other. And they have some type of relational connection to themselves.”

Most of the unsolved homicides involve strangers, Hawkins said, but the ones her detectives are able to solve have someone arrested.

While there were the near 50 homicides in 2021, she said, those fall among “thousands of other incidents happening in the community." Those incidents include aggravated assault, robberies, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle theft.

Overall crime rate numbers, she said, will be shared first with the City Council on Monday.

Fayetteville as a whole, she said, remains a safe place to live.

“We’re getting safer. The engagement effort from the public is increasing,” Hawkins said. “And you really have to look at ‘What is our expectation?' We will never have a zero crime rate. Period. We’re going to be needed all the time for victims."

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

 

Fayetteville, Police Department, Police Chief Gina Hawkins, homicides, crime rate

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