Asheville's Violent Crime Problem
Like other 12-year-olds, Derrick Lee, Jr.’s first day in 7th grade at Valley Springs Middle School would have been today. Someone killed Derrick in a drive-by shooting at Lee Walker Heights on July 1st.
Despite many people witnessing Derrick’s murder, no eyewitness has yet come forward and, consequently, the police have not been able to arrest anyone in connection with his killing.
You could be forgiven for not knowing about Derrick’s murder because it seems no one is talking about it. We on City Council didn’t release a statement when he was killed. There were no vigils, sit-ins or other demonstrations, so the media forgot about it. Only two weeks ago did a member of the public contact me (via an open letter to the community sent to the Mountain Xpress) about Derrick. To put that in perspective, as a Council member, I receive about fifteen emails and/or calls a day from the public on issues like homestay regulations, developments and land use, police search regulations and bears. But an African-American child shot and killed garners only one letter.
In addition to speaking with Derrick’s grandmother, I responded to the letter with the following:
When I ran for Council, I did so to ensure that all Asheville residents could go to sleep each night feeling safe, fed, healthy and valued and I have been working hard to make this a reality. Several weeks ago, I met with Chief Hooper about Derrick’s murder and the violent crime increase we are seeing in parts of our City. To her credit, she has tried to raise this issue with Council for months. Recently, I visited Lee Walker Heights, where Derrick was killed, and other public housing communities to introduce myself and meet residents. I'm asking residents how they and we can make their neighborhood safe. Contrary to popular belief, many residents want additional police officers on site. We need to find who shot Derrick and I raised $2,000 of the current $5,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest. Our violent crime problem is costing lives and causing neighbors to live in fear. All of us in the community need to step up.
Derrick’s family is among a growing number of Asheville residents who are feeling the effects of a significant surge in violent crime. Homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault (Part I violent crimes) are up by 35 incidents, which is a 15% increase from January through June over the same period in 2017. That is on top of an overall 28% increase from 2015 to 2017. On August 9th, two APD officers and I met with residents from the South French Broad Neighborhood Association. Residents recounted frequent gun shots, open-air drug dealing, propositions by prostitutes, and finding used needles, used condoms, and feces in their yards. Business owners have changed the way employees come to and leave work and have hired additional security. All of this is in the vicinity of Asheville Middle School. At the neighborhood association’s request, APD responded with the temporary fix of an increased police presence, which residents said has helped.
Chief Hooper has been providing the crime statistic information at City Council’s Public Safety Committee meetings for many months. At the monthly CompStat meetings where APD internally reviews crime data and determines responses, they recognized these crime trends and have taken actions such as assigning officers to patrol in locations experiencing higher crime. (All Council members are invited to the CompStat meetings, and I attended one in June and another in August.) APD collects and analyzes this crime data in a very detailed way. It is clear from even a cursory review of the data that most of the violent crime is concentrated in less affluent parts of the city.
In July, I walked around two public housing communities and talked with people who were outside their homes. Many residents told me they are distrustful of the police, and at the same time they want police to be present so they can reduce the violence. To their credit, APD has been working to develop better relationships with residents through programs such as reading to children who live in these communities.
What is the long-term solution? A meaningful start would be to develop a comprehensive response to address violent crime in our city that includes leveraging community resources alongside police resources. We need to pull together effective community groups, stakeholders such as the Asheville Housing Authority and Asheville City Schools, and listen to the people who are directly impacted by this crime. Often times, individuals who are in the most need are the ones who do not contact City Council members, or don’t attend or speak out at public meetings out of fear, so their voices aren’t heard. These individuals need a seat at the table.
Behind each one of the numbers that I cited is a person who was hurt. They are our neighbors, our friends and our children. As a community and as a government, we need to acknowledge our violent crime problem and to step up and address it. We must also find who killed Derrick. It is unacceptable to me, and I hope to you as well, that it seems the community has forgotten about him. Let us all work together to make sure that all Asheville residents can go to sleep each night feeling safe, fed, healthy and valued.
Please let me know if you are willing to spend some time thinking together with other city residents about ways to address the problems and concerns I have shared. I look forward to your responses.