Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rifles don't always shoot straight

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 5th, 2006

In most communities of Chapel Hill's size, an armed robbery downtown would be big news. But as shootings and gunpoint attacks on Franklin and Rosemary streets have become an almost monthly and sometimes more often occurrence, media coverage of these incidents has been largely relegated to the police beat.

That worries me. When individual acts of violence become so routine they don't seem like a big deal is when people are going to start going downtown at night a lot less often. We are in the process of a much-needed effort to revitalize our central business district by greatly increasing the number of people who live in it.

The continuation of this trend of violence poses a great threat to the fulfillment of that vision.

Last week's slaying outside the Avalon nightclub has proved to be an exception to the seeming indifference of the broader community to violence downtown. Homicides, thankfully, are still rare enough in Chapel Hill that they get a lot of attention when they occur.

However, I'm worried the reaction to this incident is shortsighted. Many folks have expressed the view that this crime was related to the culture that has been built up around Avalon. They think that shutting the club down will solve the problem, and it appears their wish will be fulfilled.

Putting Avalon out of business is a good start -- it's clear the management there has lost control of what goes on at their establishment.

But it's unlikely the violence will disappear with the club's closing. It will just move somewhere else.

The upswing in violence downtown may be rooted elsewhere than Chapel Hill -- there is rampant speculation that this most recent shooting was gang-related, and other incidents have also been traced to gang activity. Many of the victims have come from Durham, so it is possible that what we are seeing here stems from conflicts started elsewhere, although there are other possibilities.

Some folks will feel comfortable in saying that since most of these incidents have not involved people who actually live in Chapel Hill, we don't have much to worry about as long as we mind our own business.

But as my mom reminded me, rifles don't always shoot straight. And even if the chances of any of us individually getting shot or robbed are pretty small, we still need to take back downtown as a place where people can feel safe living and going to at night.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell has done a great job of reducing violence and gang activity in his community. Simultaneously, though, there has been an increase in that kind of crime in Chapel Hill, making it seem like some of that activity has just been relocated rather than stopped.

Bell could not have foreseen the regional impact his crime-fighting efforts have had, so I don't fault him. Overall there's been a significant decrease in Durham crime, even if some of it has apparently moved down the road. But Chapel Hill, rather than taking actions that will simply relocate the problem, should take regional leadership in working to solve it.

Gangs in our area should not be viewed as a Durham problem or a Chapel Hill problem or a Raleigh problem.

It's time for the elected and law enforcement leaders throughout the Triangle to get together for a serious dialogue about what's happening, and come up with a joint action plan for solving it. Previous efforts have been shortsighted, and we've seen the effects here in Chapel Hill.

There are folks already doing good work to make downtown safer. Liz Parham and Andrea Rohrbacher, in their roles respectively as executive director and chairperson of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, have worked with the Town Council to get five new police officers for downtown. The officers should be on the beat by February and will doubtless help make a dent in some of the problems we've been seeing.

But to really solve the problem, we need to get to the root of it. That can't just be done by throwing money at it. It's going to take a lot of careful thought and cooperation from various interests throughout the Triangle, but with the brain power and civic mindedness our region benefits from, I'm confident it can be done.

I have a vision that five or 10 years from now all the condominiums downtown will be filled, there won't be an empty storefront, and all the grumbling of recent years about the demise of Franklin and Rosemary streets will be a distant memory. But it won't happen until the return of the days in Chapel Hill where any crime involving a weapon is a stunning and rare occurrence.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill NC 27516.

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