Wilmington Crime: A City That Bleeds

Part one in a series explains why violent crime has increased in Wilmington.

Wilmington isn’t exactly “Murder Town USA,” but there is a new character to violence that is especially troubling. Why murder on the street has gotten so vicious is anyone’s guess, but there is a solution.  

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Let’s call him Jerome. In February, Jerome, 15, finished six months at the residential Glen Mills Schools for “juvenile delinquents” a few miles north of Wilmington. He was sent there for committing a robbery last summer with a handgun he claims to have found. “I did it just to do it,” he says. Counselors at Glen Mills spoke with Jerome about the need to change, though Jerome himself is unsure the need is real. “Whatever I’m doing is all I know,” he says. He does not, he says, like most people outside his friends. In his few years, he has lost a dozen or so, he claims, to handgun violence. He is not sure why they were killed, though he thinks it was for “the same things I do.” He is not specific about what they are.

He is pissed off, he says, by the things he sees—like the shooting of his 13-year-old “little brother,” four times in the legs, on the street in Southbridge a couple of weeks before he left Glen Mills. He was pissed off enough, he says, to want “to do something about it” the night he found out—mere days after regaining his freedom. Jerome will not say what “something” could have been. One might be tempted to make the worst of assumptions, given the current climate of violence in Wilmington, but that would be unfair to Jerome. Jerome is a unique individual. Any assumption about his actions would likely be based on an over-simplified version of a complex psychology, a mindset that sometimes leads young men—and teens and adolescents—to commit violent crimes against each other.

“For the community, it’s normal,” says Brahmin Jackson, Jerome’s case manager. “At a young age, it’s a part of what’s going on. They know right from wrong, but wrong sometimes feels normal. We’re working through that.” Our embarrassment as “Murder Town USA” by Newsweek in December has spurred an unprecedented effort—several efforts, from the governor’s office on down—to stop gunfire in the street. But the action has been too long coming, according to many who live in the most violent neighborhoods, places where it’s almost impossible to find a family that hasn’t been affected by violence or incarceration, even if the vast majority of people are not themselves violent. Residents—glad to see the general interest, hopeful that it will help, yet disappointed time and again by the unsuccessful efforts to relieve poverty and curtail crime—have a new sense that they have to do for themselves. And there is a keen sense among some that the best solution to violence in the street comes from the street itself. Says one young man, “Sometimes you have to have been in it to know what to do about it.”

Photographs By Joe Del Tufo

Residents gather for the One Love Peace Gathering at One Love Park, 24th and Tatnall, in the troubled Northside section of Wilmington.​

Wilmington Skyline.

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Violent crime in Wilmington is nothing new. The city saw a drastic rise in shootings in 1996—108—up from 25 in 1995. And though the numbers dipped after law enforcement initiatives such as the short-lived Operation Safe Streets in 1997, they started to creep up again in the mid-2000s. More distressing than the number of shootings, however, was the rise in homicides, from a low of seven in 1999 to a record high of 29 in 2010—a three-fold increase in the span of 10 years. Since then, the number has remained high: 28 in both 2011 and 2014. With nine murders committed in the first quarter of 2015, the city was on pace, barring some sort of intervention, to smash the record. Just the same, Newsweek’s article, which called Wilmington the third-most dangerous mid-sized city in the country, offended citizens who view their home as a safe, progressive, generally lovely place to live. And because Wilmington is a safe city overall, some sense of insult was perhaps justifiable. No one appreciated the statistical sleight-of-hand, the “per capita” ranking, that made the city look worse than it is.  “Most of the people who do the shooting and get shot are the same,” notes social psychologist Yasser Payne, a professor of black American studies at the University of Delaware, “and they keep turning over and over and over.”

No one has been shot downtown or on the Riverfront. Nor has anyone been shot in neighborhoods such as The Highlands or Trolley Square or The Triangle. Even Southbridge, at times, a very violent neighborhood, has been relatively quiet. But the alternate reality is that there are neighborhood—the so-called hot spots of Eastside, Northside, West Center City andothers—where an incident of gun violence is a daily possibility. One may feel tempted to make a distinction between a violent city and a city where violence happens. Yet another reality has emerged since Newsweek: Of the six murders in Wilmington in January, three were caused by “multiple” gunshots, as police say. The other three were caused by shots to the head. So it is not just shooting that everyone is so concerned about. It is the viciousness of the shooting and the unmistakable intention: execution. “My grandson got shot 12 times. That’s a lot of firepower,” says Bilal Hawkins grandfather of William “L’il Billy” Rollins Jr., 18, found dead at West 21st and North Washington, three blocks from Hawkins’ home, on Jan. 24. One of Rollins’ wounds was a headshot. Not two weeks earlier, Rollins’ friend, Keith Mason, 24, was found dead two blocks from where Rollins was slain. “Keyz got shot 14 times,” Hawkins adds. “Even Capone didn’t shoot them up like that.”

If you were to ask residents of poor, black communities in Wilmington, most would tell you that the root causes of crime begin with unemployment, poor educational opportunities and unhealthy living conditions, as noted in “The People’s Report,” a comprehensive survey of the values and attitudes of the residents of the Eastside and Southbridge about community and self. In those neighborhoods and others like them, add to the above a disproportionately high number of single-parent households—most run by women—a disproportionately high rate of incarceration among men, a disproportionately high rate of recidivism (return to incarceration) and substance abuse. Says Charles Madden, executive director of the HOPE Commission, established almost 10 years ago to curb violent crime and find work for parolees, “African-Americans lead all other races in these social indicators.”

It’s an old story, but let’s break it down further. The county has lost a significant number of blue-collar jobs in recent years and hiring policies among existing employers generally don’t favor those with criminal records. Nor are there enough programs, like Madden’s, for men who are re-entering society after release from prison. The city long ago lost oversight of its public schools, which now suffer the same ills that led to court-ordered desegregation 40 years ago, leading to a population that is performing below state and federal academic standards. After-school programs, summer programs and community centers have closed for want of funding. The physical condition of some homes in low-income neighborhoods continues to decline. All of this is made worse, says state Rep. Helene Keeley, a lifelong Wilmington resident, by the decision to let local police officers live outside the city, the city ceding its right of eminent domain and a state crackdown on the trade of illegal prescription drugs that has fueled sales of heroin on the street and a “general lack of respect for anything.”

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State Rep. Helene Keeley, lifelong Wilmington resident.

And that just scratches the surface. Says Coley Harris, a violence prevention worker, “It’s exacerbated by compound issues—generations of poverty, generations of substance abuse.” So if you’re an under-educated or unemployable young man who has never known anything but poverty and you need to support yourself, maybe a child or two, a life of hustling can look pretty good. “Whenever you have opportunities blocked, when you have a lack of jobs or a poor health-care system, it can lead people to the streets to meet their basic needs,” says Darryl Chambers, a former drug dealer made good who serves on Gov. Markell’s Wilmington crime strategies commission. “They don’t want to, but once they do, they often stay there.” But that doesn’t entirely explain the recent violence. Not nearly. Nor does it explain why young men from poor, black neighborhoods make the choices they do.

Rewind 20 years and then some. “I had dropped out,” says Chambers. “I never felt the need to finish high school.” So he was hanging on the corner, “selling drugs, smoking weed, drinking beers.” “Then a friend of mine was released from jail. He told me, ‘Get a GED [high-school diploma], and I can get you into school.’ My girlfriend had just given birth, so now I’m thinking, ‘Yeah. Wow. I’ve got a kid now. This is a turning point. He can’t be doing this.’” Chambers didn’t know about SATs, the college application process, high-school transcripts, financial aid. He couldn’t consult a guidance counselor, and no one in his neighborhood of Riverside had gone to college before him. But with the help of his friend, an “oldhead” from the street, he figured out how to get himself to the University of California, Davis. Chambers paid his tuition in part with profits from drug sales. “We decided, ‘We’re going to sell drugs, but one out of every $5 goes back to the community,’” Chambers says. His crew ran a reading program for guys from the neighborhood. They ran athletic leagues for the kids. They bought them schoolbooks and gave scholarships, guided them into college. “We walked the old ladies home,” Chambers says, “carried their bags. ‘Is there anything you need today?’”

The crew did not tolerate drug use among themselves, Chambers says. They had seen firsthand the damage it had done to others. “It was taboo to become a base head, a crack head.” So they made rules. “I never sold drugs at school. Never sell to kids. Never sell to family members. Never sell to moms, pregnant people. Never sell to white people. Be cautious of people with large sums of money. “And we really thought we were doing something morally correct,” Chambers says. “We held a lot of people responsible. We told the dealers, ‘It’s up to you to make sure our communities are safe.’ At the time, we thought we were doing the right thing.” After finishing his bachelor’s degree in sociology, Chambers wanted to attend graduate school, but, again, he didn’t know how to get there, how to pay. “I didn’t know that if you got accepted, there was a good chance you could get some funding. So I decided, I’m going to hustle into January ’98, then I’m going to stop.”

He got busted first. Police, looking for a friend who was wanted in connection with a murder in Philadelphia, executed a warrant at his house. Chambers went to jail for drug trafficking. He served time in four federal penitentiaries over the next 14 years. Chambers wasn’t the only big bust. Across Wilmington, police were sweeping dealers off the streets—40-some major players over the course of weeks. “That’s when things started to unravel,” he says. Police may have removed the dealers, but they left a wide-open market—money to be made—and a vacuum of power. With too few “big brothers” or oldheads on the street to maintain the order, younger men started fighting over sales territories. “The Eastside and Northside exploded,” Chambers says. Shootings increased. Most weren’t meant to kill, though a handful did.

Darryl Chambers of the governor’s crime strategies commission with a photo of his son, an honor student who was shot and killed days before entering the military.

Even with occasional dips, the upward trend of shootings and killings has continued ever since. “They didn’t understand the sociology of the street,” says Harris. “They solved a drug problem, but they created a murder problem.” Officials from Wilmington’s chief of police to the attorney general still connect much of the current violence to drug trade. But in a heroin-based market characterized by far lower profits than those of the crack cocaine-based market of 20 years ago—with less money to be made all around, therefore less incentive to deal—beefs between the corner boys don’t explain the shootings. “There’s a new character with respect to a drug culture,” says Payne, who coordinated the research team behind “The People’s Report.” “The kingpins don’t do anything, and they get respect for it. No one wants to work with a drug dealer who has a drug addiction.” But at the street level, there is a different ethos, and it is nothing like that of 20 years ago. Jackson, who works with young substance abusers, says drug use, primed by a lifetime of medication for mood and behavior disorders, is one way to cope with the depression and stresses inherited with a life of poverty.

That’s not to mention the stress of living in an environment where your life is at risk every day, the anger over losing a parent to jail or violence, deep surrogate relationships with peers who live in the same circumstances and feel the same frustration and anger, or easy access to powerful handguns—though no one but the violent offenders seems to know why—and a heightened inclination to use them. Things happen. Young men have shot each other, violence prevention specialists say, over disses on Facebook, stolen necklaces and bicycles, girlfriends—and the shootings of friends. “A lot of this is retaliatory,” Payne says. And word on the street is that some number of shootings were contract killings—hits, as indicated by the headshots—carried out for as little as $200. “If you’re young, that probably seems like a lot of money,” says violence prevention worker Harlan “June” Hawkins, an uncle of the slain William Rollins. “They have the idea they can get away with it and build a reputation. In their young heads, that all sounds great.” “They want respect, but no one respects a gun. They fear a gun,” says Keith James, founder of Voices for the Voiceless, which is also working to end the violence. “For some of these guys, it’s like updating their résumé.”

Optimism about curbing the violence is high, though no one is naive about the effort required. Many praise community investments such as Habitat for Humanity’s just-started Walnut Ridge housing project on the East Side, confident it will have the same crime-lowering effect as Habitat’s investment on the notorious Vandever Avenue by rekindling an abiding sense of pride in the neighborhood. Similar new housing has transformed The Bucket on lower Fourth Street. Eastside Rising’s rehabilitation of more than 150 homes “has rejuvenated, saved the souls of 7,000 people in that neighborhood,” says city councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz. Those who think broadly about solutions to the core systemic problems advocate for even more improvement in housing, more substance abuse programs, reform of the city’s poorly performing public schools, filled, as they are, with children from neighborhoods dominated by single-parent homes and children with needs—food, clothing, special education, tutoring, mentors—beyond those the system currently provides.

Most of all, they call for more jobs. “What alternative are we giving that guy to for-profit crime?” says Madden. His HOPE Commission Achievement Center works to find work for parolees from the toughest neighborhoods, all in an effort to reduce the 75 percent recidivism rate in the city. “Crime goes down when unemployment goes down,” Madden says. “Jobs aren’t the only solution, but they are a solution.” None of which directly addresses the recent wave of violence. In January, all 62 legislators signed Keeley’s House Joint Resolution 2, creating the Wilmington Public Safety Strategies Commission to review policing policies and practices in the city. “In my 20 years in the Senate,” says Margaret Rose Henry, representative of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, “that’s the first time we all signed onto anything.”

Charles Madden, executive director of the HOPE Commission.

Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings and others believe a new academy class that will bring the police department up to its authorized strength of 340 officers, recent approval of more money for overtime pay and deployment of patrols to the most violence-prone neighborhoods at peak times will reduce the shootings. Yet almost no one believes that policing is the solution. Better policing may lead to more arrests, but more arrests, critics fear, will lead to more incarceration, which will leave more room for new thugs on the street and more children without their fathers. “We didn’t see crack babies growing up to be 25 years old. Now we see kids growing up without fathers,” says June Hawkins. “What are those results going to be?”

Those who have had enough of violence can’t wait for better schools or more jobs or anything else. So violence prevention, say Madden, Chambers, Harris and others of like mind, requires getting men involved with young people like Jerome—kids and young men who stand at the crossroads of the only life they’ve ever known and the possibilities they’re not aware of—guiding them down the right path and teaching the true meaning of respect. “OGs [original gangsters] in the community can change the game,” says the Rev. Dr. Donald Morton, head of the Complexities of Color Coalition. “They have a respect in the street that is almost sacred, and we have to honor it—even if we don’t agree with it.”


Next, why some men believe they have failed the current generation and how they intend to prevent further violence.


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