North Charleston in grip of deadly trend Leaders seek answers as alarming homicide rate surpasses 3 big cities

North Charleston accounted for nearly half of the tri-county area’s 32 homicides so far this year but 15 percent of the area’s population.

In the first half of 2016, North Charleston recorded a steadier rate of homicides than New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

While the city has fewer people — 108,000 compared with 2.7 million in Chicago, the smallest but most violent of the other three — 15 killings this year make it deadlier. Thirty-three people also were wounded.

Homicide rate is an annual tally of slayings adjusted for population. If the killing pace persists through the last six months of 2016, North Charleston’s rate would be nearly 28 deaths per 100,000 people, while Chicago’s would be 24.

Hundreds of deaths this year have made the Windy City the focus of national notoriety, but local officials and observers have puzzled over the problem much closer to home.

North Charleston accounted for nearly half of the tri-county area’s 32 homicides in the first half of 2016 but only 15 percent of the region’s population. By the halfway point in 2015, the city had recorded only three slayings.

“I wish I knew why our younger folks are resorting to guns instead of discussing things, working things out,” Mayor Keith Summey said. “We used to slap each other around when we had a disagreement. Today, it just seems that gun violence is the way.”

The total in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties was two shy of the 34 homicides recorded in the same period last year, when nine were slain at Emanuel AME Church. But the last six months are historically the deadliest, and some fear the worst is yet to come.

The surge mirrors trends in many major American cities, and suspected factors behind it run the gamut. FBI Director James Comey this spring laid out his primary concern: that police officers fearful of scrutiny are holding back on efforts to deter crime.

North Charleston is not immune to such speculation. It’s where a bystander filmed officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott to death after a traffic stop, prompting the patrolman’s arrest last year. The case raised further questions about incessant stops that North Charleston had used for years to uncover more serious crimes afoot; critics said the tactic unfairly targeted black communities.

Officers have made fewer traffic stops in the 14 months after Scott’s death — about 38,000 compared with 83,000 in the same period before, a 54 percent drop — and the mayor theorized publicly that the police have taken fewer guns off the street as a result, possibly spurring the uptick in killings.

“We took a lot of guns off the street with the traffic stops,” he told WCBD-TV in March, “but we have curbed those numbers because we were criticized.”

But data obtained from the North Charleston Police Department showed otherwise: The officers are seizing nearly as many guns. They confiscated 424 firearms in the 14 months before Scott’s shooting and 422 after. Police officials did not respond to inquiries for this report. To Summey, the statistics are just a sign that more guns are out there now.

“It shows that there’s a massive problem with guns on the street,” he said. “We do know that the more guns we take off the street, the more likely it will prevent the shootings. We would like the community to come together to give us information on guns.”

Comey aired his concerns this spring after reviewing quarterly statistics on the dizzying rate of homicides in big cities.

What he dubbed a “viral video effect” could be playing a role, he said. Footage showing alleged abuses has made officers hesitate to confront people, Comey said.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” he told reporters, “but holy cow do we have a problem.”

Spawned by years of steady criticism, a change in vision for policing gradually led officers in North Charleston to make fewer stops, officials have said. But the retreat became more drastic, city leaders suggested, because the police were holding back.

While officers still conduct as many patrols in high-crime areas, the mayor said, the city has seen violent crimes go up by 13 percent since Scott’s shooting compared with the 14 months before. Property crimes climbed by 21 percent.

To Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP, the level of traffic stops has little bearing on crime and officers’ ability to find guns. He recalled nearly a decade ago when the city was listed among the Top 10 most violent in the country. North Charleston increased stops then, the numbers went down, and the city kicked the distinction.

But a higher homicide rate today isn’t reason to bring back practices of yesterday, Bryant argued. Social programs that distract younger community members from the street life should be the focus, he said.

“The homicide rate is going up, but it’s going up across the country,” he said. “They haven’t done a good job of creating programs to make sure it stays down. We’re almost back to the same level from the bad years.”

Local officials trace most homicides to street crime, including the drug trade. Victims and perpetrators often are caught up in that life.

But the violence has snagged others, too. Bartender Eric Brantley was fatally shot as he left work one April night. Police say two teenage robbers targeted him. Barri Shank, a vacationer from Ohio, also was shot to death on Memorial Day weekend outside his hotel, and the police don’t know why.

Law officers often view rising crime as an indictment of the job they do, said John Blackmon, president of the Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3. He monitored the response to Scott’s killing last year, and sees the falling traffic stops as troublesome.

“Traffic safety is an integral part of crime prevention,” he said. “How do we get the guns? We stop the people with them.”

The answer is cooperation, not finger-pointing, between officers and residents, he said.

“No matter what the cause is, I’m worried that crime is increasing in North Charleston,” Blackmon added. “That means that criminals are becoming more brazen. That puts everyone in danger, including officers.”

The Charleston area in 2016 has not seen the kind of mass violence like Dylann Roof’s attack at Emanuel a year ago. But in one of the deadliest outbursts of domestic violence in recent memory, investigators said Ravenel resident Kenneth Lamar Ancrum in May fatally shot his girlfriend’s grandmother, niece and sister, who was pregnant with twins. If authorities pursue murder charges for the fetuses’ deaths, that could push the toll to five. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she plans to seek indictments in the case “very soon.”

North Charleston typically carries one of the highest homicide rates in the region. Last year, it was 18.5 killings per 100,000 residents. Charleston’s rate hit 12.8; without the mass shooting, it would have been 6.8.

South Carolina also ranks among the most violent states. In 2014, the most recent year for which data are complete, the state saw a rate of 6.4 slayings, the fourth-highest in the country.

Such statistics don’t sit well with Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who has championed gun-control legislation. Like others, Gilliard is convinced that illegal guns are flooding the streets like never before. Lawmakers must beef up penalties for people caught repeatedly carrying guns illegally and for those who fire them in public, he said. Authorities also should target straw purchasers — people who buy guns legally from retailers, then sell them to criminals for a profit, he said.

Hours after last month’s shooting that killed 49 at an Orlando nightclub, Gilliard sent a letter to local leaders decrying inaction on meaningful reforms. But the sort of discussions that often pop up after mass shootings — like the one about barring people on “no-fly” lists from buying guns — would do little to solve neighborhoods’ struggles with sustained violence.

The lawmaker is among the observers who foresee many more killings as the year wears on. Two days into July, another man was shot to death in Charleston, the second slaying there in three days.

“We tend to be reactionary after the big incidents,” Gilliard said. “Until we focus on the big picture of what’s going on in these communities, then and only then are you going to see a change. ... I fear it’s going to be a dangerous summer.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.