After a consistent drop in the homicide rate, Charleston's East Side neighborhood is on track to see its second deadliest year of the decade — an outburst of violence that many residents feel is being fueled by suspects coming from outside the community.
There were four fatal shootings between mid-June and late September. The incidents prompted outcry from residents already grappling with issues including gentrification and piles of garbage left on streets. They'd spent years working with the city and police to try to push out drug dealers, clean up streets and make the East Side a better place to live. For some, the spike in crime was a sign that the neighborhood was in danger of regressing.
The Post and Courier analyzed the past 10 years of Charleston Police Department data on homicides and aggravated assaults with firearms. The numbers paint a picture of a community that has made significant strides but continues to struggle with violence. Data shows all identified homicide suspects since 2010 came from outside the East Side neighborhood. Homicide victims were a mix of East Side residents and outsiders. For aggravated assaults, more than half of cases are unsolved, and the solved cases show a mix of residents and people from other parts of the Charleston area.
For residents, like 45-year-old Megan Flower, the recent crime is upsetting.
"I've never seen anything like it is now," Flower said. "There's no consequences. It's so out in the open. It's a blatant middle finger."
She and other residents gathered on an evening in early November at St. John's Chapel on Hanover Street to raise money for residential security cameras that they hope will help to deter criminals and catch suspects when crimes are committed.
Many residents echoed a common sentiment: that those responsible for the majority of the crime are coming from North Charleston, West Ashley and other communities outside the East Side.
As part of its analysis, the newspaper examined incident reports for all aggravated assaults with a firearm in the past decade and pulled data from an internal homicide database.
Out of 26 incidents classified as homicides from 2010 to October 2019, 11 cases were not solved and one involved a juvenile suspect who was not named.
Of the 14 suspects for which information was available, none had an East Side address listed in Charleston County court records.
Out of 70 reported aggravated assaults with firearms, nearly 53 percent of those cases hadn't been solved. Out of the 33 cases with identified suspects, 18 had East Side addresses, 15 were from North Charleston, 11 from the city of Charleston, one from Goose Creek and one from Summerville.
Those incidents included an alleged sexual assault in which a man broke into a woman's home early in the morning and threatened her with a gun. In other incidents, bullet slugs were pulled from homes, found burrowed into trees and littering Hanover Street.
In some instances, the victims of these crimes said they knew the suspects; in others, they claimed the crime to be a random happenstance.
The three most frequent streets Charleston police were called to for aggravated assaults were Hanover, with 15 incidents; America, with 13; and Harris, with 11. The largest cluster of reported assaults happened around a city public housing complex northwest of Martins Park.
Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds and Lt. Andre Jenkins, who commands a department team that patrols areas of the city including the East Side, said the data reflects a growing trend in the tri-county: that criminals are becoming more mobile.
"Most of the offenders that have committed violent crimes in the Charleston area, they bounce back and forth from jurisdiction to jurisdiction," Jenkins said. "They're in North Charleston today ... later they're in downtown Charleston, they're in West Ashley."
Once a month, area law enforcement officials meet to discuss violent crimes in each of their jurisdictions and, among other subjects, try to figure out whether a suspect or group of suspects is moving around the county committing crimes, he said.
"We look at it and we try and map it," Jenkins said. "We don't monitor folks, but we want to investigate and know who's committing certain crimes. What we tend to see, a lot of times, is that when we look at the official address they're not city of Charleston residents. Sometimes they are, but often they're not. ... There's always something that ties them back to the city of Charleston, whether they grew up down here and moved away or they have a relative that stays in a certain part of town like the East Side."
Reynolds said he's taken feedback from East Side residents to heart.
He has worked with Jenkins to enable officers to conduct foot and bicycle patrols, one of several changes repeatedly requested by residents in the wake of this year's violence.
“We acknowledge this is an area of concern in our city, and there's a lot of work that's being done to flood this area with resources,” Reynolds said.
Part of the solution is to ensure that criminal cases are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, particularly in cases involving violent crimes, he said.
Police are working with the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and other state and federal authorities to ensure more cases see higher-level prosecutions, Reynolds said.
“It's a small number of people disproportionately, carrying guns shooting up our community,” he said. “We’re not talking about some low-level person that’s been arrested for carrying a marijuana joint. We’re talking about violent offenders. ... They need to be incarcerated. They need to get federal time. When we get them behind bars and out of play, our shootings go down.”
According to police data, the homicide rate in the neighborhood dropped after 2010, when six people were killed, and 2012, which saw four deaths. The neighborhood did not see more than three people killed per year between 2013 and 2017.
In 2018, there were no homicides, but five people have been killed on the East Side so far this year.
The number of aggravated assaults with a firearm remained in the single digits after dropping from 10 in 2010, but 2018 and 2019 saw increases to 13 and 19, respectively, police data shows.
Part of the increase in crime rates for things like aggravated assault could be attributed to residents being more willing to report incidents to law enforcement.
"We have more trust," Reynolds said. "People are calling. There's actually people that are posting videos. We're in a new era today, and we're glad for that ... (but) we have more shootings than we want to have in this fairly small area."
Jenkins and the chief said they've been working hard to address crime wherever it flares up by balancing proactive policing with fostering connections in the community.
On a recent night, Sgt. Sean Engles prepared for his night shift supervising six officers, including two that patrol the East Side.
Engles, a 12-year veteran of the department, said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen from residents so far this year.
The community seems to have been more vocal and engaged this year, he said. There’s been discussion of setting up a crime watch group and residents seem to be more willing to come forward to officers with information than they have in the past.
And he’s seen a marked shift in the kinds of calls he handles. Much of the drug activity and violent crime has been replaced with quality of life issues, such as people drinking alcohol in a park, Engles said.
“It’s all about the relationship between (us) and the community,” the sergeant said. “A good relationship has to be built.”
Eric Watson, chief deputy of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, was born and raised on the East Side in the 1970s and '80s. The community today is far different from the one he grew up in.
"I can tell you that compared to back then it's a great improvement," Watson said.
The lawman said he disagrees with the neighborhood's lingering label as an unsafe area where drugs and other criminal activity are rampant.
"I understand the label and I understand the stigma that's attached to it," Watson said. "There are still small pockets (of crime), areas that need to be addressed. No community is immune from what the East Side is facing."
Despite the challenges, the neighborhood is not short on people who see its potential.
Christopher Cason, 55, sold crack cocaine and heroin in the '80s and '90s. The East Side was his marketplace.
During that period, there was a core group who oversaw drug sales in the neighborhood, he said. Over the years, the environment shifted and more people from the outside started coming to the neighborhood to sell drugs.
“It started to become a haven for drug dealers,” he said. “Everybody wanted to sell.”
Eventually, Cason, who goes by “Poppa Smurf,” became a high-level dealer himself before he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
After he was released, Cason was approached by then-Police Chief Greg Mullen about helping to better the East Side, particularly by reaching youth, Cason said.
The former drug dealer turned community activist said he’s trying to do his part to calm tensions in the neighborhood when they’ve flared up over the years, but he’s been worried about what he’s seen developing in recent years.
“We’re at a standstill right now,” Cason said. “I think our community needs education and employment. Even now there’s no investment in the African American community. Hope is a commodity we can’t afford.”
He sees ex-felons like himself — those who’ve stayed out of trouble since their release from prison — as an integral part of the solution because they can reach the current generation of people engaging, or in danger of engaging, in criminal activity like no other people can.
And he knows the work is far from over.
“Until I can stop these kids from killing each other, I don’t want any recognition,” Cason said. “We have to change that narrative that snitching is something that benefits the community. You have people now that fear for their lives. Once we start taking pride in where we live at, we will rid ourselves of (this scourge).”