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Attacked at home

Criminals infiltrate Dilworth

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The people of Dilworth are beside themselves. You can hear it in their voices in television news interviews. They can no longer walk to their favorite urban eateries without worrying they'll be hit over the head during an armed robbery.

Those who do venture out are being encouraged to carry keychain alarms to use if they are attacked so their neighbors can call police.

It used to be that it was merely cars that were broken into and flat-screen TVs that were stolen. Now Dilworth residents and business owners are being targeted in increasingly brazen robberies.

Like residents of other Charlotte neighborhoods that have seen double-digit increases in crime recently, Dilworth residents are planning to hire additional off-duty police protection. After paying the highest combined tax burden in the state, it's mind-boggling that Dilworth's leaders aren't demanding the city provide those officers for free in response to the documented surge in crime over the last year.

I wonder how long it will take these well-meaning people to make the connection between the politicians they've been voting for and the chaos in their neighborhood. The problem isn't as simple as not having enough police. It's that criminals with rap sheets eight pages long are getting bolder, thanks to the policies, ineptitude and outright apathy of politicians Dilworth residents keep electing -- politicians for whom using police at the Bobcats Arena to handle parking at taxpayer expense is a higher priority than actual crime prevention.

Concerned Dilworth residents should start pulling the records of those the police catch committing crimes in their neighborhoods and watching what those they elect are doing about it.

Take 20-year-old Cedric Gaston, for instance. In December, Gaston and two friends racked up multiple charges after they sent Eric Sprouse, the owner of the Dilworth Billiards, to the hospital. Sprouse complied with their demands during an armed robbery but was shot full of holes anyway. Had he not had a gun and returned fire, Sprouse believes they would have killed him.

Gaston has been charged with over 50 crimes since 2004, nearly half of them felonies. In December 2006, after police surprised Gaston and his buddies breaking into dozens of cars at the Embassy Suites on South Tryon Street, they led officers on a car chase that was covered by WSOC-TV. They were arrested after they crashed a car into a building on Burnette Avenue. (Gaston led police on a similar chase in 2004, which resulted in probation. He has yet to receive any prison time on any of the charges he has racked up.)

As with the accused killers of UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson and Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato, judges gave Gaston probation as he spun out of control. Other judges slashed his bonds and let him out again and again.

Last week, I sat next to Sprouse, who is still recovering from his bullet wounds, and watched in horror as Superior Court Judge Calvin Murphy unsecured Gaston's bonds and slashed his bond total from $215,000 to $30,000. Since defendants only have to come up with 10 percent of their bond amounts, Gaston will likely be out by the time you read this. Murphy didn't have to reduce his bonds or let him out, but did anyway.

Gaston will be on electronic monitoring, which we can only hope he complies with. The people of Dilworth will be pleased to know that Gov. Mike Easley, whom a majority of them voted for, appointed Murphy to the bench.

Easley has also presided over a state probation system so whacked-out that a report released last week found that it is disastrously understaffed and underfunded and routinely loses track of criminals for periods of up to a year at a time. Probation officers are so underpaid that the positions are difficult to fill, and officers typically handle more than double the 60 cases they are permitted to by law. In one office, four probation officers were handling 749 cases, the report said. Officers say they are pressured not to revoke criminals' probation for new crimes because that would send them to prison, which costs the state money. All this is old news that came to light in two previous studies of the system conducted since 2000, but from Easley on down, no one has seriously bothered to address it.

This from the same governor who in the last year has presided over more than $450 million in waste, taxpayer subsidies of more than $60 million to two tire major manufacturers and the construction and renovation of a marina to be used by the wealthy to dock their boats.

While other perennial Dilworth electees like at-large Charlotte City Council members Susan Burgess, Anthony Foxx, and Mecklenburg County Commissioners Parks Helms and Jennifer Roberts have, to varying degrees, supported more police programs to rehabilitate criminals or anti-gang programming, they've been largely AWOL from efforts to demand a fix for our broken criminal justice system at the state level.

So far, Mayor Pat McCrory -- who, to be fair, did garner support from Dilworth voters -- has been largely alone in those efforts.

My guess? Without realizing it, Dilworth residents will pay for their extra police protection and vote for more of the same this fall.

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