For months, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have said that they don't know what's driving the heavy increase in armed robberies in Charlotte. Now it appears that they may have found a one-word answer: gangs.
At a Homicide Task Force meeting last week, Captain Eddie Levins painted a stark picture of the problem. For a long time, the gateway crime kids committed to get into gangs was auto theft, which has been a problem in Charlotte for years. Levins believes that the new gateway crime for gang members may have ratcheted up a level to robbery.
Charlotte isn't the first place to see this particular escalation, either, Levins said. Similar transitions have been documented in places like California that have long had gang problems.
"It was cars," Levins said. "The next level is a gang robbery. What is the next gateway crime? Homicide. If that migrates here, we are in trouble."
The news came as a surprise to some Charlotte city council members.
"Man, that's not good news," said city council member Andy Dulin.
Gateway crime escalation is a trend that gang expert and former law enforcement officer Robert Walker says has occurred in other gang hot spots across the country like Los Angeles and Chicago.
As gang membership escalates, so does gang violence.
"Kids get bored of doing the same thing," Walker said. "They move up to something else."
Levins estimates that at least 25 percent of those currently in custody for robbery are gang members. Since those are just the gang members that the department has pre-identified in its computer database, the real percentage of robbery suspects who are gang members is likely much higher, he said. The police just haven't identified them yet.
And that's not all of the bad news. Given the age of those involved, the gang-related robbery trend is likely one that is just getting started. New statistics compiled by police show that the younger a robbery suspect is, the more likely it is that he is affiliated with a gang.
Nearly a third of robbery suspects under 18 years of age were identified by police as gang members, while only 11 percent of suspects between the ages of 21 and 30 were.
City council member Warren Turner is the chairman of the city's community safety committee. Turner says he talks to gang members every day in his day job as a probation officer, and that he has repeatedly tried to tell his council colleagues and the police department that the spikes in auto theft and armed robbery were gang-related.
"I'm just disappointed that everybody is acting like this is new news," said Turner. "This is old news to me because I have been singing this song. I hear this every day from folks that I deal with on the street who tell me they are gang members. I guess because my title isn't as big as theirs, it didn't matter what I was telling folks."
After a 32 percent increase in robberies last year made the news, the police department put together a robbery task force to tackle the problem. That's good, says Turner, but it isn't good enough.
"We're sleeping at the wheel," said Turner.
He says that the city should have already recruited someone with gang expertise from a major city like Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami that has a history of tackling gang problems to help guide the city's gang strategy.
Officer W.C. Hastings, one of just a handful of officers on the force who deals with gangs full-time, says people would be surprised if they knew the extent of the gang problem here.
"The number of these people coming into Charlotte is just remarkable," Hastings says. "We have people coming here from California and all over the country and if you ask any of them, 'Why here?' the ones that are honest with you will tell you we're behind. We don't have any gang laws."
It also appears that the police are woefully undermanned to do the job. On paper, it may appear that 30 officers work on gang issues, but most of them are also on patrol full time and respond to calls for service, so what they can do is limited.
Just eight officers deal full time with gangs, fewer than the number who are dedicated to uptown security.
Levins and others say that every part of the police department is strapped for manpower.
"We can't abandon everything we do and just work on gangs," he said. "I wish we had more people. I wish city council saw fit to give us more people."
Hastings says that translates into an alarming situation on the street.
"We are just pulled every which way from Sunday," he said. "We have the alarming numbers that we have and they are growing daily. Just trying to keep the database caught up is hard enough. We have volunteers and interns do that to help us out."
With the city budget in tight shape, even Turner admits finding solutions will be difficult. Most people are willing to accept a tax increase if it means improving public safety, he said. But then the problem becomes that they want to see something in return for that. If it still takes officers three hours to respond to people's calls because police resources are devoted to tackling gangs and other issues, taxpayers won't be happy, Turner says.
The city has made some strides in recent years, though. It launched a gang intervention and education program called Gang of One to keep kids from joining gangs; formed a violent gang task force with the FBI; and launched a gang intelligence database.
But there is still so much to be done, many say, and a lot more to be learned.
"Why are they moving from car theft to armed robbery?" Hastings says. "That's a very good question. If I could answer that, I would have an answer to solve it."