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Whipping Boy Beaten

While a felon goes free

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Poor Darrel Stephens. Every year, the Morgan Quitno Press puts out its ranking of America's most dangerous cities. In what is fast becoming an annual tradition, Charlotte inevitably moves up in ranking -- we were the eighth most dangerous city this year -- and city leaders drag out whipping boy Stephens, the chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, to take a beating for them, as if this were somehow his fault.

As part of this new tradition, Stephens held his second annual press conference last week during which he attempted to explain how a 9 percent increase in violent crime in 2005 isn't really as bad as it seems.

What I'd really like someone to explain is Kendrick Omar Hammond. When Hammond turned up on the Web site Crimeincharlotte.com, I assumed its author must have misread his record, which is easy to do, given all the duplicate entries on a typical criminal record. As jaded as I am about crime in Charlotte, even I didn't think that a record like Hammond's was possible.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Since 1997, Hammond has been arrested over 40 times and racked up 22 felony charges in 17 separate incidents, along with a couple dozen misdemeanor charges in other incidents.

Amazingly, our district attorney's office dismissed 17 of those 22 felony charges, including four possession of a stolen motor vehicle charges, four robbery with a dangerous weapon charges, two assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill charges and one murder charge.

In just one of these cases, a note was appended to a court file indicating that the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. That may have been the problem in some others, as well, but in all 17? How is that even possible?

In addition, Hammond has been given probation, broken that probation with no consequence and pled to lesser charges on multiple occasions. In a couple of the cases, the DA dismissed auto theft charges in exchange for Hammond promising to seek and maintain employment.

That Hammond will kill someone (or someone else) is inevitable. The only question is whether he'll do it on the road, on the streets, or in some unsuspecting person's home (he has an affinity for breaking and entering as well).

Hammond's driving record, which includes reckless driving, DWI and hit-and-run/failure to stop after a person is injured charges, should terrify drivers everywhere. And then there's his domestic violence record, which includes three charges of assault on a female, in addition to half a dozen other misdemeanor assault charges.

Amazingly, Hammond, 26, has spent only 13 months in state prison -- nine for drug possession and three for assault. That's it. And that's the problem.

Read the recent annual report of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and it's easy to see why no other city in the state came close to Charlotte's dangerous crime ranking (Raleigh and Cary were ranked among the safest). Rather than spend the time and money to prosecute criminals, our county's court system dismisses cases as a means to cut corners. Statewide, court systems dismissed an average of a third of the criminal charges filed last year. Mecklenburg dismissed just under half while Wake County dismissed 37 percent.

Politicians around here like to talk about crime and the state's utter failure to fund the courts properly, but they've done almost nothing about it besides holding press conferences and naming meaningless committees.

If we just prosecuted Hammond on each of the charges he currently has pending right now with no plea deals, no suspending of sentences and no combining of charges, he could be off the streets for several years. But the political will to do that just isn't there, so Hammond will plunder on.

Cities that systematically track and target the one to three percent of criminals who commit 10 to 40 percent of most cities' crime see drastic reductions in their crime rates within a year or two.

But this county, which has an early 1990s-era computer system, still lacks the basic technology needed to systematically identify criminals like Hammond in our system and target them for prosecution. It also lacks the political will to propose and actually follow through with prosecution programs to target these people, regardless of our technological situation.

After Mecklenburg County blew $8 million on a deal for a computer system that a contractor never produced, the issue simply died as lawyers wrangled over the details.

The reality is that stopping Kendrick Hammond still isn't a top priority for County Commission Chairman Parks Helms, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the city council, the county commission and most of the members of our state legislative delegation, with the exception of Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter, the only person who has made a concrete effort to get more funding for our courts.

When it comes to crime, these people just babble on, feign shock and then promise results that the police can't deliver by arresting people who are then spun through the revolving doors of our court system.

Hoping Hammond takes himself out along with his next victim isn't a viable long-term crime fighting strategy. Using Stephens as a whipping boy isn't either.

Until Helms, McCrory and company get off their rear ends, nothing will change.

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