WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — How to stop juveniles from turning to a life of crime?
That has been the question that has haunted Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson since she stepped into the role of police chief in 2017.
“Our job is really to enforce the law when all of the other systems break down, and people end up in the criminal justice system,” Thompson said.
FOX8 last spoke to Thompson back on March 11 following a news conference on youth violence in the community.
She explained then that the department was working on ways to engage students in schools. The hardest part was getting teenagers to listen.
“Do I think teenagers are listening? I think some are. But I don’t think the majority of them are listening,” Thompson said.
That avenue of reaching children has been cut off since mid-March due to COVID-19.
Since then, there has been a consistent stream of gun linked crimes involving young people.
“It’s not just starting to happening, it’s just that we’re seeing some major impacts at one time that is really causing shock,” Thompson explained.
The reason is not just that schools are out, but that the pandemic has caused major social inequities in neighborhoods to become more obvious.
“We are seeing social issues that are going unaddressed, unattended to, that are now being criminal issues,” Thompson stressed.
Social inequities that come to mind for Thompson include lack of employment opportunities, small access to healthful food options and poor school infrastructure.
Back in March, the major zip code for this was the 27101 area.
Children there, “basically have a 13.8 year lower life expectancy rate than our children living in the 27106,” Thompson said.
She explained that hasn’t improved since the pandemic.
“What will happen [if social inequities aren’t fixed] is violent crime will continue. That’s what we’ll see.,” Thompson said.
Since January 1, there have been 328 juvenile victims of violent crimes compared to 284 at the same time in 2019.
For juvenile offenders, the numbers are down to 97 from 105. The youngest in 2019 was 10, while the youngest in 2020 was nine.
A new law past last year has raised the age of juveniles being able to be tried as adults for felony crimes. Those same kids are back on the streets with little guidance.
Thompson said those children then become victims of adult criminals.
“Yes, we do have adults who’re in the criminal world, who are taking advantage of the laws, and taking advantage of the juveniles in our community and are basically using them to further their criminal enterprise,” Thompson said.
So how to fix it?
Winston-Salem police have increased resources to target the handful of adults recruiting teens for crimes, officers are closing in on gangs and groups committing the violence and police are partnering with community groups to find activities for children during the pandemic.
Thompson stressed that won’t be enough.
“It’s not just a law enforcement or city government problem,” she said. “It is a community problem…and it’s going to take the community to sit here and answer these same questions to solve it.”