WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — Two of our Triad cities are approaching possible-record high homicide numbers in 2023. In recent years, however, millions of dollars have been spent outfitting our cities and departments with state-of-the-art technology to better monitor crime both as, and after, it happens.
With violent crime rates either rising or leveling out, some community members have been left questioning if the technology is working. Recent happenings suggest not only that it’s helping to solve crimes, but it’s also changing the way criminals are being prosecuted.
“We’ve had to make cases solely on the technology because we’ve had zero witness cooperation,” said Chief William Penn Jr., of the Winston-Salem Police Department. “Zero victim, zero witness cooperation.”
So far this year, the City of Winston-Salem has experienced 41 homicides. Penn says of those, 26 have been solved and another eight are on the brink of being solved.
“In August, there were no homicides, and then in just a short period of time the violence has skyrocketed,” he added.
As for why August reflected the results the department always strives for, Penn points to the joint effort between his officers and Forsyth County deputies working to carry out saturation patrols in the wake of a violent July.
“They took some of our most violent criminals off the street during that time,” he said.
While Penn is confident there was conflict that didn’t rise to the point of homicide during that period, he does point to another troubling trend; victims going to hospitals outside of the jurisdictions where they were targeted and lying about where it happened.
“The time, the labor-intensive time it took to get through the lie of a victim mind you, to finally solve the case is just unheard of,” he said.
Where that witness and victim testimony is lacking, however, is where the technology comes in. A recent case is a perfect example, Penn said.
“We had to solve the case using license plate readers, the Real Time Crime Center, and cameras with no help from the community,” he added.
That technology, paired with others such as ShotSpotter and the ability to track cell phones, is allowing officers to present a case to prosecutors without an ever-coveted witness testifying.
“We can do it, but it makes things extremely tough,” Penn said.
“There are cameras everywhere, they’re going to capture what you’re doing,” Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill echoed.
As O’Neill explained, the increasing amount of hard evidence can now supplement eyewitnesses coming forward.
“The jurors sit over there, and they’re satisfied that what’s being presented to them narrows the evidence down to such a degree that they’re confident the person that’s been charged is actually guilty of those crimes,” he said.
While there have also been recent incidents where violent criminals have been let out on bond throughout the Triad, O’Neill insisted his office will fight to prevent that from happening.
“When you’re talking about people that are minding their own business, trying to enjoy the downtown area, and they’re accosted or they’re assaulted in some way, we want to drop the hammer on those kinds of folks,” he said. “If you commit a violent crime, and a magistrate or a judge sets a bond that’s too low, the DA’s office is going to come in and try to jack your bond up to keep you incarcerated.”
Both Penn and O’Neill maintain most violent crimes happening in the city involve acquaintances. Despite the possibility of surpassing the city’s record 44 homicides in 1994 and 2021, they want the public to view the city the way they do.
“When you compare Winston-Salem to other similarly situated and similarly sized cities, we are much safer than most places you could go to,” O’Neill said.
“As far as our folks being able to eat, live and play in Winston-Salem, it is safe,” Penn added. “If you’re hanging out with folks in gangs, if you’re dealing in the dope game, yeah, it’s not as safe for you because of the people you’re dealing with.”
Winston-Salem officers say they’ve already taken more than 900 illegal firearms off the streets in 2023, putting them on pace to seize more than 1,000 for the fourth-straight year.