WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — I’m not going to mention statistics here.
That’s easy to do when you’re writing crime-related stories. From homicide rates to larcenies to DWI arrests, law enforcement deals with a lot of percentage gains and losses.
But in Winston-Salem, especially when it comes to violent crime, there have been mostly gains. And they’re happening quickly. So quickly, that any one of them I mention here will probably be outdated within hours.
I’ll just stick with gun violence. Even veteran police officers say it’s now the worst it’s ever been.
“I’m angry that there are people who think they can come into our communities and commit violent acts and not be held accountable,” Winston-Salem’s Police Chief William Penn told me recently. “I’m angry so many folks in our community are numb to this and will allow it by not picking up the phone (and calling police).”
Six months into the job as the city’s top law enforcement officer, Penn has his work cut out for him. But he’s quick to point out he and his work colleagues can’t do it alone. It’ll take the entire community.
And it’s a community he knows well.
He grew up on the city’s east side.
“One of the places I used to love to go as a kid because my cousins lived there was Piedmont Park,” he said. “We called it back then ‘Piedmont Circle.’ We would run. We would play all day long on Saturdays. So I have nothing but wonderful memories of growing up on the city’s east side.”
But times have changed.
Just three months ago a 20-year-old man was shot and critically injured in a drive-by shooting on Horizon Lane just east of Piedmont Park and west of the Smith Reynolds Airport. But in this case, at least police knew where the crime happened.
“The new phenomenon is that even victims won’t tell us where the crime occurred,” Penn told me.
“(They’re) afraid of retribution, afraid of what maybe they were doing before. I’m not certain. But I can tell you the trend recently has been people who are victims of violent crime finding alternative hospitals to go to and ways to get there in order not to tell law enforcement what happened.”
To counter the lack of calls and the hesitancy of victims, the department launched its Real Time Crime Center in late 2022.
In a large room in police headquarters, officers watch the live images of more than 1,300 cameras positioned around the city. Many of those cameras are shared by business and property owners.
Officers here can also monitor the city’s relatively new shot-spotter system. It consists of microphone-like sensors placed in different parts of the city.
When they detect gunshots, notifications appear on computer screens and officers respond like what Chief Penn says happened not long ago.
“They (officers) get there and they see a man lying there. The man had no cellphone. There would have been no phone calls. They were able to call EMS and render aid. We saved his life.” Penn said.
But while the technology’s effective, it isn’t getting to the root of the problem. Penn says that starts in the home.
“And that has to be first,” he told me. “Again, the police department won’t be there, but laying the foundation, really pushing those values, conflict resolution, making sure that the drivers of crime are being addressed at an early age so we’re not dealing with it later.”
He does feel, however, the police department can influence how that happens by—among other things—setting an example. And a key to setting that example is engagement.
Penn says his department’s doing through weekly youth T-ball games in which officers coach and interact with the children. His department’s also partnered with other local first responders to build homes alongside Habitat for Humanity.
“The employees at the Winston-Salem Police Department are willing to do whatever it takes to keep this community safe,” he said. “All I ask of the community is to support them. Tell them you support them.”
And perhaps if all this comes together in the way Chief Penn would like, those statistics will improve.
To watch more of my interview with Winston-Salem Police Chief William Penn, click on the web extra that accompanies this story.