News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013
HIGH POINT, N.C.(WRDW) -- After a year and a half marked by two officer murders and a spike in other homicides, too, the Aiken Department of Public Safety is looking for answers. On Thursday night, they'll submit their biggest and most-touted answer yet.
After a year of thought and firsthand training, Chief Charles Barranco will introduce a program that originated in the city of High Point, N.C.
Four times out of the year, two rows of seats inside city council chambers in High Point are reserved for some of the area's worst repeat offenders.
On Dec. 18 of last year, the city hosted the year's last "call-in." It's called a "call-in" because the repeat offenders are literally called in. News 12 was in attendance, along with about a dozen officers and community members from Aiken County.
"I look at some of these records, man. How many robberies are you allowed? How many assaults are you allowed? How many assaults and domestic violence assaults are you allowed? We've got several people with strangulation!" said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lang, looking down at the 14 men.
During this particular session, where the offenders are called in to hear a special message, there are 14 of them. Most of them are gang members, but all of them are violent offenders who've been convicted for using guns during their crimes.
"This isn't about talking down to anybody. This is about business!" said Lang, from his seat on a panel of other prosecutors and officers from the local area and farther.
The business is stopping the violence. It's a simple process of calling the repeat trouble-makers in to hear the community's message.
"Stop," Lang said to them. "When did it become OK to rob somebody -- to take something that somebody else worked for hard when you don't have a right to it? When did that become OK? When did it become OK to take young children and model that dealing dope, poison, was OK and an acceptable way? When did that become OK?"
It's the same message passed on to the area's worst offenders for years: Change your act with the help offered by the community or go to prison for a very long time.
"I will stay up all night long to work your case," Lang warned the 14 men. "We'll take $10,000. I'll let that money walk to see if it'll come to you!"
Greensboro native Charles Myres, who lives in High Point now, knows what it's like to be in one of those reserved seats.
"I was scared as I don't know what. I walked in, and it was nothing but police around the walls. I was like, 'Oh my God, we done walked into a trap,'" he told News 12.
At just 14 years old, he'd already racked up a number of charges and convictions.
"Resisting arrest charge, assault charge, assault on a government officer, I had possession of marijuana charge, I had possession of cocaine," said Myres, struggling to think of a number of others.
Myres says it was Assistant U.S. Attorney Lang that changed his life.
"If it weren't for him, I'd probably be locked up right now from continuing to do what I was doing in the past," he said.
Just like Myres, so many others have heard the message and changed in High Point.
"We had an average number of homicides around 20. We average less than five now. Our violent crime is 54 percent lower than it was 15 years ago. We have fewer calls, even though our population's increased almost 40 percent," said High Point Police Chief Marty Sumner.
He says things weren't always that way. Murders, prostitution and drugs were common, and then things changed.
A popular high school football player caught a stray bullet and died in a parking lot in an area of town knows as Five Points. Chief Sumner worked the scene back then. He was just a patrol officer at the time.
"That was a pivotal moment for the community. Everybody said, what are we going to do about that? And for the first time, the 'we' included everybody, not just police department, but it included the community members who wanted to get involved," he said.
Sumner says they did get involved by helping police identify problem spots and problem people. Ultimately, the people they help identify are the same people the "call-in" meetings seek to change.
Community members speak first. They tell the repeat offenders that they're a part of the community, too. They let them know of the various programs available to help them better their lives. Then, it's on to the panel of prosecutors and officers. Their messages aren't to scare the offenders but rather warn them.
"Folks are willing to help you if you're willing to be helped, but you gotta make that decision. That's why we're trying to come at you, man. We're trying anyway -- all kinds of different people. Whatever we can. Please stop it!" said Lang, who spoke last.
Myres did stop it. In return, he got resume training and the networking to find a good job. Nowadays, he lives a quieter life. He spends time at home with his wife and three children.
"Being in this program really helped me better myself as a person," he said.