A child is shot looking out the window of his home; one man kills another in a fight over chicken; the carneys are in town and they assassinate a man for his drugs; a father kills his family of five.
It’s a modest sample of violent crime the North Charleston police department witnessed in 2006. In all, 29 murders were recorded in the city last year, placing North Charleston on the infamous list of “America’s Top 20 most dangerous cities” according to the Crime State Rankings 2007 published by Morgan Quitno, an independent private research firm.
“Last year was very troubling and disappointing,” said North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt. The 26-year law enforcement veteran feels the need to drive home his point so he grabs a large, folded cardboard panel leaning against his third-floor office wall and sets it on the floor just inches away.
“This is what I use as a management tool,” he said, unfolding the board revealing a Polaroid montage of crime scene murders bearing the headline: 2006 Homicides. “This is what we faced last year. This is North Charleston last year,” Zumalt says.
The faces are young and distorted. A child stripped of his innocence, a woman half-naked lying in a pool of blood stripped of her dignity and a teenage boy, his face held together by stitches, stripped of life and hope.
The images are numbing and are best viewed subsequent to a disclaimer – and preferably not after a big lunch. But they’re raw, palpable examples of what is otherwise just a mundane statistical figure.
Beyond having their lives cut short, all share another common denominator: almost all of them are African-American. It’s not a short-term trend but a grim societal problem said Zumalt, quoting statistics from memory to back it up. Since 1992, 80 percent of all crime (violent and non-violent) in North Charleston involves black male victims and suspects, primarily black males committing violent acts on black males.
“What you saw on that board, that’s the real deal,” adds Zumalt. “It’s troubling and a lot of them there is nothing police could do to block them. It was spontaneous violence. Why is society in such a way that they do that? Those are questions I can’t answer, but those are things we need to be working on.”
Zumalt is a long way from Kansas, where he grew up in the small community of Chanute (population: 9,411 *). Times were simple. There was an uncompromising level of trust shared in small communities across America. Neighbors left their front doors unlocked. On any given summer Saturday neighborhood streets bustled with kids playing in the streets and porches were playgrounds with children coming and going through the screen door.
It’s a generation we can learn from, a lifestyle that those who lived it yearn for. It is also the foundation of North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt’s theory on reversing today’s crime trend. “The fundamental reason we’re having an increase in violent crime is a break of the family system, the schools and educational systems and church. That’s my belief, that’s what I see,” Zumalt said. “I am advocating with the community that we have to work on being good parents, spending time with their children and helping them grow up right so they don’t get involved in some of these poor behaviors that lead to violence.
“We’re talking about North Charleston, but this is a trend we’re having a problem with across the country. We’re trying to get ahead of this trend for the next generation and that’s going to be done at a very young level, working with at-risk kids and getting them engaged in positive behavior so they don’t get involved in the negative street behaviors that lead to violent crime.
“We filled the jail and they’re getting ready to spend $100 million dollars to build another one so law enforcement is doing a great job, society isn’t. (That’s not a solution to the problem), it’s just dealing with the symptoms.”
Last February Zumalt went on the record, telling the Post and Courier, “My No. 1 priority this year is to bring down violent crime.” Through the first week of August 2007 North Charleston has recorded 14 murders, the last taking place less than 12 hours prior to the interview, according to Zumalt, after a Hispanic man knifed another Hispanic man to death (that number increased to 16 less one week later when two murders was reported in the city).
Still, Zumalt expects the murder count to drop, despite being on pace to match the 2006 total of 29 murders. The North Charleston police chief said the number spiked as a result of three multiple homicides.
“When we have a shooting in our city today, we identify a suspect using our intelligence-led policing team and we get out and work until we find them,” he said. “That will ultimately have some success in bring down the number of shootings … we’ve got one of the best departments in the nation, finding somebody after a crime, getting them arrested and getting them locked up. We are about as good as anybody in the country at doing that. But that’s dealing with symptoms.”
Zumalt is a teacher by trade. Its’ been part of the family pedigree. His father (Ray), a high school guidance counselor, earned two masters degrees. His mother (Marjorie) was a librarian. After college, and before entering the law enforcement profession in full-time in 1981, Zumalt landed a teaching job, instructing eighth and ninth grade students. The classroom was home and education was a commodity.
It’s that experience that gives Zumalt a clear understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship education has on an individual, a community and society as a whole. He believes the foundation for major change starts with education. “The easy thing is to blame the police but, like I said, we’ve filled the jail,” he said. “What we’ve got to work on as a society is work on those issues of family, keeping kids in school.
“I don’t know what the rate is over in North Charleston, but I think only 30 or 40 percent of kids that start that school graduate?” It’s a stunning statistic. When they don’t graduate from high school, what are the prospects for their future?
“Those are difficult challenges. Those aren’t police issues. Those are societal issues. We deal with the symptoms of that and I don’t have answers for that. Those are the things that we need to work on collectively.” (In 2006, of the 348 seniors at North Charleston High School only 41.4 percent – or 144 students – graduated. That is 26 percent below the national average of schools similar in size and makeup of North Charleston High School *)
In February 2003, two months after taking over as chief of police and more than 20 years after teaching his last science class at Coleman Junior High School in Wichita, Zumalt took the command staff to North Charleston High School for a highly publicized summit. Zumalt had returned to the friendly confines of the classroom.
Zumalt stood in front of a blackboard as five North Charleston captains and three deputy police chiefs sat like students, and together they laid out a new city law enforcement plan. The result was an 11-page, five-year plan for the department.
Now, with six months remaining on the five-year strategic plan, Zumalt reports, “We’ve accomplished all the goals we’ve set out to accomplish when we began. I’ve started a new five-year strategic agenda and the central themes for the next five years are to develop our sergeant’s rank, recruiting and retention and developing our intelligence-led police program. We’re going to spend more-and-more time focusing on repeat violent offenders that are hurting us.”
It’s an hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week challenge that takes extreme focus and intense diligence. He reviews crime analysis bulletins every morning. “We see short-term spikes in violent crime and we’ll make adjustments and go out and work in those areas.” That includes North Charleston’s most challenging communities: Chicora-Cherokee and Charleston Farms.
“We have extra resources in those areas seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Zumalt reports. “We’re gaining ground in those neighborhoods and we’re bringing crime down in those neighborhoods.”
The strategies employed today may not be in place tomorrow – or next week. Bi-weekly Zumalt meets with all the captains to look at the previous two weeks crime. Zumalt says, “then we assign operational plans and develop operational plans to go in and work those hot zones to try to bring down the crime levels and have more presence in those hot spot areas.”
Slowly, the city is seeing results. Overall, crime (violent/non-violent) is down 11 percent in North Charleston according to Zumalt, and that’s a small but significant step in the right direction for a community with a large problem.
Zumalt attributes the success to a series of initiatives designed and created by the North Charleston police department, including deployment of a gang intervention unit, landlord-tenant programs and Section 8 housing programs to monitor and focus on potential problems areas.
In March of this year the department received national accreditation, a distinguished law enforcement honor and a morale boost for a growing department with growing challenges.
When Zumalt was sworn in, the first week of December 2002, the North Charleston Police Department was understaffed, overworked and unappreciated. It wasn’t so unlike his rookie days as a patrol officer.
“Human behavior hasn’t changed much so the work as a line officer hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “People are still hurting each other and stealing from each other, but I guess the mindset has changed.”
Early in his career working as a nightshift police officer, Zumalt and his then lieutenant arrived at a burglary in progress. After catching the suspect running out the backdoor of the home, Zumalt walked him to the front. “I looked a couple houses down and there was a porch light on and there was a couple standing out there wondering, ‘what’s happening to my neighbor?’ I asked the lieutenant, ‘can I go down there and tell them we just caught this guy?’ He said, “No, it’s none of their business.”
That was the mindset of law enforcement in 1981. “We’re the police, it’s nobody’s business what we’re doing, we own the information,” said Zumalt. “Well the belief has changed and gradually the belief system is changing across the country with law enforcement that we’re here to serve a population. They have a right to know why we’re in their neighborhood and what we’re doing and we need to work with the community to keep them aware of what we’re doing.”
Zumalt’s open, honest style was a character the North Charleston Police Department desperately needed to cultivate. In the two years prior to Zumalt’s arrival, the department was at odds with a community who pointed fingers at the police with accusations of racism, mistrust and brutality. The allegations drew media attention, creating image problems and a divide between community and law enforcement.
“That’s something that all law enforcement agencies need to work on because we arrest people,” he said. “When you do that there’s always a rub. Those are things we’re looking at in next year’s goals, advancing some ideas to better connect with the community. You constantly have to work on trust.”
Over time, the new chief has lifted spirits internally (adding staff and resources, including 312 authorized positions and more than 100 civilian, over 400 combined), provided work flexibility and developed a “democratic” climate, implementing the importance of staff input and communication. In addition, the North Charleston police department has received approval to add 19 more police officers with the last budget cycle (July 1, 2007) over the next year.
But Zumalt says he knows that alone won’t solve his current crime problem in North Charleston, one that centers on straight robberies. “That’s almost impossible to drop because we’re talking about illegal aliens carrying cash being robbed by blacks. That’s the truth of it and it’s very difficult to stop.”
Zumalt said the crimes are taking place “daily,” and with an estimated 5,000 illegal immigrants on the cities streets, they are tough to track and contain.
But it’s not for a lack of effort. Zumalt has been integrating a variety of strategies to get the problem under control. “I have changed the scheduling of the police department so we have our most staffing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights because that’s when peak call loads occur,” he said. “We’ve adjusted the use of our human resources around when our peak calls occur.”
Zumalt looks over at the display of photos neatly folded and out of sight, but not out of mind. The images are unsettling. They offer uncertainty because, as Zumalt says, “The police can’t be there, in everybody’s pocket to prevent these. These are societal people who have no value for life.” And Zumalt knows, all the resources and planning will not solve the crime problem, society must.
*** Chanute, Kansas population estimate from 2000 U.S. Census Figures