Over the last 20 years, Winston-Salem’s downtown has boomed with new businesses in retrofitted buildings, and apartments taking the place of warehouses. But the population growth has come with a rise in crime. Police hope a new fourth district will help address the problem.

Captain Jason Gates has been with the Winston-Salem Police Department for more than 20 years. Standing on the corner of Seventh and Trade streets, he recalls when the center of the city was a lot quieter.

"I remember working this downtown beat as a patrol officer from 2006 to 2008," he says. "And a lot of these buildings back then were vacant. But now it's got a lot of restaurants, and nightlife, coffee shops. And it's just an amazing growth."

But that comes with a cost. In February of 2023, downtown stakeholders met with police to discuss crime in the area. The meeting had been called after two people were shot to death on Burke Street.

The message was clear from that meeting: People wanted more officers downtown, and more engagement from those who were there.

Gates says those concerns were the main drivers of a new patrol district that will be known as District 4.

"Having more officers out in the field, being visible, you know, being able to interact with the public is going to enhance our ability to fight crime out here," he says. 

Vivian Joiner understands what it means to be short-staffed. She was part of the first wave of the downtown revival. Joiner and her partner Stephanie Tyson started Sweet Potatoes restaurant on Trade Street in 2003, years before the area attracted a thriving nightlife.

Like many employers, she’s been having trouble finding workers to staff her restaurant. So she understands the challenges police face in trying to keep up the ranks — which currently stand at just under 100 vacancies.

"The fact that they are finding innovative ways to keep moving and keep growing and adapting to what’s around, I’m happy with it,” she says. 

Joiner sees the new district as a way to concentrate the personnel the department has in places where they’re most needed.

The new district is shaped like a tall rectangle in the middle of the city. The top boundary is Northwest Boulevard just past the Arts District. Moving south, it goes through historic neighborhoods like Old Salem down to almost Interstate 40. It’s bounded on the west by Peter’s Creek Parkway and on the east by U.S. 52.

Joiner likes that the bike patrol is headquartered close by. And she says the downtown businesses also work together keeping each other informed when problems arise.

“We live in a big city that's really a small town," she says. "And so we have that small-town camaraderie a lot of times. And if there's an issue, we try and take care of it.”

But there are challenges in the new district too.

The Omega House restaurant has been a fixture of Peter’s Creek Parkway for more than 30 years. Jessica Vega’s family has owned it for the last seven.

She says crime has not been a serious problem, but the homeless population has been growing, and that has created issues with panhandling.

"When we took it over in about 2017, it seemed like it really wasn't that bad," she says. "You didn't have them coming in much, asking. But here recently, it's gotten a little worse. So just been since COVID. I guess that's when it really got worse.”

The unhoused can be the source of many police calls because they often have mental health issues. They’re also disproportionately victims of crime.

Captain Gates says the first step is to get those who need help the services they need.

“We're going to ask them if they need help," he says. "So we can get the city resources to come in through Neighborhood Services, to come in and chat with them, because some of them might be veterans, some of them may need our BEAR team, for example, for mental health resources ... but at the same time, you know, it's our job to enforce the law.”

So how does a police district work?

There are currently three in Winston-Salem. Each is led by a captain, has its own substation, and has its own dispatcher to take emergency calls. In District 4, Gates will be the captain. There is no need for a substation as the police headquarters is already downtown. 

As far as staffing, District 4 will neither add new officers or reduce the amount of time officers spend in the current districts. It’s more of a reallocation of resources, says Winston-Salem City Councilwoman Annette Scippio.

"They’ve shifted the workforce around so that there’s equal manpower across all of the four districts,” she says.

Scippio represents the East ward. The district realignment will split police coverage in her area. She’s hoping that the smaller footprint of both districts will make it easier for officers to get to emergencies.

“It's not just for downtown," she says. "It really is for all of the residents in that new district to have better coverage.”

District 4 is scheduled to go into effect in late summer.

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