School safety is top of mind at Winston-Salem town hall on gun violence
A packed gymnasium greeted a panel of Winston-Salem city officials Wednesday during a sometimes-contentious town hall meeting. The goal was to gather community input and find new ways to reduce gun violence. The event was spearheaded by Northeast Ward Councilmember Barbara Burke well before the Uvalde school shooting, but that tragedy was very much at the forefront of people’s minds.
Burke began the community strategy session by calling for a moment of silence for "the horrifying event that took place in Texas." She said her goal was to develop an anti-violence action plan with audience input, and she praised city officials on stage and called for community members to support them in their efforts to keep Winston-Salem safe.
Among the panelists were Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Tricia McManus. McManus was asked for the number of student resource officers (SROs) being deployed in elementary schools.
"We do not have a resource officer right now in all of our elementary schools. We have them again in all of our middle and high schools, and then we have those on patrol that also roam the area," said McManus. "Sheriff Kimbrough, I don’t know if you wanted to add anything about the amount of officers, but that’s what we have right now currently in place."
Kimbrough confirmed that at the present time there are no SROs in local elementary schools, but he added that in response to the school shooting in Texas, he deployed his staff to local elementaries. Long-term, however, he says his department is already stretched thin.
"I’m willing to give up what I got to make this work, but I need you all to put pressure where it needs to be put," says Kimobrough addressing the audience. "The pressure don’t need to be on us. I need you to put pressure on the folks that control the money."
Further questions and responses lay bare the complexity and challenge of addressing gun violence. Police Chief Catrina Thompson is asked for more boots on the ground. She says morale is down, typical graduating classes of 45 officers have dwindled to 15, and the numbers of those leaving the force continue to rise.
"So, this class won’t even cover the retirements that we’ve had just halfway through the year," she says. "That’s our reality. So when you say you want more police officers, I tell you, so do I. Help us get people into our profession who have the 'can-do' and the 'want-to' to change lives in a positive manner in our community."
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill pleads with community members to come forward, identify suspects following a shooting, and allow officers to make the necessary arrests. Given the danger of reprisals against bystanders who finger suspects, O’Neill is asked what the DA is doing to protect those who come forward with helpful information.
"There have been many nights where I went to bed worried whether or not the person I prosecuted that day was going to come and try and do harm to me," says O'Neill. "But I believe that if we stand up and do what’s right — even if it makes us nervous — the people that are committing the violence can be plucked out. But if we don’t do that, this is going to turn into the wild, wild west."
The audience responds skeptically — many audibly questioning if protections are actually in place for those who report crimes. Assistant Police Chief William Penn announces phone numbers for anonymous Text to Tip, Crime Stoppers and a Spanish line — each available for the public to assist local law enforcement.
Then a mother who lives with her daughter across from a park area steps up to the microphone and says four bullets hit their home last year, gunshots there have become routine, she’s scared and wants to know what can be done. Assistant Chief Wilson Weaver answers.
"To my sister from Crawford Park, we understand what you’re saying," says Weaver. "We’re trying to get all the gun toters off the streets, but keep in mind that once we start doing all of these license checks and stopping cars, the first thing people start saying — even though we’re taking guns and dope — is that they were profiled. That’s one of our realities that we have to deal with both in the city and the Sheriff has to deal with in the county."
Burke closes the meeting after just over two hours. She said the discussion will continue with city officials on ways to implement some of the strategies collected during the town hall. Among them: put school resource officers in every school, hold town hall meetings with students and anti-violence groups, and increase parental involvement.