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Is Wilmington really 'Murder Town'?

Jada Pinkett Smith’s proposed ABC-TV series, coming on the heels of last year’s Newsweek story that gave the city that title, has civic leaders up in arms.

Wilmington police cruise the downtown streets.
Wilmington police cruise the downtown streets.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

WILMINGTON - Everyone who shuffled in and out of Peoples Market at 7th and Washington streets carried a memory: cold, grim details about gunshots, fatherless children, memorials. They shouted them into the rain and cigarette smoke on the corner, a brief testament to this city's ongoing violence.

Their common threads were the sons, cousins, friends and daughters they'd known and lost, all shot dead here, blocks away or just a few feet from where they stood, casualties of a small city struggling with a big problem in the first state to ratify the Constitution.

"It was my baby daddy. He was shot seven times. His name was Daron Allen. That was last May," said Marquita Cooper, 32, one of those on the corner. "I just had a cousin shot. He didn't die, but he got hit six times."

City officials and civic leaders have consistently decried the violence, of course, but their voices have been more strident lately, thanks to the controversial plans of Baltimore-bred actress Jada Pinkett Smith.

ABC has laid the groundwork for "Murder Town," a new drama produced by and starring Smith as Wilmington's first African-American district attorney. (Wilmington actually has no D.A.; the city is under the purview of the state's attorney general.)

Last month, 20 religious leaders held a news conference at a Wilmington synagogue to denounce the proposed TV series, and the City Council and mayor sent letters urging that it be set elsewhere.

Its flashy title was lifted from the headline of a Newsweek article published a year ago this month, "MURDER TOWN USA (AKA WILMINGTON, DELAWARE)," describing the city to a national audience as "one of the most dangerous small cities in America."

Longtime residents say the moniker is both damning and damaging, an unfair label applied by faraway executives unfamiliar with the true pulse of Wilmington.

But this year 25 people have been slain in the city of nearly 72,000, Delaware's largest municipality and a longtime business hub for banks, the DuPont Co. and other corporate giants.

The victims included Arteise Brown, a mother of two who was gunned down while sitting on her front stoop in April. Her cousin Joey Harrison has a photo of another cousin, Markevis Clark, standing over her casket, his hands resting on its side rails. Clark himself was slain a few months later, shot in the head.

"If somebody gets killed in Wilmington, everyone knows the person," Harrison said. "I spend a lot of weekends at funerals. They're like family reunions."

Mayor: It's 'insensitive'

An ABC representative declined a request from the Daily News to speak with either Smith or screenwriter Barry Schindel, saying that "the project is still in the very early stages."

But Mayor Dennis Williams, a former Wilmington cop, was only too happy to speak about it.

"Naming Wilmington as the setting for a crime-fighting drama titled 'Murder Town' is insensitive to the families who have lost loved ones due to gun violence, as well as insensitive to those who proudly call Wilmington home," Williams told the People Paper in an email.

"All of us, government, business, education, community and faith-based leaders, must come together and stand against the production of this program."

But in standing against it, Williams said, he also sees the attention as an opportunity for leaders to create "efforts that will lead to long-term change and reduce gun violence within the community."

He's not alone in that opinion.

"There's a general hysteria about this show, this 'Murder Town,' but I think we have a great opportunity to tell a great story - but we have to earn it," said Xavier Teixido, a prominent Wilmington restaurateur.

"I'd rather see a headline that's about a city that faced problems with drugs and gangs, and here's how it solved those problems by partnering with business owners, corporate entities and other organizations."

Teixido said he's had tough conversations with employees who asked to adjust their schedules because they didn't feel safe walking home at night.

"One of the things that frustrates us in Wilmington is that we're a small community and we feel like we know everyone," he said. "We feel like if we have problems, it should be easy to stamp them out.

"If we know where the problems are, let's go solve them in a tactical way. It doesn't seem insurmountable."

Tops Philly murder rate

Wilmington surely is one of the nation's most dangerous cities, with a per-capita murder rate more than twice that of Philadelphia. The violence has been attributed to familiar issues: poverty, the drug trade, a dysfunctional education system.

Meanwhile, downtown business has suffered from consolidation of banks - and the DuPont Co., based here since its founding in 1802, announced a year ago that it would abandon the city and move to the suburbs. (Analysts say the company's merger with Dow Chemical Co., announced this month, could take DuPont out of Delaware entirely.)

But Police Chief Bobby Cummings said the proposed TV show - and the lengthy article that seemingly spawned it - pigeonhole the city solely on the basis of statistics, which he said can be twisted.

"If you look strictly at the numbers - the per-capita numbers, which is what the comparison is being based on - it makes our city appear to be a violent city," said Cummings, who commands a force of about 300 officers.

"I don't think we're a violent city. Do we have our issues? Absolutely. But it's not fair to compare us to the other cities. There are a lot of cities that have crime rates higher than ours, but because of our size we get a stronger look."

In fact, just up Interstate 95 in Chester, a city of about 34,000 in Delaware County, 30 murders were recorded last year - a per-capita murder rate more than twice as high as Wilmington's.

Cummings countered with some Wilmington numbers of his own: a 50 percent clearance rate - the ratio of reported cases to those solved or otherwise cleared - for homicides this year, up from 22 percent last year, when Cummings organized the department's first homicide unit.

Meanwhile, violent offenses including murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery are down 15 percent this year, according to Sgt. Andrea Janvier, a police spokeswoman.

Part of that improvement, according to Cummings, is a renewed emphasis on community policing, getting officers out of cars and into the streets.

Another is a closer relationship with the office of Attorney General Matt Denn, who meets with officers every month to review homicides and other cases.

Denn, who took office in January after two terms as Delaware's lieutenant governor, is taking an aggressive stance on violent crime in Wilmington. And that translates to attacking its two main sources - guns and drugs.

"I haven't focused on the TV-show part of it," Denn told the Daily News. "I can't control what ABC does; trying to address the problems here is what consumes my attention."

Denn has raised some eyebrows with a novel approach he rolled out earlier this year to curbing crime: He appealed to the state legislature to divert some of the $36 million earned from bank settlements to boost funding for the police as well as for elementary education, drug treatment, re-entry programs for inmates and housing assistance.

"Basically, things that try to address what appears to be driving some of the crime rate," he said.

On Dec. 3, after months of debate, the legislature earmarked $2 million for new crime-fighting efforts in Wilmington and Dover, Delaware's capital.

Denn fought hard for the money.

In January, he secured a $640,200 state grant to increase foot patrols, placing more officers in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. During the program - from early March through mid-July - the number of shootings in the city dropped to an average of seven per month, Denn said, calling it a "demonstrable change."

And when the funding ended and staffing levels went back to normal, the numbers jumped to 12 shootings per month.

"I always hesitate to draw giant conclusions from small data sets, but the numbers suggest that what was happening was working," Denn said. "And it is a tangibly different atmosphere in those neighborhoods when there's a visible law-enforcement presence."

But patrolling isn't a magic bullet to solve the city's problems. Denn has taken a new approach to prosecuting suspects, cracking down especially hard on juvenile gun cases. He said he "can count on one hand" the number of juvenile gun charges his office has declined to prosecute this year.

"To the degree where some of them weren't pursued in the past, it was because the people involved didn't think that doing six months in a juvenile facility was a good outcome," Denn said. "But we need to change the narrative of kids feeling like it's OK to carry guns."

Like the five teens arrested with two illegal guns during an August traffic stop on Northeast Boulevard. Or the 16-year-old from Wilmington who proudly showed his friends an unloaded gun in a bathroom inside nearby John Dickinson High School last month.

Solving the gun issue goes back to patrol, Denn says, because a large portion of Wilmington's crime is occurring within a few blocks, mostly on the West Side.

"If you put up a map and took out pins and put a pin where every homicide happened, there are obvious clusters," he said. "This is not a large city; we know where it's happening."

'It's reversible'

As executive director of West End Neighborhood House, a social-services provider in Wilmington, Paul Calistro sees the full gamut of the city: the poorest neighborhoods, the richest neighborhoods, the businesses serving both.

"The violence is real," he said, "and the trauma has had a compounding effect. But it's reversible."

Trauma not just in the literal sense of people being shot and killed, but in the psychological sense, damage that is much more severe.

"You have young people exposed to violence daily, weekly, monthly," he said. "Folks will understand violence up to a certain point, but after that, they get numb."

At West End, Calistro has interviewed several thousand youths from Wilmington's most dangerous neighborhoods. More than half of them, he said, "had known someone shot, killed or seriously hurt." Some kids with whom he spoke were later gunned down themselves.

"What does that do to you as a kid?" he said. "When every time you hear a loud noise, you have to drop to the ground, thinking it's a gunshot?

"It's real; the kids here, the people here have seen some real stuff."

Violence drives down property values, trapping some families in neighborhoods out of an inability to afford alternatives.

Some businesses hire retired cops, and some hospitals pay off-duty cops to sit in their cars near the front doors during employees' shift changes, Calistro said.

"Not because there's an actual threat, but because people perceive there is one," he said. "It's peace of mind, from, again, a trauma."

In his 35 years here, Calistro has watched Citibank and other corporations move in and raise skyscrapers. They brought revenue to the city, but their workforces by and large don't live here, he said.

They take their money and resources with them when they commute out of the city. It's a situation Calistro equates to Atlantic City: Go a few blocks away from the casinos and you're surrounded by impoverished communities.

In recent years, he's heard people liken Wilmington to Camden, N.J. But that's an unfair and inaccurate comparison, he said.

"When you have all the major banks and all these institutional anchors, it's hard to fail; this city will have more resiliency than other cities that only relied on one trade that eventually collapsed," he said.

"New Jersey, with all of its towns, can afford to have Camden fail, but Delaware is too small to afford Wilmington to fail."

A CDC report

Hanifa Shabazz doesn't want her hometown to fail, and she's using her status as a City Council member to prevent it.

Shabazz, now in her 12th year on Council, last year commissioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study what she calls a "pandemic of violence" in Wilmington.

She got unanimous support from her colleagues on Council.

"I wanted [researchers] to look at the toxic environment our community is dealing with right now," she said. "This gives us an opportunity to see scientifically, socially and economically what is causing all of this."

The group's findings, issued in a report last month, identified "risk factors for firearm crime involvement."

The report studied 569 people who were either victims or perpetrators of gun violence. Common threads began to appear: Some people had been admitted to hospital trauma centers; others had been on probation; more had dropped out of school or been homeless.

The researchers have proposed creating a citywide risk-assessment tool that could identify these risk factors at an early age, so that, for example, a 17-year-old admitted to the ER for a gunshot wound wouldn't die by another teen's hand years later.

Ultimately, Shabazz says, Wilmington desperately needs to "stop the bleeding," to turn its course around.

"We have intricate, diverse neighborhoods," she said. "Yes, we have our ills, but we're a place where you could come and enjoy yourself, to feel comforts of a city."

And to those who only know of Wilmington as nicknamed by a national newsmagazine or a TV network, she has one message:

"Don't believe the hype."

Back outside Peoples Market, neighborhood resident Kevin Mullen, 29, was talking about the proposed TV series.

"What's it going to do for the community?" Mullen asked. "Are they going to try to take the crimes that happened in the area and recreate those? That's disrespectful."

Still, some folks found the notion that a celebrity would take an interest in their city appealing.

"I think it could be a real good show," said a man who identified himself as Mr. Comfortable. "I would like to watch it. I would like to watch Jada Pinkett [Smith] walking down this m-----f------ street."

- Staff writer William Bender

contributed to this report.


On Twitter: @JasonNark