Greensboro’s record 60 homicides in 2020 leave city scrambling for solutions

Amid national calls to ‘defund,’ city officials largely agree on more funding, officers

The Guilford County Courthouse is shown in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

GREENSBORO — With the Dec. 12 killing of 18-year-old Christina Jones, Greensboro has reached 60 homicides and counting for the year, smashing the city record of 45 set in 2019. City officials are now searching for ways to halt the violence, largely agreeing more officers and police resources are necessary.

The deadly year began with a grisly triple homicide on New Year’s Day, and after seven shootings in the first seven days of July, Greensboro Police Chief Brian James pleaded with the public for help bringing a stop to the violence. In November, the city was then shocked by a brazen shootout, with multiple gunmen exchanging fire outside the downtown courthouse and Greensboro Police Department Headquarters, leaving one dead and others injured.


James addressed the City Council in its Dec. 7 meeting, giving a detailed presentation on the record violence and asking for more funding for his department.

In his presentation, James compared Greensboro to similarly sized cities like Durham and Winston-Salem. All three cities have between 250,000 and 300,000 residents, but he said Greensboro’s 56 homicides (which has since grown to 60) dwarfed Durham’s 32 or Winston-Salem’s 28.

In response to a councilperson’s question, James said there are cities of a similar size outside North Carolina that have more homicides — such as Cincinnati, which has 88 for the year — but that Greensboro shouldn’t allow that to make them complacent.

“So you’ll find places that are having more violent crime than we are, but this is just not what we’re accustomed to,” James said. “We’ve seen this trend up over the last few years, and we’d really like to just get a handle on it because I certainly don’t want us to ever be comfortable with it, because I’m certainly not comfortable right now. And I hate being the chief that oversaw the record for homicides in Greensboro.”

James said that when he was first appointed on Feb. 1, “We immediately started looking at violent crime because we were coming off of what was a record year last year.”

The GPD reviewed its resources and strategies, like identifying “active, repeat offenders,” better communication between bureaus, creating and staffing specialized units to deal with gang violence, and assigning resources to neighborhoods that have higher levels of crime.

The department is authorized to have 674 officers, but there are only 612 currently trained and assigned. With 37 in the process of being trained and assigned, this leaves 25 vacancies left unfilled. The last time new officers were added to the total number was in 2011 when the city was almost 40,000 citizens smaller.

With this growth, James told the council, “I think it is time for the city to look and see if we do have the right number of police officers for the size of our city and our population.”

James said in addition to the 25 vacant positions and an increase in approved positions, there was an immediate need for five more detectives in the criminal investigation division, out of which, “a majority would be assigned to the homicide squad.”

James also wanted an additional firearms examiner, a community resource coordinator, and for the homicide program technician to be funded as a full-time position, saying, “that person is only working an average of 20 hours a week. We really need them full time.”

James also said there is a need for specialized equipment like license-plate readers that would help solve homicides involving drive-by shootings or a getaway driver.

“If we would have had license-plate readers in place, there’s a good chance we would have been able to identify the vehicle a lot faster,” James said of the courthouse shooting, where the suspects jumped in vehicles and left the scene.

The council and Mayor Nancy Vaughn seemed to largely agree that more resources, including officers, were needed to end the spiraling violence. Council member Marikay Abuzuaiter said she’s seen the need for more officers firsthand.

“I know a lot of you have done ride-alongs with officers, and I’ve done several in the last couple of months, and I kept hearing, ‘10-100, 10-100, 10-100,’” Abuzuaiter said. “Well, you know what 10-100 means, is that there are no officers available to get to the crime that’s just been committed. So, I feel that the need is yesterday.”

Vaughn agreed, saying, “Certainly the need for more officers has been stated, and I think we’re all in agreement that we want more. The challenge seems to be finding people.”

James said that there are only 17 candidates in their police academy despite heavy recruiting for future Greensboro police officers. He said the lack of qualified candidates is a nationwide problem, but that Greensboro is not doing a good enough job competing for the few applicants that would make successful officers. They discussed increasing compensation and incentives to draw these candidates.

The violence in 2020 has largely been isolated to the city center and eastern Greensboro, and it involves mainly targeted killings, gang activity and domestic disputes. According to James, the victims are also overwhelmingly black, accounting for 51 of the 60 homicides, while six were white and three Hispanic.

Greensboro Police public information officer Ronald Glenn told NSJ that because violence is generally within communities, the perpetrators “look like the victims.” Despite this disparity in violent crime, the GPD, like many departments across the nation, has been accused of unnecessarily targeting black neighborhoods, creating racial disparities. This has been especially highlighted in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement, who often call for defunding the police over the alleged disparities.

In a Sept. 15 City Council meeting, James, who is black, pushed back after multiple council members accused the department of creating these disparities. Council member Sharon Hightower asked him, “The black population, that is stopped more, searched more, how do you as a police chief, how can you help to change that?”

James responded bluntly, saying, “I’ll just tell you as a black man, [crime] is occurring in neighborhoods where black people live. That’s where a lot of our crime is occurring, particularly our violent crime,” and responding to this disparity in crime “is going to create a disproportionality in who we contact on a daily basis.”

He also said this is coming into play in the record homicide because “there’s a disproportionality in who are victims of homicide, and it’s also disproportionate in where they’re occurring.”

In addition to the record homicide, the city has also seen a 19% increase in assaults involving firearms, relative to the same time last year, with 1,190 cases.

“I think any and every way you look at it, Greensboro has a violent crime problem,” said Justin Outling, a council member who is also running for mayor. “We’re going over stories on what happened downtown a couple weeks ago — in terms of the homicide at the courthouse and near police department headquarters. It begs the question: if you’re not safe there, where are you safe in Greensboro?”

James said one main issue is that a lot of people from neighboring communities don’t have as much nightlife, and they will come to Greensboro and clash with locals.

“At night, they come to places like Greensboro and gather, and that’s where we start to see the conflicts and back and forth,” James said. “And we’ve had incidents where we’ve had folks from Greensboro go to High Point and commit a crime, like shooting up a house or something like that, and then those High Point folks come to Greensboro looking for that particular person.”

The suspect arrested in the courthouse shooting, Sterling Jaisean Tyler, 18, is from High Point, highlighting the increasingly bloody rivalry between gangs from the two cities.

In CBS’s annual “Most Dangerous Cities in America” rankings, which is based on FBI homicide data, the list released in 2019 had only two N.C. cities on it — Greensboro at 39th most dangerous and High Point at 25th most dangerous. On the 2020 list, based on 2019 data, Greensboro was 41st, but the record 2020 year will likely have the city climbing the rankings in the next list.

Despite this increasing violence, the mayor praised James for what he and his department have been able to do to bring those responsible to justice, even with their reported lack of resources.

“I do want to commend GPD for the rate they’ve had on being able to solve homicides,” Vaughn said. “I know that we don’t want to have homicides that we have to solve, but the GPD and the detectives have done really good work this year arresting people and holding people accountable. So, thank you for that.”