Community is seeking allies in war on crime

Published 10:46 am Thursday, April 15, 2010

Daily News Staff

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a two-part series about ongoing crime problems in Washington’s Old Fort neighborhood and plans to address that problem.
Josephine Royster said she’s seen it all since she moved into Washington’s Old Fort neighborhood some 34 years ago — fights, shootings, drug deals and break-ins.
Royster, a community minister, said the crime comes in waves.
“To tell you the truth, right now, it’s much better than it used to be,” she said. “We had a time in the early ’90s.”
Royster would know. She raised a family in the two-story duplex off of Mayo Drive, where she still resides. Her children have since moved out, including a daughter who is an officer with the New York City Police Department.
Royster elected to stay put.
“The Lord has impressed upon me to be in this strategic place,” she said. “I want to be here; love to be here. I get along with everybody.”
Still, Royster would love to see less fights and drug deals on the streets of her neighborhood. She said that such problems and illegal activity are the result of an influx of criminals to the Old Fort community.
“We have quite a few that come in that aren’t from the area. They get the kids riled up,” she said.
The Washington Housing Authority has taken measures to deter such outsiders, including erecting fences around the duplexes prevalent in the Old Fort community.
“People can sit on their front porches. They couldn’t do that before,” Royster said.
But, according to Royster, who has served on the housing authority’s board of commissioners for 10-plus years, more has to be done.
“I believe it could be much better,” she said.
Royster said a lot of youth in the community don’t have anywhere to go after school, ending up on street corners. They would benefit from some parental guidance or structured activities, but many such options have been taken from them, Royster said. Many children and teenagers used to congregate at the Boys &Girls Club of Beaufort County’s main office on Bridge Street, but too many fights broke out, and some children have been barred from there, she said.
“They don’t have anywhere to go, anything to do; someone to care for them, discipline them and tell them the right thing to do,” she said. “All they know to do is hang out on the streets.”
Royster said she started a community-watch program in the Old Fort neighborhood years ago to quell the crime problem, but the program has since dissipated.
“It helped out for a while,” she said, adding that fear has taken over the community. “People are afraid to say anything.”
Royster encouraged residents to speak up if they see any illegal activity.
“Call the police if you see something going on; stop being afraid,” she said. “The whole community needs to get involved.”
Washington Councilman Ed Moultrie, pastor of Beebe Memorial CME Church in Washington, strongly favors returning the neighborhood-watch program to the affected areas.
“I mean, we live in a small town where just about everybody already knows everyone,” Moultrie said. “A neighborhood watch would give a sense of community and a sense of involvement for both sides of the spectrum.”
As a remedy, Moultrie emphasized a theme of community cooperation and personal responsibility.
“I think when people who get caught up in illegal activities, whether it be drugs or whatever the case may be, I think there will be programs that will assist them to stay away from activities that can destroy them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “When a person has been given a label, it’s kind of hard for them to do things in the community without being harassed.”
Moultrie said he knows people often bring misfortune upon themselves, but he added that those who do so should be given the benefit of the doubt.
He said people must have a strong mind to be willing to stay away from drugs and violence.
Moultrie said he is aware of allegations against some members of the police department.
“These complaints have been brought to the attention of the city manager and the police chief,” he said.
Moultrie said there had been reports about residents being pulled over “for little, petty things.”
“Once you’ve been in the system, cops know who you are,” he added.
Asked if he was aware of any more-serious allegations, he said there were none that he could go into detail about.
“In everything you’ve got some good police, some bad police,” he said. “It’s no different in our police department.”
He said he’s giving the police chief “the benefit of the doubt that he sees the problem area and he has addressed these issues.”
“A lot of things can’t be done overnight,” Moultrie said.
Moultrie acknowledged there are public recreational facilities in the city.
“I think people have to have a mind, a willingness to be strong, to be positive, not to get caught up in activities that can destroy their lives,” he said.
There should be more nighttime activities on the recreation schedule, he indicated, be they late-night basketball programs or something else.
Moultrie said one of his main goals is to see more minorities hired to serve on the police force.
“On the same term, when we get minorities on the police force, I do recognize that sometimes people go where the money is,” he said.
The city might need to consider some type of incentive to make people want to stay in Washington, Moultrie said.
The economy is a factor in the reported problems along the streets, he agreed.
“I think that plays a lot into that equation,” he said. “And there’s not really adequate jobs in Beaufort County and Washington. That is not a cop-out to say people should do the illegal things that they may be doing. I think we ought to invest more resources into people who have offenses.”
People who have been convicted of crimes should have a chance to go to school or learn some kind of trade, Moultrie asserted.
Reaching out
Marc Recko, executive director of the Washington Housing Authority &Mid-East Regional Housing Authority, said that as the Old Fort community’s landlord, his organization has been reaching out to families in that community.
“We can bring a network of services to families,” he said.
Recko said the housing authority has been working with the Washington Police Department “to not only get perpetrators, but help parents with their kids.”
“A lot of times kids are out doing something and their parents aren’t even aware,” he said.
Recko said that residents, law-enforcement officers, community leaders and housing-authority officials need to come together and work as one.
“We need to all get our heads together, look at the neighborhood and ask what we can do — especially in light of what’s gone on recently,” he said.