Compared to its more populous Triad neighbors — Greensboro and Winston-Salem — High Point had until recently maintained an enviable record on violent crime. A 2014 investigation by Triad City Beat found 1.1 homicides per 100,000 people in High Point over a 12-month period, compared to 2.4 in Winston-Salem and 2.8 in Greensboro. The same review found that High Point also compared favorably on its clearance rate, with arrests in 75 percent homicides, compared to only 47.7 percent in Winston-Salem and 59.3 percent in Greensboro.

A city of 111,223, High Point has been shaken by a rash of homicides since the beginning of 2017. The city recorded seven homicides in 2015 and the same number in 2016 — more than twice the figure for 2014. With 2017 not even half over, the count is already at 11. Assuming the trend continues through the end of the year, that puts High Point at a homicide rate of 22.3 per 100,000 people, an astronomical rate when compared with the numbers from just three years ago.

Meanwhile, a growing number of unsolved cases, primarily involving black men in their twenties and early thirties, is straining trust between the police and the black community. Three of the 11 homicides in 2017 remain unsolved, along with three in 2016 and two in 2015, according to Capt. Mike Kirk, the public information officer for the department. And an arrest doesn’t guarantee a conviction: Nathan “Goodfoot” Wilson, the man charged in the murder of Gerald Williamson at Kenzie’s Event Center, walked out of the High Point Jail after 11 months of incarceration when the Guilford County District Attorney was forced to dismiss the case for lack of evidence. The case against Wilson had been built on the word of two informants of questionable credibility, and prosecutors concluded there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support the charge when state lab results showed no DNA match between Wilson and shell casings recovered from the scene.

A handful of family members and intimate partners of black murder victims interviewed for this story alleged treatment by investigators ranging from indifference to intimidation — a charge vigorously denied by department brass. Drug sales as a driver of homicides and other violent crime has also become a point of contention between police and the community. While the criminal records for some victims partially back up the police’s position that violence mainly affects people engaged in the drug trade, the characterization is highly offensive to some family members who find it to be a gross generalization that excuses official complacency.

For many of the mothers and intimate partners of black men killed in the past three years, the recent spate of violence in the first half of this year has reopened old wounds while galvanizing them to come together for mutual support. Led by Tonya Thornton, whose nephew Michael J. Davis was fatally shot in front of his house in the Five Points neighborhood, the women have been meeting roughly twice a month since February in a conference room in the Radisson Hotel in downtown under the banner We Are the Community. A broader cross-section of the community, led by the High Point NAACP, has been holding meetings at a different church in the city once a month to wrestle with the violence, along with other issues of racial inequity.

High Point’s reputation for both proactive policing and race relations — factors bearing on the handling and resolution of the unsolved murders of black men — stands on starkly divergent perceptions.

Local boosters point to High Point Community Against Violence, a nonprofit based in the West End neighborhood that works with the police to reduce violence, including a celebrated call-in program in which violent felons received harsh warnings from law enforcement while a separate panel of community members promises support if they pledge to turn away from criminal activity.

The National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College states on its website that High Point “has seen major reductions in crime over 20 years using the [project’s] strategies and conducting call-ins.

“It was the initial pilot site for the Drug Market Intervention and has helped to develop innovations such as racial reconciliation and custom notifications,” the website says.

The website for the program credits High Point Community Against Violence with providing “a template for community partnership in violence reduction efforts across the country” while noting that High Point was also the pilot site for an “Intimate Partner Violence Intervention” program in collaboration with the US Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women.

Meanwhile, former Chief Marty Sumner, who retired in February 2016, defended officers who walked out on a training about institutional racism hosted by Guilford County Schools in early 2015. Subsequently, complaints from conservative city council members about a “Black and Blue” forum to promote dialogue between the police and the black community organized by the High Point Human Relations Commission ultimately led to the firing of Human Relations Director Al Heggins, who has a federal lawsuit for racial discrimination pending against the city.

Pastor Brad Lilley, an officer with the High Point NAACP, has characterized the city’s dismissal of Heggins and the suspension of her program to promote police-community dialogue as a squandered opportunity. Based on the fraught relationship between Lilley and department brass — notably Sumner’s successor, Kenneth Shultz — the police have largely shunned the NAACP-sponsored community meetings, further alienating black residents and eroding trust in the department.

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