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Spate of fatal shootings has many concerned about perception that Fayetteville is dangerous

Soldiers from the U.S. Army Reserve Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C., march down Hay Street in the Fayetteville Veterans Day Parade, Nov. 9, 2013.

The headlines scream from the front pages: "Rampaging gunman kills 2" and "3 die in shooting."

At least six Cumberland County residents died in a week's span of violence that erupted from domestic problems. At least a dozen other people have been shot in the county since July 5, three of them fatally.

The violence - in an Army community that cannot shake the "Fayettenam" moniker from the 1970s - feeds the perception that Fayetteville and the neighborhoods around it are dangerous.

And that is a perception, officials say, that hits everyone in the community, whether they have ever been touched by violence or not. Crime - especially violent crime - shakes confidence in the community. It makes companies thinking about bringing investment and jobs to Fayetteville reconsider. And that leaves too many residents mired in poverty.

The more poverty, research shows, the more crime and the more overwhelming the perception that people are not safe even in their homes.

Some of the comments about a Fayetteville Observer story on Facebook speak volumes about the perception that Fayetteville has become increasingly violent. The story, first posted Tuesday, was about a gunman shooting a mother and her son to death in front of a home in Eureka Springs, on the edge of Fort Bragg.

Investigators have since identified the shooter as Gerald Marr and his victims as 14-year-old Zachary Phillips and 31-year-old Diana Maria Hathaway. Zachary's 15-year-old sister, Kelsey, was wounded.

On Facebook, many of the comments offer prayers and condolence.

Others offer this:

"It breaks my heart that there is so much violence in Fayetteville."

"Another shooting? Wow it's daily now; what the hell is going on?"

"A tragic occurrence that is happening all too frequently."

The story spread swiftly on social media. It landed on national news wires and Internet sites. So did stories of murders seven days earlier, when a man shot and killed two members of his wife's family and seriously wounded a Cumberland County deputy while emptying a high-powered rifle into a home in Crystal Springs. The shooter, Andrew Michaelis, died in a shootout with deputies.

The stories - sensational and horrific - feed into the image that Cumberland County is turning more violent.

Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock says that is not the case, at least not within the city limits. Both of the incidents that resulted in multiple deaths over the past two weeks happened in neighborhoods outside the city.

Medlock cites police statistics showing that there were 165 aggravated assaults - violent acts in which someone was hurt - in the city through the first seven months of this year, compared with 174 in the same time period of 2013.

Homicides are down from 12 to 11 in the period, Medlock said. Looking only at July, aggravated assaults fell from 30 in 2013 to 27 this year, he said.

Violent crime is down 4.2 percent from last year, and overall crime fell by 11.4 percent, the chief said.

But Medlock said he is aware of the perception of a more violent Fayetteville. He said he heard about it from a number of residents during National Night Out gatherings last week.

"You can give them those numbers, but it's what they see on TV and what they read in the paper," Medlock said. "That's what folks see, and it scares them."

It scares people who are not from here, too.

Last week, Kim Breeden, chief executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, talked about the dire need to establish a satellite office in Fayetteville. Like so many others, Breeden has seen news reports of the recent violence in Fayetteville.

"It's just breaking my heart to see what's happening there," Breeden said. "It's just every day now."

Preconceived notions

Dr. George Corvin, a forensic psychiatrist in Raleigh, said Fayetteville has unique circumstances, created in part by being a military town. Corvin runs through the usual list - high unemployment, poverty, transient residents, young soldiers and domestic violence.

But Corvin said all cities have most of those problems, to varying degrees.

"It's just how we tend to categorize them," he said.

The murder late last month of University of North Carolina professor Feng Liu was a horrible crime, Corvin said. So was the murder of UNC student president Eve Carson in 2008. But Corvin said nobody paints a picture of Chapel Hill as the wild west.

Instead, they see it as a city of rolling hills, smart students, stately homes and expensive cars. Bad things that happen there don't stick, Corvin said.

By contrast, many people from outside Fayetteville view this city as young soldiers in fast cars, strip clubs and blighted neighborhoods. In a fiction piece for Rolling Stone Magazine in 1996, author Tom Wolfe described Bragg Boulevard as "the gaudy gullet of hell."

People's preconceived notions are hard to reverse, and violence in Fayetteville tends to get magnified because of its reputation, Corvin said.

"Those things sort of stick in your memory," he said.

Corvin said he had a similar image of Fayetteville, until he began visiting here.

"I think you have a great town," he said.

But it is far from perfect. Only four of North Carolina's 100 counties - Mecklenburg, Durham, Lenoir and Robeson - had a higher violent crime rate than Cumberland in 2012, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available from the State Bureau of Investigation.

Fayetteville's crime rate is nearly four times as high as that of Orange County, where Chapel hill is located.

Marketing the city

As president and chief executive of the Fayetteville Regional Chamber, part of Doug Peters' job is to market the city to businesses looking to relocate.

"What is frustrating to me is that when these sorts of events happen, as unfortunate as they are, it does reflect on the community and in the eyes of many an unfair stigma of our community," Peters said.

Two years ago, Jay Garner of Garner Economics in Atlanta produced an economic planning strategy for the county.

Garner said public safety is the No. 1 quality-of-life issue that businesses consider when expanding or relocating. Their employees want to feel safe, Peters said.

"It's very important and obvious it will have a profound consequence on Fayetteville and Cumberland County if the crime statistics don't go in an opposite direction," Garner said.

Peters said the community will always be at a disadvantage until it comes together to help find solutions to our crime problems and public image.

Medlock said he is moving the Police Department in the right direction, but it could take years to make a significant dent in the violent crime rate.

The high-profile murders in the past two weeks were characterized as domestic-related, cases in which some kind of relationship tensions exploded into violence.

But much of the violence that regularly plagues the community occurs in isolated pockets among young men, ages 18 to 28, who have adopted a high-risk lifestyle, Medlock said.

"That's not an absolute, but that's the reality," he said.

"We the cops, the officers, sometimes become discouraged, but we are going to make folks feel safe in this city," Medlock said. "We just need the public's help. But we are making gains day by day, week by week.

"It's not the Wild West here."

barnesg@fayobserver.com

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