By KatieKohler and MichelLee
Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland doesn’t have a magic wand but he hopes waving cash and offering prayers will work to have some impact on the city’s staggering murder rate that has gotten many residents angry and vocal.
At a press conference late Monday morning to address the recent spate of crime which has included 11 homicides, Kirkland announced an increase in the city’s reward fund from $5,000 to $10,000 to anybody with information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person committing a homicide.
Since its implementation last year, no one has come forward to offer information and claim the $5,000 reward. “It’s kind of sad. You place a lot of weight on the shoulders of the law enforcement personnel when moms can’t get friends of their children to speak up,” Kirkland said.
Also a Baptist minister, Kirkland called for a “spiritual state of emergency” as opposed to an actual declaration that was set in place for 30 days in June 2010 in response to four homicides within eight days. He also plans a roundtable discussion for later in the week to which the public is invited.
Former Mayor Wendell Butler declared a state of emergency which included the implementation of a curfew, a restriction on the right to assemble and increased police activity.
In 2016, there were 27 murders in Chester.
Chester Police Commissioner Otis Blair said concrete steps his department is taking include working to replenish the police department staff that was impacted by the retirement of several veteran detectives. In recent weeks, the city has hired eight new cadets and made several promotions.
Blair also said the city currently has ongoing agreements with law enforcement agencies in neighboring municipalities and is looking to greater involvement by county and federal law enforcement and federal courts..
“I will not go into detail about it,” Blair said. “(These municipalities) have been assisting us with many strategies that have been very successful.”
He said the city’s “established a longtime relationship” with the county’s Criminal Investigation Division and, to maximize its own crime-fighting resources, hopes to foster relationships with state and federal law enforcement agencies.
“As a local municipality, we’re limited in our resources, but we also want to change our strategies,” Blair said. “We want to take it where we’ll have partners on the federal level.”
Blair said federal legal action carries more severe penalties.
“Once criminals are incarcerated, they will be away for a very long time,” the commissioner said. “This will also give the citizens of Chester a breather.”
Blair thanked residents for “finally speaking up and taking a stand and letting us and the world know that they are finally fed up.” In response to what it took to get residents to this point, Blair replied, “frustration, broken hearts, tears and seeing through the state of confusion.”
Kirkland, Blair and Major Steven Gretsky addressed a small gathering of media in response to citizen outrage at last Wednesday’s City Council meeting about crime.
“Scared to death…”
“Killers on the street…”
“Guns as long as my body…”
“I saw a young man on the street dying from gunshots…”
Residents spared no details while voicing their concerns about violence in the city last week during a City Council meeting that lasted over two hours with a line of people taking the podium pleading with officials to take action.
“The shooting there is unbearable. There are people who are moving out because they can’t stand the shooting,” said Iris White, a resident in the Ruth L. Bennett public housing development who called her area a “war zone” last week with 60 bullet casings, two windows shot out, two doors grazed by bullets and a power box shot which caused a loss of electricity.
“It’s been violent since I have been there but it’s worse now. In the last two years it has gotten worse. The other people who live in the complex have similar concerns but are scared.”
“So many of our young men are getting killed; what changed? It used to be nighttime you avoided certain places, now you avoid those places altogether,” said a woman who identified herself only as “Shaneka.”
“It’s always hurtful whenever we lose any young person. I am affected by this personally,” Kirkland responded then.
On Monday he said, “The recent criminal activity in this city calls for more progressive, more proactive measures. As the lead official for this city, whenever I hear someone has lost their life, it’s like a dagger in my own heart.”
Added Kirkland: “You get tired of walking by a casket, walking by a young person who has left behind children…You get sick and tired of being sick and tired to the point where you step up to the plate and do something. This is something nationwide and we have to all do something about it.”
“It’s not going to be one person or one group to stop the violence in the community. It’s going to take a collective effort,” Kirkland said.
Akbar Muhammad, on Wednesday, echoed sentiments of other speakers when he spoke about Chester’s top (or near top) spot in national crime rankings and Kirkland’s campaign promise to cut crime by 50 percent.
“I’ve been in office 13 months,” Kirkland retorted, “You give me four years and watch the crime rate.”
On Monday, Blair expressed hope that his efforts will eventually “bear fruit,” but cautioned that progress will be gradual and “takes time.”
The most heated exchange on Wednesday was during Donna Johnson’s turn at the microphone. She mentioned, as did other residents, about the 2010 state of emergency to which Kirkland shot back, “How successful was the lockdown of the city?”
“You promised to cut crime 50 percent and crime went up 100 percent. You don’t think crime went up? Did crime go up?” Johnson pushed.
Kirkland responded, “no” and “do your homework.”
“Let’s talk about the shooting period that’s going on, and the robberies and everything else…” Johnson continued. “What, are you camera shy all of a sudden?”
“Maybe you can run for office and maybe the whole world will change. Why don’t you run for something instead of running your mouth all the time,” the mayor shot back.
“That’s very unprofessional coming from a mayor,” Johnson said as she was being escorted out of the room.
On Monday, officials talked about focusing on high crime areas, forming a task force, ongoing interactions with law enforcement, and discussions with the attorney general.
“It’s not like we are sitting on our hands,” said Kirkland. “We are working very hard. The crime affects us as well as we live in different areas of the city and we want to see it get better because that is how you bring businesses into the community. We want business to come so our young people will have an opportunity for employment and they will have something positive rather than fall into a negative trap.”
As for community cooperation and activity, on Wednesday, Eunice Durnell said, “There is definitely no snitching. Oh, yeah. Snitches don’t get stitches no more, they sleep in the bag. Nobody is going to talk. You may as well forget about that” Durnell has had 10 family members murdered.
Both Durnell and Shaneka said there needs to more for kids to do and perhaps, shooters should lay down their guns and throw up their fists instead.
“I’m a fighter but you gotta be scared because you could be walking down the street and they are shooting…just shooting. They’re stupid. Man up; throw your hands up and fight. You don’t have to shoot nobody. You don’t have to kill nobody.
Added Shaneka, “Rent a boxing ring out once a week and you all want to fight, fight. Your mom won’t have to worry about burying anyone.”
To report crime, call the city’s crime hotline at 610-447-7810.