February 2007 Highlights

City news in February has been dominated by two major criminal justice matters.

City police officer shot:     Winston-Salem Police Sergeant Howard Plouff died February 23 after being shot while helping to control an altercation outside the Red Rooster nightclub on Jonestown Road during the early morning hours that day.  Sgt. Plouff was a 17-year veteran of the Winston-Salem Police Department, a skilled and highly respected officer who had recently received special recognition for his role in the prevention of a possible suicide.  An estimated 3,000 people attended memorial services for Sgt. Plouff this week, including other law enforcement officers from around North Carolina and beyond, to support his family and colleagues as they deal with this tragedy.  Winston-Salem Police investigators, after interviewing more than 200 potential witnesses and sources, have identified and arrested a suspect in the case.  Several other individuals were also arrested and charged with firearms-related offenses in the incident.  The Red Rooster nightclub has had its ABC licenses suspended, and at my last inquiry was closed pending further investigations.  I would like to publicly congratulate officers with the WSPD for their thorough and swift, professional investigation of this matter.

     As part of my own efforts to assist in the follow-up to this tragedy, I have conferred with the city manager and police leaders regarding steps which the city could take to reduce the likelihood of similar incidents in the future.  Among other steps, police representatives have indicated that legal grounds may exist to support the permanent closure of this nightclub location.  If that is determined to be the case, I will certainly support appropriate steps to pursue that closure. 

I have also submitted my written request to the city manager's office for the following:

  • A comprehensive review of the facilities and operations of this club for compliance with all applicable city and state codes and requirements.   
  • A review of the history of any criminal activities or related problems associated with any other facilities (nightclubs or other businesses) owned or managed by the party or parties who own or manage that club or the building in which it is located.  (We need to know whether there is any broader pattern of management problems or inadequate security involved.  If so, that needs to be addressed as well.)
  • An investigation of possible ways in which Winston-Salem might strengthen our city ordinances in order to deter problem situations similar to the one which developed at the Red Rooster club.  (I have in mind options such as stronger regulations on late-hour events at facilities operating with ABC permits; additional permit requirements for any large crowd events at such facilities; or other operational requirements which could reduce the likelihood of poorly managed large gatherings during the late evening hours, especially those involving alcohol sales.)

I will report later on the results that come out of these reviews.

Sykes Committee Report:     Until the tragic loss of Sgt. Plouff last week, the biggest city news item of the month had clearly been another major issue involving our criminal justice system—the release of the final Sykes Administrative Review Committee Report, and the related settlement of Darryl Hunt's claims against the city.

     Without attempting to reproduce the details here, I will note in summary that the Sykes Committee report laid out the severe deficiencies in the 1984 investigation of Deborah Sykes' murder, and the following wrongful conviction and lengthy imprisonment of Darryl Hunt for a crime he did not commit.  While this report (which is now available to the public in full) makes chilling reading, there is also major good news associated with its release.  Winston-Salem, and in particular the Winston-Salem Police Department, have made major strides in correcting the problems responsible for the terrible results in that case.  In fact, police officials have indicated that the improved investigatory techniques and equipment implemented as a result of lessons learned from the Sykes case were extremely helpful in the investigation of Sgt. Plouff's death.

     The WSPD and our city government in general are fully committed to aggressively implementing the policing and justice system improvements recommended by the Sykes report.  To briefly give an idea of the kinds of recommendations involved, I will note that they include items such as the following:

  • Improvements in police training and supervision of case investigations.
  • Education and career development incentives to ensure that our officers have the background and support they need, and the flexibility to permit our most skilled and experienced officers to continue in field assignments.
  • Improvements in suspect identification and interrogation procedures.
  • Improvements in evidence collection, storage, and retention.
  • Commitment to diversity and equality of opportunity in police hiring, promotions, and assignments.

In addition to these two major matters, there were several other issue developments of interest during February.

Neighborhood assistance specialists:     The city filled the four positions of "neighborhood assistance specialists"—staff whose jobs focus on working to improve communications between neighborhoods and city agencies, and to assist neighborhoods in getting their city-service issues addressed.  (City Council members will appreciate the help!)  The new neighborhood assistance specialist whose territory covers the Southwest Ward is Vernetta DeVane.  I have helped to brief her on issues and "hot spots" in our area.

Homelessness problem efforts:     The city this month completed action on a proposal by the Winston-Salem Council on Homelessness to clarify our rules on the location and operation of shelters for the homeless.  Under the clarified rules, permanent homeless shelters will be covered by special use permits, and subject to specific operational, spacing, and size regulations.  Also this month, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County received 16 federal grants totaling more than $1 million for programs to help the homeless.  This includes assistance for our new initiative to eliminate chronic homelessness in our community within the next ten years.  More detailed information about these efforts is available from the city's Dept. of Housing & Neighborhood Development at 727-8597.

Graffiti Patrol and Sign Sweepers:     During February, Keep Winston-Salem Beautiful kicked off two programs to fight visual pollution in our city.  The "Graffiti Patrol" will organize and train volunteers to help remove graffiti from buildings and other structures.  The "Sign Sweepers" program will operate like the adopt-a-street litter cleanup efforts, with trained volunteers helping to remove illegal signs posted on utility poles and on roadsides.  (This is in addition to the recently toughened penalties for violators who can be identified and located.)  Those interested in volunteering for these valuable community service efforts can call Keep Winston-Salem Beautiful at 727-8013.

Electric vehicles to be purchased:     In our continuing efforts to help reduce air pollution from the city's vehicle fleet, we have a new tool as of this month.  The city received a state grant to help purchase four all-electric vehicles to replace the gas-fueled vehicles now used for parking enforcement.  The net emissions reduction will be relatively high because the parking enforcement vehicles now spend so much time idling.

Hazardous waste task force recommendations:     The City Council on February 19 approved a resolution supporting the recommendations of the Governor's Hazardous Materials Task Force.  That task force was convened last fall to make recommendations for tightening state rules on hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities.  The effort was sparked by the fire which destroyed a hazardous waste facility in Apex, NC, and required the evacuation of more than 10,000 people there.  The recommendations for stronger state rules on these facilities now go to the state legislature for consideration.

Stormwater issues hearing:     Finally, during February the City Council's Public Works Committee held a special meeting and public hearing on the issues surrounding recent storm-related flooding in Winston-Salem.  As discussed at that meeting, the latest flooding grew out of the long-term trend here (as well as elsewhere in our state's cities) for increased development, land clearing, and paving.  These all increase the amount and velocity of water runoff during storms, increasing downstream erosion, mud deposits, and flooding.  Efforts already underway to improve the guidelines on new development, planned expenditures to fix existing undersized stormwater pipes and catch basins, and other possible responses were discussed.  This is a major and long-term problem which we will continue to work on for the foreseeable future.  It's developed over decades, and the solutions aren't cheap.

That will conclude my report for this month.  As always, comments and questions are welcome, to danbesse@danbesse.org or 722-1674.