Wilmington police chief and residents have high hopes for the city despite continuing gun violence [video]

 FILE (Nichelle Polston/WHYY)

FILE (Nichelle Polston/WHYY)

Just six months into the year and Wilmington has already seen more than 100 shootings and almost two dozen homicides.

How do residents feel about what’s happening in their city and what is the new administration doing to combat the violence?


Since January, the city of Wilmington has welcomed a new mayor, police chief and voted in a few new members to city council. Everywhere you turn, the changes are noticeable even with new construction and people at work to make Wilmington more attractive.

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But with all the positive things in view-there’s one thing that hasn’t changed-and that’s the rampant gun violence.

“So here we are now in 2017 and we’ve got a shooting every other day, I mean I can sit in my kitchen and hear shots and count the shots,” said Michelle Billups.

The number of shootings this year has shattered previous records. The most troubling, a six year old caught in the crossfire

“We have to stop being afraid of where we live and who we’re living with-I’m not afraid or otherwise we would have been gone,” Billups added.

Michelle Billups has been living in the west center city section for nearly 40 years. She’s witnessed so much chaos – even residue from a stray bullet that came through her front window.

Many question where does the city go from here? Lose hope or hold onto it.

“You can never lose hope in people. When you see people, all I see is potential. Most importantly what we’re going through is just temporary,” J.J. Francis said.

Francis heads the Hedgeville Civic Association-the group recently met with Wilmington police officers including Chief Robert Tracy to discuss the growing number of shootings in the city. Chief Tracy who has worked in New York and Chicago says his approach to tackling the violence is hitting one hot spot at a time.

“We didn’t reduce crime in Chicago, we didn’t reduce crime in New York by looking at the whole city, we broke it up into manageable pieces and had victories with the community,” Chief Tracy said.

During a ride-a-long, Chief Tracy says a good starting point in Wilmington is the West Center City neighborhood.

“I’m heading up there now just to take a look at the location starting from 7th and Washington and it really expands from 4th to 10th street, Tattnall to Adams,” Tracy said.

It’s the same area and routes Billups says officers seem disengaged.

“During the day when we sit out here sometime in the summer evening out front and a police officer will ride down the street -they don’t even throw up their hand and say hi. Now if I remember his face from coming through the community a couple times a week or whatever-then he should remember mine,” Billups said.

With a police force of 300 plus officers Tracy says all that changes today. His officer’s new assignment is to get out of their patrol cars, walk the streets and interact with residents-to develop a trustworthy relationship. That’s what he calls community policing.

“Do we have enough police officers? I’m evaluating that and I evaluate it every single day. But we are a department actually has more police officers per capita than many other departments in the United States,” Tracy said.

However, not everyone is sold on Tracy’s plans or believe it’s enough to decrease crime.

“My thing is that 20 murders is not like Philadelphia, not like Camden, not like Baltimore not like Chicago. What it means to us is 20 murders.  A hundred and some shootings means the community and police are not working together,” said Umar Hassan-El.

“We have prevented retaliatory shootings that I know of, that I can’t speak about here but we’ve prevented several retaliatory shootings that would’ve increased the numbers even more and possibly harmed other people because we are starting to learn this new system and make sure we’re putting things in place that are becoming institutionalized and are now becoming a part of our foundation,” Tracy said.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki says only time will tell.

“You know I just have confidence that what we do-what we are doing with the chief and his strategies and license inspections and housing and all the bringing everybody to bear on our community and doing it in a strategic way, I know it’s going to work,”Purzycki said.

“It didn’t get this way overnight. So you have to manage expectations. If you’re going to build for long-term success, there has to be some patience,” Tracy said.

You can watch the mayor talk more about his chief and other issues Friday at 5:30 on First on WHYY TV.

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