Southern charm, deadly streets

Story highlights

  • In 2015, there were 53 homicides in Savannah, the city's most violent year in a quarter-century
  • A new citywide initiative to end the violence has done little to curb the shootings
  • The mayor says 100-plus new officers will make a dent in reducing the crime

Savannah, Georgia (CNN)Shoppers happily stroll the sidewalks of Savannah's open-air City Market. The sweet smell of freshly made pralines provides an inviting aroma across the historic district, and horse-drawn carriages amble down streets carrying tourists to antebellum homes and manicured gardens.

Known as the Hostess City, Savannah appears like a postcard of idyllic Southern charm.
    Linda Wilder-Bryan looks around and shakes her head.
    "You can't walk like this in other neighborhoods," she says. "Please share our tale of two cities. This is the Hostess City with bloody underwear. ... Nobody wants to air their bloody drawers."
    Then, she cries.
    Can cities stop the bloodshed?

    Savannah, Georgia, and Richmond, California: Two cities on opposite sides of the country, each with a history of homicides and different approaches to ending the violence. See what's working and what isn't in this two-part series:

    In August, her 23-year-old son, Lawrence Bryan IV, was shot and killed in a Savannah neighborhood where homicides are frequent. Two months later, the genteel safety of City Market was shattered when a 24-year-old man who Wilder-Bryan considered her second son was gunned down in the early hours. Police have said Frank Wilson was stalked and targeted.
    Wilson's killing stoked fears that Savannah's escalating violence was moving from outlying neighborhoods into the tourist district. By year's end, 53 people -- a majority of them black -- had been killed, a 66% jump from the previous year and the bloodiest year since 1991, when the city recorded 60 homicides.
    Wilder-Bryan admits that her son was no angel and had made mistakes in life. The night he was killed, he was playing cards and gambling at a home where police had responded to gunshots on prior occasions. In 2014, her son also had been charged in connection with a gunfight.
    "I'm consumed with death," she says. "It's my norm now."
    Determined to push for change, Wilder-Bryan, 58, ran for a City Council post in November on the slogan "I'm gonna kick up dust and get rid of rust." She lost to the incumbent by about 3,600 votes but says the effort was worthwhile.
    Linda Wilder-Bryan,  whose son Lawrence was killed in a shooting in August, prays during a "die in, lay in" protest this year.
    "Instead of grieving, I fought."
    She and a group of mothers have formed a group called CHAOS, or Change Helping Agents of Savannah. They hold monthly die-ins and rallies across the city to raise awareness about the violence plaguing its black communities.
    She once served as a state corrections officer and as security sergeant for the local sheriff's department and knows the inequalities of the justice system.
    A whirlwind of energy, Wilder-Bryan makes city leaders nervous. She's edgy, vocal and determined. But don't tell her that her son passed away or that she lost him.
    There's no reason, she says, to sugarcoat a killing. "My son wasn't lost. He was stolen."

    Calling in the parolees

    Concerned by the increased killings, the city of Savannah launched an ambitious initiative with a straightforward title: End Gun Violence. The program is modeled after one developed by David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, whose practices have been implemented in dozens of cities across the country.
    Savannah's high murder rate

    With a population of about 236,000, Savannah-Chatham County saw 22.4 killings per 100,000 residents in 2015.

    That would have been the 10th highest murder rate among cities over 200,000 using 2014 figures, the last year for which national data is available -- higher than the 2014 rates for Oakland, California; Miami; Cleveland; Washington; and Chicago.

    The number of killings in Savannah this year is 23: nearly double the 13 as of this time last year and the same as for all of 2012.

    Criminologists have found that a fraction of hardened criminals are responsible for a disproportionate amount of serious violent crimes. In a city Savannah's size, they say, the number of people committing the most violent offenses would be limited to just several dozen people.
    The Kennedy model targets those individuals believed to be the most violent and brings them together with police and prosecutors for "Call Ins."
    Savannah's first Call In was December 15 at a local church.
    "If we can get a message to those people to reduce their gunfire exchange, then we will definitely impact the overall number," says Maxine Bryant, the project manager of the End Gun Violence initiative.
    Critics of the Kennedy model say cops are poor messengers given the black community's distrust of police.
    Supporters argue that there has to be a balance: police and community members working in conjunction.
    To that end, the Call In featured a who's who of Savannah law enforcement, including Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin and District Attorney Meg Heap, along with a federal judge, preachers and other community members.
    Their audience: 16 parolees who ranged in age from their late teens to their 30s. Two were women. Everyone was black. Each had served time for an array of drug and firearms offenses.
    Law enforcement delivered a stern message: Clean up or we're coming after you. And not only will we come after you, we'll go after your friends and anyone who knows what you're doing.
    If the parolees aren't actively engaged in shootings, the thinking is, they know people who are and will carry the message into their communities.
    One man sat slouched in his chair texting for much of the time. The young woman next to him followed his lead, rolling her head and acting as if she had better places to be. Others snapped to attention when told that federal authorities would come after them if they don't change. They know there's no parole in federal prison.
    They were given a phone number for social services and told that help was available should they choose a new path.
    But perhaps the strongest message came from Pam Abraham: one delivered from the heart of a grieving mother.
    Pam Abraham's son Sean, 25, was killed over his cell phone in 2004. (Courtesy Abraham family)
    Her 25-year-old son, Sean Abraham, was a manager at a fast-food restaurant in West Savannah. He'd graduated from Alabama State University and was the epitome of America's talented youth: optimistic, humble and proud.
    He'd talk with friends and family about his dreams of setting up a foundation to help at-risk youth. He believed most troubled youth just needed proper mentors to help steer their anger and rage.
    But on February 7, 2004, her only son was shot in the head, killed over his cell phone.
    Before she began speaking, she told the texting man to put his phone away. She showed a photograph of her son in a bright gold shirt, his face beaming with a smile that radiates all these years later. The picture was taken before Christmas in 2003. She buried her son two months later, on Valentine's Day.
    Time doesn't heal such pain, she said.
    She reminded the group that her son's killer got three life sentences, plus 105 years. A man who was with him got two life sentences, plus 50 years.
    "Three young men died that day."
    This time, everyone sat upright, even the texter and the head-roller.
    Change your ways, she implored the group, because "it's either prison or the grave."
    When she finished, two of the men hugged her. One told her he'd never thought about the pain he caused his mother.
    "It was almost like a light bulb went on for some," she recalled. "I always tell people: Yesterday, it was at my door. Tomorrow, it may be at yours. You need to step up and be part of the solution."
    Despite the new citywide initiative, the shootings have not abated. There have been 23 homicides this year, the same as for all of 2012 and nearly double the 13 at this time last year. The next Call In is slated for later this month.
    Mayor Eddie DeLoach, who came into office in January, said that he believes the program is making progress but that it's too early to judge its overall effectiveness because crime reduction is "not going to happen overnight." He said another new program is offering 500 jobs to rising high school seniors "so they can pick something else other than trouble" during the hot summer months.
    He also said the police force has been hiring officers to fill a shortage that's existed for the past 16 years. By June, the mayor said, 127 new officers will be on the streets.
    "We should have an opportunity there to put some pressure to bear on the malcontents that are causing problems in our community," he said. "We're looking forward to a reduced crime rate. ... We're optimistic on our end."

    Getting people to talk

    Ronald Williams keeps 58 pencils bound together by one rubber band as a symbol of the city he loves. Each pencil represents one of the 58 neighborhoods of Savannah, including his predominantly black neighborhood of West Savannah.
    "You can't break it when they band together," he says.
    But infighting for too long has been the city's reality, resulting in too few solutions and too many killings.
    "I'm doing everything I can to tell people, 'Hey, we've got to live together.' "
    Walk the streets with Williams, president of the West Savannah Community Organization, and you immediately see the inequities of two vastly different areas. About a mile from historic downtown, there are no pristine brick sidewalks in West Savannah. Here, dirt footpaths and cracked sidewalks -- barely wide enough for one person -- press up against the roads. Instead of giant live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, there are run-down bungalows and shotgun shacks set amid working-class ranch homes.
    One tattered sign warns, "No dumping -- This area is being monitored. Violators will be cited." Trash tossed from cars lies within feet of the post.
    Community leader Ronald Williams says the city needs to band together to stop the violence.
    Around the corner from his office, he stops and points to the pavement where two people were gunned down last summer. "Two young men laid dead right up in here," he says.
    He'd come across the scene while police were sealing off the area, the bodies still in the street. Williams talked with onlookers and put the word out: If you're afraid to talk with police, come to me. Within two hours, he helped get leads on the suspects.
    "That's what we've got to do: Get people to start speaking out," he says.
    Williams is a foot soldier in this raging war. He's not armed with a gun. He's armed with knowledge, a broad smile and a friendly handshake. He walks the neighborhood constantly, to let people know about weekend get-togethers and other events.
    At 69, Williams is a straight-talker. He gets upset when people discuss police shootings of African-Americans but don't talk about everyday crime destroying neighborhoods like his.
    "Black-on-black crime is there. Why not talk about it?" he says.
    He's known to stop mothers with errant kids and tell them they need to buy insurance on their children "so you don't have to go to GoFundMe to bury that child."
    "When they're out there dealing drugs and other things, they've got two options: They're either going to die, or they're going to go to jail."
    His criticism goes both ways: Too many police, he says, "are not going to give me the respect that I deserve because of the color of my skin."
    "Every black person is not a criminal, but that's what some young white police officers think."
    As he walks through the neighborhood, residents wave from their porches. A local barber ushers him inside his shop and shows off a renovation project for a new nightclub in the back.
    Martha Holmes, left, hugs Janie Smith, older sister of Charles Smith, who was shot and killed on Augusta Avenue by police in 2014.
    The vast majority of residents, he says, are like anywhere else: law-abiding, family-loving folks. But the drug trade, he says, is fueling the gun violence, and residents are largely powerless to stop it. "The two biggest money-making trades in this city are tourists and drugs."
    Augusta Avenue serves as the main street through West Savannah. The mile-long stretch is bookended by two reminders of life here, one from the present and one from the past.
    Two crosses stand as a makeshift memorial to mark the spot where a 29-year-old black man was killed by police in 2014. Just up the road, a plaque reads "Largest Slave Sale in Georgia History: The Weeping Time."
    "If you don't know your history," Williams says, "you don't have a future."
    Williams hopes for a brighter tomorrow. That if he and others can make inroads within the community, get people to speak out about crime, improve the education system and get youth to buy in, then change will come.
    But it won't happen overnight.
    "These are my people, and I love them," he says at the end of his tour.
    By night's end, gunfire rings out. Another person dies.