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City Council talks recent gun incidents

FRANKLIN

A series of recent incidents, two of which resulted in homicides, prompted Franklin’s City Council on Nov. 23 to discuss ways of reducing gun violence.

The slew of crimes began the morning of Sept. 25, when police responded to reports of an armed robbery at a gaming establishment in the 1400 block of South Street. Two suspects were said to have entered the building brandishing firearms.

A month later, an altercation at the Franklin Bowling Center on Armory Drive spilled out into the parking lot, resulting in multiple shots being fired. No injuries were reported.

On Nov. 8, police responded to a shots fired call at 2:37 a.m. in the 600 block of Oak Street. There they found one victim — Delvontae Boone, 28, of Franklin — who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police Chief Steve Patterson described the place where Boone was killed as the site of frequent “illegal parties,” possibly involving the sale or giving away of alcohol. But now, roughly a month after the incident, police still haven’t had anyone come forward and say “I was there, this is what I saw,” Patterson said.

“We’ve been working this facility for several months, trying to get it shut down,” the chief added.

Then, on Nov. 14, three different houses — one on Maplewood Avenue, one on Madison Street and one on Roosevelt Street — were struck by gunfire during an incident Patterson described as “two groups of unknown persons” shooting at each other. Officers recovered a total of 15 rounds at the scene.

On Nov. 22, at approximately 7:45 p.m. there was another shooting, this time at the Hi-Lo gas station and convenience store, which is also located in the 1400 block of South Street. There, officers found Rolando Bynum, 47, of Southampton County, who was pronounced dead at the scene. Police have since arrested Keonte Flythe, 25, and charged him with Bynum’s murder, but the other incidents remain open investigations.

“We can’t do this alone; we need community support,” Patterson said, again calling on members of the Franklin community who witness crimes to come forward. “Everybody deserves to know what happened. Mr. Boone’s family deserves to know what happened.”

City Manager Amanda Jarratt said the city has taken action against several gaming facilities, including the one that was the site of the Sept. 25 armed robbery, for operating illegally within city limits. Earlier this year, Virginia’s General Assembly passed legislation defining pay-to-play casino-style video games that give cash payouts to winners as illegal gambling, even if they are “games of skill” rather than games of chance.

The law was supposed to take effect July 1, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the General Assembly allowed establishments with gaming machines in place to keep them through July 1, 2021, provided they have a state license to sell alcohol and pay a monthly $1,200 tax per machine to the state, with a portion of the proceeds from that tax going back to the host locality.

She has since consulted with the city’s attorneys at Sands Anderson to see what if any action the city could take to prohibit gaming machines in convenience stores and other establishments in compliance with state law, implying that some of these facilities may also have been the site of incidents. But, “Because we are a Dillon Rule state and because the General Assembly granted these legal facilities the ability to operate through June 30 of 2021, we have no authority to close those existing, legal, in-compliance facilities,” Jarratt said.

In states that follow the Dillon Rule, named for Iowa Supreme Court Justice John F. Dillon, municipalities can only exercise powers specifically granted to them by the state legislature.

In addition to the two murders, there have been 13 aggravated assaults in Franklin this year, which Patterson said could include shootings, stabbings, beatings or other forms of violence. There were also two murders in 2019, but only four aggravated assaults.

Councilwoman Wynndolyn Copeland, who represents the city’s fifth ward, acknowledged that a majority of the incidents had occurred in her ward and wards three and four, and requested that the city set up a meeting between her constituents and Chief Patterson. Jarratt said this would need to be done in a manner that would comply with Gov. Ralph Northam’s recently-imposed 25-person cap on gatherings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But using Virginia’s COVID-19 restrictions to police Franklin’s gaming establishments isn’t an option, as enforcement is the purview of the Virginia Department of Health, not local law enforcement.

Councilman Ray Smith said he felt part of the problem may be that the city’s police department is understaffed. Currently, there are seven vacancies for police officers. Specifically, he suggested the portion of health insurance premiums that Franklin passes on to city employees may be driving away potential hires.

“You don’t have enough policemen on the street to answer multiple calls,” Smith said. “I’ve talked to the chief. We’re having diversions when all of our policemen are dispatched to one side of town as diversions for the other side of town.”

“I know of policemen who want to come here but they can’t afford to come here, so whatever we can do to fund the police department to get safety back in our streets, we need to do.”

Jarratt confirmed there are currently 92 city employees who have opted for employee-only health insurance plans. Another 13 are on plans that cover the employee plus one, and 10 are on employee-plus-family plans. Forty-one have waived obtaining health insurance through the city of Franklin.

“We know for the most part the vast majority of those that have waived is because it’s due to the cost,” Jarratt said.

Estimating that it would take roughly $100,000 to address the high premiums currently being passed onto city police officers, Smith asked that emergency funding be given to the police department, but no formal motion was made to do so that evening.

While Ward 3 Councilman Greg McLemore agreed, “If you see something, you have to say something,” he took issue with the number of incidents in which arrests had yet to occur, and urged Patterson to look for solutions besides people “telling on each other.”

“I could be wrong, but I think a few of your officers are called detectives,” McLemore said. “To me, I can’t blame the City Council. I can’t blame that we don’t have enough police … personally, I think the villains in our city, they are becoming emboldened because you have a shooting, nothing happens. Nobody gets arrested.”