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Port City United employee fired after arrest as ‘accessory’ to fatal Wilmington shooting

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Benjamin Schachtman
/
WHQR
Port City United is housed at New Hanover County's building at 320 Chestnut Street in downtown Wilmington.

The employee had been with Port City United, the county’s new community-violence interruption program, for less than a week when she was arrested and fired. The employee, one of six ‘connect specialists’ hired by PCU, is facing two felony charges after allegedly giving a murder suspect a ride to flee the crime scene and helping to destroy evidence.

The charges against Rone’Quia Harris stem from a shooting incident in the early morning hours of Saturday, February 26. Wilmington Police Department (WPD) officers responded to a shots-fired call around 1:30 a.m. and found 45-year-old Tammy Hayes suffering from a gunshot wound that proved to be fatal, despite the work of emergency crews. That same day, 30-year-old Keisha Baldwin of Wilmington was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Two months later, on the evening of Tuesday, April 26, Harris was arrested. She now faces two charges of felony accessory after the fact. According to the warrant for her arrest, Harris helped Baldwin “flee the scene of the crime and dispose of physical evidence.”

Harris was previously arrested in 2018 as part of a month-long investigation by the WPD Gang Unit. Two men arrested with her were identified at the time as ‘validated gang members’ of the Folk Nation 720 Gangster Disciples — however, Harris was not identified as a validated gang member. Her charges from that arrest were dismissed in 2020.

[Editor's note: 'Gang validation' is the process by which law enforcement agencies identify likely gang members, based on a variety of criteria; it is not a criminal conviction. Some have criticized gang validation as violating due process since there is not a simple judicial appeal procedure for people who are not in gangs or who have since left gangs; others have called the criteria too broad or too vague — and note that being in a gang is not, under most circumstances, in and of itself illegal.]

New Hanover County’s reaction

New Hanover County confirmed Harris was hired as a PCU Connect Specialist on April 19 and fired the following week.

“Harris had been with the county for less than a week and was in her introductory period when she was arrested, and the county immediately dismissed her on April 27. The charges against Harris are for an incident that occurred prior to her working with the county, and did not take place while she was employed,” according to a county spokesperson.

Asked if the county and PCU had any concerns about employees' potential affiliation with gang or criminal activity, or if officials would consider any program changes, the county responded, “[a] main focus for Port City United is to ensure employees are suitable for the job, meaning they have the passion for the work and are also abiding by the county’s standards and the principles of Port City United to build the community up. Through their training and coaching, it is impressed upon all employees that they cannot have active involvement in criminal activity and that will continue.”

Harris’s arrest and termination came just days before an April 29 media roundtable, organized by the county to allow local reporters to ask PCU Director Cedric Harrison and his team, along with Assistant County Manager Tufanna Bradley, about the program.

The county confirmed that Harrison was aware of Harris’ termination, although county and PCU officials did not address it during the meeting. The county noted that the purpose of the roundtable was “for the media to learn more about PCU, the vision, and the work they hope to accomplish, so talking about personnel related matters was not included as part of the plan.”

How does NHC, and PCU, handle criminal behavior, past and present?

WPD has not indicated that the charges against Baldwin — and by extension, against Harris — are gang-related, a term that is notoriously porous. However, the arrest does raise the question of how the county, and specifically PCU, handles criminal activity.

Part of PCU’s vision, as expressed by Harrison, is a progressive take on gang membership and past criminal behavior.

Harrison said he didn’t have concerns about his employees’ potential relationship to gangs or gang members, calling concerns about gangs "low-hanging fruit," and defending gang membership as the only sense of family for some community members, something Harrison called the result of generations of systematic oppression and violence against marginalized groups.

Harrison also suggested that even active gang members could use their influence for good, a philosophy also embraced by the Wilmington-based Tru Colors brewery. The company’s founder and CEO, George Taylor, Jr., hires active gang members to fill most of his staff positions and, in an interview late last year, said roughly 65 of his 85 employees were active gang members. PCU has hired at least seven former Tru Colors employees including Harrison’s right-hand man, Stephen Barnett.

“[B]ecause of that connection that they do have, because of that influence, because of the things that they've done to make themselves credible amongst their peers, we want to use that leverage, we want to be able to use those folks, as the first change agents to what's going on," Harrison said.

However, not everyone has agreed with that philosophy, including District Attorney Ben David, who voiced concerns about the Tru Colors model on WHQR’s The Newsroom, and Sheriff Ed McMahon, who expressed concerns about the possibility that Tru Colors might hire active gang members in a primary election interview last month.

The county has avoided directly commenting on whether it would hire active gang members; when asked if the county had policies or concerns about gang membership or criminal behavior, the county has spoken only to the question of illegal behavior — and by itself gang membership isn’t a crime.

And, when it comes to giving those with a criminal record a second chance, the county has taken a progressive approach.

Since July 2016, New Hanover County has aligned its application process with Ban the Box, the international campaign to provide more equitable access for people with criminal records to the job market.

According to the county, “applicants are no longer asked about prior offenses when filling out an application for an open position. A third-party criminal background check is completed on candidates selected to fill positions, prior to an offer of employment. When the results of criminal background checks include prior convictions, the facts around those convictions are weighed against the duties of that position. Prior convictions do not exclude a candidate from applying for, being considered for, or being hired for a job opportunity with New Hanover County Government.”

In fact, several of the former Tru Colors employees hired by PCU have felony records but were still hired. However, while prior convictions aren’t a dead end for a potential PCU employee, active criminal behavior is, according to the county

“The county remains committed to the work of PCU and to the team members who will help affect positive change in the community, and active criminal involvement will not be condoned,” according to a spokesperson.