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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

The Dive: This could be the end for Port City United

Port City United employee Stephen Barnett (left) was arrested for allegedly helping a 17-year-old flee after an attempted murder.
New Hanover County
Port City United employee Stephen Barnett (left) was arrested for allegedly helping a 17-year-old flee after an attempted murder.

Every week, WHQR's Ben Schachtman sits down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. This week, the arrest of a top Port City United employee puts the whole department at risk.

The Dive is a free weekly newsletter jointly published by WHQR and The Assembly. You can find more information and subscribe here.

This week, New Hanover County suspended the mediation and outreach division of Port City United, the county department created in 2022 to help address community violence. This followed the arrest of Stephen Barnett, a top PCU employee who ran the division that was formerly known as the Violence Interrupters. He was fired by the county shortly afterward.

After a shooting last Thursday at the Houston Moore public housing complex that left a victim paralyzed from the waist down, Barnett was charged with felony accessory after the fact to attempted murder. Prosecutors allege he drove the 17-year-old suspect to the scene of the crime and then helped him flee, while on the clock and driving a county-owned van.

This is far from the first problem with the program, and saving what’s still promising and beneficial about it depends on whether officials can identify what went wrong.

For The Dive, Benjamin Schachtman writes about the troubled creation of Port City United — and why New Hanover County's violence prevention department is now on the ropes: Divided United

The program came to be after a summer 2021 shooting at New Hanover High School. Facing intense public pressure, the school board and commissioners called a joint meeting where then-chair Julia Olson-Boseman pushed through a poorly defined $350 million plan to address community violence. Later, commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield added guardrails–but the pressure was still high, and the vision was still blurry.

Part of the plan was replicating Durham’s Bull City United, an anti-violence program based on the Cure Violence Global model aimed to intervene in shootings in specific neighborhoods. Many of PCU’s initial staff members, including Barnett, were poached from TRU Colors, the troubled for-profit brewery that sought to decrease violence by hiring active gang members.

On paper, this gave the county the advantage of hiring people who already knew the dynamics of gun violence in the city and had mediation experience. But in doing so, commissioners accepted two liabilities, whether they acknowledged them publicly or not.

The first: The county was hiring people with known ties to gangs and criminal activity. Just months after PCU was founded, it fired an employee facing an accessory murder charge. Since then, many in the county and in law enforcement who spoke to me on background said they’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The second: TRU Colors had never been able to prove its impact. Founder George Taylor often took credit when gun violence went down, but so did the police department, churches, and local nonprofits. And when shootings spiked, Taylor would argue that it would have been worse without Tru Colors–but it’s of course hard to prove a negative.

PCU’s initial director, Cedric Harrison, caused his own issues. Harrison had survived a bullet to the face and been involved in a number of nonprofits in the Black community, but he was unqualified to run a multi-million dollar government department. After less than a year, he was fired for a host of policy violations and generally unprofessional behavior. Little about the hiring process was clear, and while county officials couldn’t discuss his tenure on the record, citing personnel concerns, many felt like it was at best an “outside the box” move. Several said, it felt like a TRU Colors move.

As a private enterprise, TRU Colors could assume some liabilities that few elected officials would feel comfortable with. Commissioners Dane Scalise and Leann Pierce made that point last year, with Scalise referencing “pretty serious questions” about PCU and public comments from District Attorney Ben David advising against hiring active gang members.

But the bottom line was the multi-million dollar price tag for a program that was having a hard time demonstrating the return on investment, or even proposing a rubric by which you could measure its success.

The expiration of the federal COVID-relief money that had helped fund PCU also led to comments during county budget meetings earlier this year about “taking a closer look” at some programs.

And that was before this week’s arrest.

Now, Scalise says he will vote against funding PCU “in its current form” in the county budget this June.

There are, no doubt, serious concerns about PCU, and the optics right now make it politically difficult to stick up for the department. And while Barnett still has the right to appeal his termination, and he’s still innocent until proven guilty, it’s not clear if PCU will get the same level of due process.

Still, the door’s been left open for some of PCU’s work to continue: “second chance” expungement clinics, helping the victims of the housing authority’s mold crisis, and the hotline that connects community members to other services. Those might lack the flashy drama of stopping shootings, but their impact is clearer, more consistent, and far less risky.

Benjamin Schachtman: Johanna Still, thanks fo being here.

Johanna Still: Thank you, Ben. So for this week's Dive, we talked about what seems to be the impending implosion of Port City United. Can you tell our listeners what Port City United is, first of all, how it came to be, and why it is in jeopardy?

BS: Yeah, Port City United was created in the wake of a 2021 shooting at New Hanover High School. There was a significant public outcry and the reaction was a joint meeting between the Board of Commissioners and the school board here in New Hanover County. Then Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman made kind of a surprise move, she called an audible, and said we have $350 million from the hospital sale and she basically wrote a large blank check to the county manager to fix the problem. Some guardrails got put on that later.

But basically it was, you know, up to the county, here's money, go fix the problem. And the solution was to try and copy Durham's Bull City United. This is a violence interruption program where they use a kind of a public health model. We've got, we'll have links on the page to more about that. But in order to do this, and again, it was a lot of public pressure, in order to do this quickly, to get it stood up on a pretty quick timeline, the county hired a number of employees from TRU Colors,

JS: Which is a whole nother story in itself. But the premise that you sort of laid out in your piece, and that we know as a community, is it was a really high-pressure, high-temper time. And the creation of this new county program did do something about it, right? So there was this big desire and need to try to temper the violence in the community. And so they created this program. And you know, they could point to it and say, ;Here we are doing something about it.' There was a lot of pressure at the time. And so you kind of point out that this was kind of a reactionary moment.

BS: It was a reactionary moment. And again, and maybe understandably, given the public pressure, but the county was taking on some liabilities, They were hiring people, some of them were active gang members, who had links to criminal activity. Which when they weren't at a private company, that's a risk that Tru Colors CEO and founder George Taylor could take, he could choose to take that and and run with it. But the county has, you know, policies that were going to conflict with hiring some of these people, and it put them in a difficult situation.

The other thing was that George Taylor always had a difficult time convincing the community that TRU Colors was really making a difference. When shootings, for example, would go down over say a year, he would take credit for it, but so with law enforcement, and so would churches, and so would nonprofits, and when shootings went up, he would say, 'Yeah, but it would have been worse had we not been there.' And that's a really difficult negative to prove. You can't really get data on shootings that don't happen.

And so again, when it was a private company that was up to George Taylor, that was between him and his investors and his financial backers. But when it became a county department as Port City United, county commissioners started asking, 'Hey, where's the return on investment? And how do we even gauge if this department is being successful, the way that we look for rubrics to measure our other county departments.'

JA: And what happened just a week or two ago that brought this back into the conversation?

BS: Stephen Barnett, who was the head of what was called the Mediation and Outreach group, which used to be known as the violence interrupters, was arrested. And it was at a shooting at Houston Moore. He was initially questioned, this was on a Thursday. He was apparently, I believe, tailed by law enforcement. And a few days later, he was then arrested as an accessory after the fact to attempted murder — because this shooting left a victim paralyzed from the waist down. And this mediation and outreach group., this is the violence interrupters group that was largely brought over from Tru Colors, this has always been the most problematic part of Port City United.

Some of the other things that PCU has done, like a services hotline, or you know, helping out the victims of the mold crisis at the Wilmington Housing Authority, or doing Second Chance expungement clinics, those haven't been very controversial. It's always been the violence interrupters that's been the issue and whose benefits have been difficult to prove. So having the head of it arrested, linked to a violent crime that caused a lot of pushback.

BS: And allegedly in a county vehicle, on the clock.

JS: Yeah, that's the real problem here is that, you know, this would not have been good if it had happened off the clock after hours in this person's private life. But it did happen as PCU was there on their day-to-day business. This is basically the worst case scenario that fans of PCU have been worried about, because they know that there are detractors and critics of the program who have been, you know, basically waiting for things to get bad to make their move, or who have been very skeptical about PCU and will be pushed to sort of an opposing side by an event like this.

On the flip side, I will say you noted 'allegedly' and Stephen Barnett, is accused of this crime, he has not had his day in court, he will not have his day in court for a long time, I don't think. And as of earlier this week, he hadn't even finished the appeals process for being fired from the county. So some people I've spoken to have called this a very reactionary move by the county. Again, we don't even know if Stephen Burnett is guilty, he could be innocent. We don't even know if he's gonna be fired, he could win his appeal. And yet the county has already suspended and will likely, in all honesty, terminate the violence interruption part of PCU.

JS: And want to bring this into the fold here, because it's an interesting element is that the one person more than anyone probably who could say I told you so about all of this is District Attorney Ben David, who has been warning the community for years that he did not think it was a good idea to bring validated gang members into this type of operation.

BS: You know, ben David had a sort of a crucial role in helping to put together Tru Colors. And over the years, I think he's seen the utility of giving people in the gang life something positive to do, I don't think he would disagree with that. And we've had conversations on the record, he said, they've done some noble work. But the problem he's always pointed out is that if you are in the gang life, you just have a much higher risk of being entangled in the criminal justice system, of being the victim of violence. And the the phrase he's always used is, 'you cannot separate the water from the wet.' And while I should be clear that he has not weighed in on the most recent set of circumstances, and for good reason, because there's an active case now in his office, he has in the past said that about Tru Colors, and he said it about Port City United.

JS: So we know this violence interrupters segment of Port City United has been suspended. Where do we go from here?

BS: So there's a meeting on Monday, there's about 5-10 minutes scheduled for the county commissioners to talk about this, I think this will more than likely trigger an overall reappraisal of the whole program. The Federal Covid-relief money that has been helping to power PCU for a couple of years is running out. So the county was already going to take a closer look at PCU. This will put added stress on that. You add to that the fact that the county is looking to do a half-cent tax cut, and that means they're gonna be looking for places to trim the fat or tighten their belt, however you want to put it. And they are looking for ways to help the school district which is in a $20-million hole. And I've already heard that there are definitely officials on the school board and school administration who are saying forget PCU we need that funding more. And so I think it is at the very least likely that we will see a very harsh reappraisal of Port City United and its value to the county. That doesn't mean the program couldn't be moved to another department in another form or even moved into the nonprofit world but I have to imagine there's a good chance it's time as part of the county is drawn to an end.

JS: All right, Ben, we'll stay tuned. Thank you.

JS: Thank you, Johanna.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.