New Hanover County to Stop Hiring Gang Members, Commissioners Cut Port City United Out of New Budget

by | Jun 19, 2024 | News Analysis, Commentary and Opinion

Who Thought Hiring a Squad of Gang Members to Thwart Violent Crime was a Great Idea?

New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield — who is up for re-election this year — thought so. Yesterday, he voted against the Republicans and the new budget, which stopped funding a county department known for employing gang members.

In a 3-2 vote, New Hanover County Commissioners approved their 2024/25 budget on Monday without any funding for Port City United (PCU). PCU has run its course to become the second failed program led, in part, by gang members with the intent to reduce crime. 

What is Port City United?

Port City United, established by New Hanover County as part of its community safety efforts, was mandated with the task of reducing violence through intervention, mediation, and community engagement programs. PCU was created following the 2021 shooting incident at New Hanover High School, with the specific goal of addressing the root causes of violence and providing support services to at-risk individuals. PCU, funded by the county, operates under New Hanover County’s authority.

During budget discussions, it was revealed that PCU’s yearly operations cost the county over $1.4 million — $475,206 for administration and $945,982 for their mediation and outreach division.

This marks the second high-profile failed initiative aimed at combating violence by employing gang members. The other was TRU Colors Brewery, launched by George Taylor.

TRU Colors Brewery

Founded in 2017 in Wilmington, NC, TRU Colors Brewery sought to reduce gang violence by employing active gang members and providing them with jobs, training, and a supportive environment. The organization ultimately failed due to mismanagement and multiple deaths connected to the venture. After the brewery ceased operations, some former employees transitioned to jobs with Port City United​.

The Defunding of Port City United

The decision to defund PCU arose from several controversies. Notably, Courtney McNeil, an employee who was arrested for drug and weapons charges. McNeil was accused of buying and selling crack cocaine during work hours. This incident, along with the arrest of another PCU employee for aiding a fugitive — with charges later dropped — severely tarnished the program’s image. According to a recent WHQR article, McNeil had a criminal history and was a validated member of the Double ii Blood gang.

While the county initially sought to create a version of the Cure Violence Global model, District Attorney Ben David felt the county commission’s decision to form Port City United was done in haste. WHQR quoted David as saying,

“Everyone wanted to react to that situation with the school shooting. And I’m not going to call this an overreaction, the right way to have gone, and that is to be proactive to try and prevent crime and not just react to it, I believe that. But I don’t believe we did it the right way. When we basically took what we had at Tru Colors and brought it under the county umbrella. It is one thing for a private individual to do that. It’s quite another for government.”

Adding to the PCU employee controversies, County Commissioner Dane Scalise said he was targeted by a PCU employee, a mediation specialist, as he walked to his vehicle in the Thalian Hall parking lot. During an interview on Wilmington’s Morning News with Nick Craig, Scalise said he felt this employee was communicating a veiled threat,

“…I walk a little further into the parking lot and all the sudden, a man who I don’t know, who I don’t recognize, was just standing there; comes up in my space and starts going on about how he is an employee of Port City United. He doesn’t agree with me in the positions that I’ve taken. It’s clear to me over the course of this conversation that this man intended to intimidate me.

“His last parting comment to me, before we separated from one another, was: ‘be safe out there.’ Whenever your comments are as I described and end with, ‘be safe out there’ I don’t know how to interpret that any other way than he intended to threaten me.”

According to WECT, the employee was fired after county human resources investigated the incident.

(Below) WECT News reports on Commissioner Scalise being approached by a Port City United employee in the parking lot.

While PCU’s mission was to mitigate violence and enhance community well-being, the controversies and allegations against its employees have compromised its credibility — and will likely do the same to any future program that hires squads of gang members. The County Commission did the right thing, and they should be congratulated. This decision will likely pave the way for something new in crime prevention.

Postscript

The handling of the budget negotiation by the two Democratic commissioners was notable. Commissioner Rob Zapple expressed his dissatisfaction with the budget as presented and, noting that the board had more time on the calendar, motioned to extend budget negotiations a few more days. This extension would have included discussions about funding some beneficial aspects of Port City United. Conversely, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield appeared indifferent to any chance of saving Port City United and unfairly criticized Commissioner Dane Scalise for not sharing his suggested line-item cuts from the budget binder — something he show no interest in seeing at the last budget meeting. Despite the opportunity to save some PCU services, Barfield did not second Zapple’s motion to extend the negotiation period.

What kind of job is Barfield doing for his constituency?

(Below) Video shows NHC Commissioner Barfield, a self-proclaimed advocate against violence, declining to negotiate any aspects of funding for Port City United.

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