The gunfire next door: Police response uneven in Fifeville neighborhood

The sound of gunfire and the arrival of SWAT teams are unnervingly frequent within a few Fifeville blocks. Photo by Skyclad Aerial The sound of gunfire and the arrival of SWAT teams are unnervingly frequent within a few Fifeville blocks. Photo by Skyclad Aerial

In the early morning hours of February 10, Julie Bargmann woke up to the sound of gunshots. She laid still.

“Unfortunately, I’ve gotten kind of used to it,” says the Fifeville resident who’s lived on Sixth Street Southwest for four years. Over the last two, there have been multiple shootings and other incidents that drew a massive police response.

Every time it happens, she says, “I hunker down low and I stay in my bed.”

Police presence in the immediate area of Sixth, 6 ½, and Dice streets, in the neighborhood across Cherry Avenue from Tonsler Park, seems to be all or nothing. While community members say they don’t usually see any cops patrolling, when law enforcement does respond to the area, it’s quite a show—multiple squad cars line the narrow, one-way roads and driveways, and at times that’s been accompanied by a heavily militarized SWAT team that has terrified residents.

Bargmann and other neighbors say they’re aware that the Charlottesville Police Department is currently understaffed, and they’re sympathetic to its officers, who are currently down 18 co-workers, according to police spokesperson Tyler Hawn. But residents say a regular patrol is necessary in a neighborhood that has seen drug dealing and gunfire—and that a steadier police presence would make those SWAT raids unnecessary.

On this particular February morning, Bargmann waited until she saw the red and blue lights reflected onto her bedroom walls, then watched as the apparently naked victim of the shooting was hauled off in an ambulance.

Back in 2017, she’d witnessed a SWAT raid at the same house. An officer in military-style gear popped out of the top of a BearCat, a tank-like armored vehicle. He scanned the area with his gun drawn as other cops climbed a ladder leading to a window above the front door, bashed it in, and hurled a flash grenade through it, she recalls. 

“And then I saw Sam, my neighbor, being taken away in handcuffs,” she says. Court records show that Sam Henderson, who owns the house, was arrested November 16, 2017, for possession of a controlled substance and found guilty seven months later.

But she and other neighbors still see him come and go, and they’re wondering why police don’t shut down this known “drug abode”—or the other known drug operation in the immediate area. “You’d think it would be a pretty high priority,” she says.

At Henderson’s house on a recent Thursday morning, the front door is cracked open and there appears to be a bullet hole in a window next to the door. No one answers when this reporter knocks multiple times, nor did Henderson respond to a note left by the ashtray on his porch.

Police spokesperson Hawn didn’t respond to an inquiry about Henderson or the house, but says the department “actively patrols and engages the members of the Fifeville neighborhood on a continual basis.”

Edward Thomas, a longtime Fifeville resident with properties on Sixth and 6 ½ streets, says many residents are wary of talking to police, but he and Bargmann met with an officer in December to air their concerns after their houses were paintballed. He was left “flabbergasted” when the cop suggested they start a community watch.

“Community watch programs can be a resource multiplier and a system of support for the community and the CPD,” says Hawn.

Says Thomas, “I remember saying, half joking, ‘This week it’s paintballs, next week it’s going to be real bullets.’ Well, sure enough.”

About a week later, on December 29, Thomas woke up to the sound of gunshots on 6 ½ Street. Six days after that, around 6am, neighbor Stephanie Bottoms says Charlottesville police deployed another SWAT team to arrest the culprit.

As she watched from a window, she counted 30 officers, approximately 20 of whom carried what appeared to be automatic weapons. They broke down the front door of the house in the 300 block of 6 ½ Street. With two BearCats surrounding the home, they also busted through second-floor windows on its front and back sides, she says.

That day, Ernest Anderson was arrested and charged with shooting in a public place, a misdemeanor, and felony possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

“Thank God they got the guy that shot up the neighborhood,” says Thomas, because that isn’t always the case. After the February 10 shooting, police say a gunman in a black ski mask got away.

Matt Simon, who lives on Dice Street where it intersects Sixth, recalls hearing “a ton of gunshots” back in December 2016, when two people were injured by gunfire. Two weeks later, he pulled a record out of the bin he keeps in his living room and found it broken. He realized one of the bullets had barreled through six of his discs.

“I think we warrant a patrol car coming through every now and again,” says Simon, who says things haven’t improved.

“Nothing happens until it gets really bad, and then all of a sudden, it’s like a war zone here,” says Thomas. “It’s the scariest it’s ever been.”

He says he saw a kid shot to death several years ago, which was undoubtedly frightening, but now with the somewhat regular militarized SWAT response, “it’s like we’re scared of the police.”

This type of showing from the cops “makes the neighborhood even less desirable and scares people away from buying and potentially leasing the vacant property,” Thomas adds. Three people interviewed for this story mention neighbors who have moved or started renting their properties because they don’t feel safe.

“There is definitely an overuse of SWAT teams and military vehicles [in town],” says local attorney Jeff Fogel, who’s been known to criticize the cops. “They are incredibly intimidating, not only to the occupants of the house being attacked, but the neighborhood as well. I suspect they are used for that very purpose.”

Says Hawn, “The Charlottesville Police Department takes concerns about safety in the Fifeville neighborhood and throughout the city seriously. While we understand the presence of a SWAT or tactical team may feel overwhelming, we are committed to providing a safe response to incidents for our officers, the public, and any persons involved.”

The city’s general upkeep of the neighborhood also leaves much to be desired, Thomas notes. On any given day, neighboring lots are overgrown, and beer bottles and other trash can be found strewn across the lawn of the historic Benjamin Tonsler House, which was built in 1879 for Tonsler, a prominent African American teacher and principal in town. His friend Booker T. Washington once stayed there, according to the city’s website.

There have also been cables lying on the ground since a storm last spring, complemented by a nearly-collapsed telephone poll in front of Thomas’ house. He says some crime in his area could be attributed to the broken windows theory, which suggests visible signs of disorder and crime can lead to more of it.

“I used to worry about the gentrification destroying the character of the neighborhood,” Thomas says. “Now, I kind of want the gentrification to happen, because I’d rather have gentrification than bullets and trash everywhere.”

 

Updated February 28 at 3:54pm with an addition comment from CPD spokesperson Tyler Hawn.

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