After attacks on NC greenways, leaders stepping up to protect communities

CHARLOTTE — Our greenways are used by more than a million people a month. They connect people, neighborhoods and communities, and they’re spaces to work out and have fun.

But they’ve also been places where people have been targeted by criminals, including two recent incidents.

On Sept. 7, Channel 9 reported an attacker was on the run and a woman was in the hospital after a reported sexual assault on the McAlpine Greenway.

Then on Oct. 13, an active shooting in downtown Raleigh resulted in the deaths of five people, including a police officer. The crime scene stretched more than two miles and the hunt for the gunman lasted several hours. Seven total people were shot.

These attacks rattle communities full of people going about their daily lives, their everyday runs, walks, or time outdoors -- the same people who are falling victim to violence.

Lisa Landrum and Billy Shue are two Charlotte residents who use Mecklenburg County’s greenways every day. They told Channel 9′s Hunter Sáenz that overall, they believe they’re safe, but they argue improvements could be made.

“With recent events, we’ve seen that they’re maybe not as safe as we like to think,” Landrum, a runner and coach, said.

It’s why they’re asking Mecklenburg County’s parks and recreation department to add more safety measures to keep crime off the greenways. That responsibility falls on W. Lee Jones, the parks and rec director.

“I feel really good about bringing my family here,” he said.

He says context is key.

“I believe we’ve had two or three incidents reported in the past year in 2022,” Jones told Sáenz. “But one incident is cause for concern.”

The county currently has more than 63 miles of greenways. Jones said there are 53 unarmed park rangers tasked with patrolling them.

“They patrol our greenways, they patrol our parks, they’re on foot, they’re on bicycle, they’re on ATVs and they’re in trucks,” Jones said.

Shue said he’s seen Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers patrolling greenways too, but wants other safety features added.

“I think definitely lights would be very helpful,” Shue said. “I’d be really happy if we could have emergency call boxes out there.”

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte has call boxes like those on its campus.

“Just the mere presence of having the emergency call boxes with blue lights can be a deterrent for potential crime,” Shue said.

However, Jones said those wouldn’t work on a lot of our greenways.

“Greenways are built in the repairing corridors, and the floodplains most of the time,” he said. “So you’d have to run conduit to these greenways and that’s electrical wiring and if it’s going to flood, there’s a chance of it to fail.”

Instead, Jones and his team are focusing on enhancing mile markers on greenways. They’re adding more of them, marking every quarter-mile on trails with QR codes so if you’re in trouble, police know exactly where to find you.

Landrum and other runners still want more than that -- they’re hoping other tools can prevent horrific crimes and keep our greenways as safe havens for all to enjoy.

“The hope is that these attacks don’t just go by the wayside and get forgotten. That change can come from them,” Landrum said.

Jones urges people to use the greenways with others, and to avoid being by yourself. He also said to always have a cell phone with you so you can call for help. And keep the volume in your earbuds low so you can hear what’s happening around you.

A large group of runners plans to hold a meeting on Dec. 6. They want to get elected leaders and parks and rec staff together to try to come up with better safety solutions for the greenways.

(WATCH BELOW: Woman reportedly sexually assaulted on east Charlotte greenway; CMPD searching for suspect)

Hunter Sáenz

Hunter Sáenz, wsoctv.com

Hunter is a reporter for Channel 9.