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Sheriff seeks pared-down testing to monitor coronavirus in county jail

After not landing funding for coronavirus testing at the Durham County Detention Facility last month, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has a new proposal. 

The sheriff on Monday will ask county commissioners to pay for testing 20 randomly selected inmates every two weeks. A positive result would spark testing for all inmates.

“I am hopeful they will recognize that we’ve presented a very fair, affordable, and potentially life-saving recommendation,” said Birkhead, who lost a detention center staff member to COVID-19 in April.

With “creative funding” using money in his budget, Birkhead found a way to pay for testing for all inmates and employees in the past week. That turned up zero cases, he said. 

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. Photo from sheriff’s office

But that doesn’t mean the pandemic threat there is over. All across the country coronavirus has posed a lethal risk to inmates and staff at local, state, and federal correctional facilities. To date, 17 people confined in state prisons have died from COVID-19 in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Law enforcement across the country reduced the number of people confined in jails by making fewer arrests and releasing people not considered a risk to communities. Nationally there were about 200,000 fewer people in local jails in June than at the start of the outbreak in March, according to research by the Vera Institute of Justice. 

Durham reduced its census too. But senior detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from coronavirus in April after an outbreak among detention center staff. In August, 21 inmates and five staff tested positive. 

The number of people held in the Durham County jail remains significantly lower than its capacity of 736. But the number held there has ticked up since March, according to the sheriff’s department. 

There were 311 people detained there on Wednesday, compared to March, when the population declined to the mid 200s. 

Two factors explain the increase: an increase in crime in Durham and a backlog of state prisoners the center continues to hold, Birkhead told commissioners last month.

There has been a 40% increase of shootings alone in the city of Durham, from 495 reported shootings last year between January and September to the 689 reports this year, according to a WRAL report.  

“Durham has a serious gun problem, certainly a serious gun violence problem. You overlay that with a gang issue we have had for years. Unfortunately in this environment, be it the pandemic and where we are nationally, all of it is contributing to an uptick in crime,” Birkhead said. 

Crime increased in the county, which the sheriff’s department patrols, as well from January to September 2019 to those nine months in 2020. For example: aggravated assaults, which includes shootings, rose 18%; larceny is up 11%; car thefts rose 38%; and burglaries increased 29%, according to the sheriff’s department.

Birkhead said he worries that as the election draws closer crime will continue to rise including, potentially, acts of voter intimidation and voter suppression.

 “Law enforcement all across the state of North Carolina is talking about what will need to be done to make sure everyone is safe not just from the virus, but safe from any voter suppression or voter intimidation,” said the sheriff.

Nine state offenders, people sentenced to stays in state prison, were still being held in the Durham Detention Center of Sept. 29. North Carolina pays the county detention center $40 a day for holding these people. That is not a major concern as it makes up a very small percentage of the total inmate population, the sheriff said.

Throughout the state of North Carolina 78 jails were holding at least one offender on backlog to the prison system as of last month. There were 792 offenders on the backlog then, although the number fluctuates daily, said to John Bull, communications officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Bull attributed the backlog to a high systemwide correctional officer vacancy rate, exacerbated by the pandemic. While noting it’s not  the highest it’s been in recent years, the vacancy rate was 15.92%, Bull said.

Despite the rise in the number of people held in the Magnum Street detention center, the fact that it is below capacity still helps reduce the risk of another coronavirus outbreak, Birkhead said.

“It allows us to do extraordinary measures: placing detainees into single cells, creating as much social distancing as possible, skipping cells and spreading folks out,” he said.

The Sheriff expects to present a new version of his testing plan to county commissioners on Monday.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: People are barely visible peeking out of windows on the face of the Durham County Detention Facility downtown, but they are there. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham officials boast of giving aid to small businesses, but don’t know where the money went

Three weeks ago, city and county officials boasted in a press release that they doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and grants to dozens of small businesses. 

But which ones actually got the cash? Twenty-plus days later, not even Mayor Steve Schewel seems to know. Schewel and other city officials claim they don’t know the recipients because the selection was done by a private group.

This much is known: 115 businesses have been approved for a combined $224,000 in Durham loans and about $800,000 in grants from Duke via the Durham Small Business Recovery Fund. The fund is made up of $1 million from Duke and about $2 million from Durham public funds. 

But city officials admit they are in the dark about which businesses got the money. Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), which administered the program, didn’t give Durham a list of businesses that got the cash, according to Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. 

Mayor Steve Schewel – Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Pettigrew said the program is now in the midst of another round of funding (with about $1.6 million in Durham loans and more than $200,000 in grants remaining) and the group isn’t planning on giving city and county officials a full list of businesses receiving the funds until this second and final round is complete. The only information city officials have received was aggregate demographic data of the business owners and the industries the recipients are in, Pettigrew said.

The 9th Street Journal filed a public records request for a list of the recipients, but the city referred it to the Small Business Development Fund and its president and CEO, Kevin Dick, who would not release the list. He said the group is consulting its attorneys about confidentiality issues for applicants that could arise from releasing business names because the group is a non-profit, not a government entity. 

Without a copy of a contract between Durham and the group, it’s hard to know whether a non-profit is answerable to public records laws, Raleigh-based First Amendment attorney Amanda Martin told the 9th Street Journal. Pettigrew did not respond to a request for a contract in time for publication, nearly two weeks after first being asked. Government contracts are public record, according to the North Carolina General Statutes, Chapter 143 Article 3

Schewel said that when he received the aggregated data on the grants and loans given out, he didn’t think it was crucial to know the names of the businesses at the time. He says he’s now looking forward to the list. 

“This is public money and it should be public information,” Schewel said about the loans. 

He later clarified by saying that while he didn’t believe the grants were actually public money, “it is a City Contract and should be public.”

Still, the group has been given sweeping powers to award the money. It green-lit eight of 29 applicants for Durham loans, for an average of about $28,000 per business. Among the approved businesses include two in the “personal care services” industry, one eatery, one beverage manufacturing company, one building equipment contractor, one alcoholic “drinking place,” a “jewelry/luggage/leather goods” store and an outpatient care center. 

The program also approved 107 out of 196 grant applications for a total of about $800,000. Most of the grant applications accepted were in retail, accommodation and food services, arts/entertainment/recreation, professional services and “other services.”

Durham ultimately granted the group power to disperse the grants and loans because of a lack of bandwidth in the city government to do so and because of the group’s “expertise.” 

“This is what they do, they make loans and administer programs like this for small businesses, and are especially focused on minority-owned businesses,” Schewel said. “They have the expertise and it’s not what the city does. So much of what we do in the city is contracting out to those with expertise.” 

Schewel emphasized that neither he nor the rest of the City Council had seen a list of the individual loans. Schewel and the City Council had expected to get a list with the final report in “the next month or so.”

Deberry takes steps to help reduce state prison population

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry is approving modified sentences for some state prison inmates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Deberry’s office has agreed to modify the sentences of nine convicted drug traffickers, spokesperson Sarah Willets told the 9th Street Journal. Judges have approved the reduced sentences.

Deberry said in a news release that her goal is to identify inmates who can be “safely” released from prison. Her office will review those set to be released soon, convicted of non-violent crimes and those vulnerable to illness due to age. 

“Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic,” Deberry said in the release.

Deberry said coronavirus outbreaks in state prisons made this step necessary. Social distancing is not easy to achieve in jails and prisons, she said, which could allow the disease to spread quickly and put inmates, staff and their families in harm’s way. She also said inmates are more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Deberry’s office is also mulling a few other motions for appropriate relief filed before the pandemic based on other issues, and intends to “treat these requests with the same urgency as those filed in light of COVID-19.”

In March, Deberry announced measures to reduce the county jail population. She moved to release or modify the sentences of those in the jail who don’t pose a public safety threat, are above 60 years old or have underlying health conditions. 

There are currently 260 inmates in the jail, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, well below its capacity of 736. There is no target jail population that Deberry is trying to achieve, Willetts said. 

“We all have a responsibility to try to stem the spread of COVID-19,” Deberry said in the release. “Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic.”

Protecting jail inmates from coronavirus

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health. 

Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.

These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.

AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products. 

“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.

“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.

Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths. 

The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.  

Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.

In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.

To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests. 

Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.

“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”

DA Deberry’s progressive agenda put on trial at town hall meeting

Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered last year in Burlington. The person charged with killing the 18-year-old and two others had multiple prior violent convictions, including homicide, but was released on probation.

“When he committed armed robbery, it was like this murder didn’t exist,” Jones told the 9th Street Journal. “He got a smack on the hand and probation.”

Now, Jones says he is fighting against policies that he considers to be too lenient on violent offenders. He’s particularly concerned about plea deals for people who have been previously convicted of a violent crime. 

District Attorney Satana Deberry’s annual report shows that she relied heavily on pleas for murder convictions — just three of 25 convictions were decided by a jury trial, doubling the previous year’s total number of plea convictions. 

Jones took the microphone at a town hall event Thursday to ask about her office’s role in keeping the community safe when releasing violent offenders. 

“How can that be of any good to the community?” Jones asked. “How do you all play a part in being responsible for turning that murderer loose back into the community?”

“This is not a science,” Deberry responded. “We cannot predict down the road what’s going to happen. I’m sorry about what happened with your grandson … What I can say is we don’t take any homicide plea lightly.” 

During the event held at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church near North Carolina Central University and attended by hundreds, community members, like Jones, questioned Deberry’s progressive stance on prosecution. 

In her first year in office, Deberry has discouraged cash bail for lower-level crimes and welcomed less traditional methods such as restorative justice. But she has weathered her fair share of criticism. Half of her staff has changed since she took over in January 2019, with some quitting over disagreements about her approach. 

Deberry used Thursday’s town hall to tout her accomplishments from her first year in office, which include: 

  • Prioritizing more serious crimes

Deberry reported a 12 percent drop in the jail population since enacting a policy to no longer seek cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and minor felonies. The goal: to not punish people who can’t afford to pay with jail time. 

“We don’t want to send people to prison. We don’t think that’s our job,” Deberry said. “We want to reserve the criminal justice system for those people who we don’t really have tools to deal with. Those are the people who commit the most serious crimes.” 

Instead of spending more time on lower-level offenses, Deberry said her office has prioritized more serious crimes. Her office got 25 homicide convictions in her first year in office, 10 more than the previous year. 

Deberry has prioritized cutting down Durham’s backlog of homicide cases. In one year, she has closed one-third of them.

  • Calling for cooperation to curb gun violence

Nearly 200 people were shot in Durham last year. At the recent town hall event, Deberry moderated a panel discussing how her office was responding to gun violence. 

Officials in Deberry’s office said they have focused on collaborating with law enforcement and prosecuting people who are involved in gangs or “in close proximity to violence.” But they can’t keep the community safer on their own, they said. 

Deberry urged witnesses to come forward to help combat gun violence, explaining that her office works to protect witnesses. 

“On television … you see people put a bullet into a machine and the machine spits out a mugshot. We don’t have that technology,” Deberry said. “The absolute best evidence in any case is you.” 

  • Implementing alternative practices 

Deberry has expanded the use of restorative justice, a practice that voluntarily brings the victim and the accused together to promote healing. 

Her office has also expanded referrals to a cognitive behavioral intervention program. This course, which helps people who may have committed crimes improve decision-making, used to be available only after conviction, but now people can be referred before trial. 

“Our goal is not just to punish crime, it is to reduce crime. We want people to not come back to the system,” Deberry said.

Deberry’s office also helped wipe $1.5 million in traffic debt that had barred thousands of people from reinstating their driver’s licenses.

At top: Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn speaks at a town hall event for the District Attorney’s office on Thursday, Jan. 30. Photo by Corey Pilson

CORRECTION: This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated where Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered. 

Analysis: Five lessons Durham can learn from other cities’ scooter mishaps

I was sitting a few rows away from Durham City Council member Charlie Reece when he recounted his trip to Raleigh to try out the Triangle’s newest transportation fad: It’s not light rail (sorry, Steve), but electric scooters.

He said the experience was “very instructive on both the promise and the peril of these devices,” and then urged the Council to postpone the vote on Durham’s scooter ordinance.

After covering scooters in Charlotte last summer, I couldn’t believe that Durham was joining the many cities stumped by the challenge of regulating scooters.

Companies such as Bird are releasing rental scooters in cities across the United States. Yet, it’s as if each city has to reinvent the wheel by passing its own scooter rules.

And the clock is ticking. Scooter companies have been known to deploy their fleets quickly before cities can enact regulations.

In Charlotte last spring, Lime was ordered to remove its scooters after their release. When Bird descended on Raleigh earlier this summer, lawmakers chose to let them operate while they scrambled to establish rules.

To avoid this Hitchcockian nightmare, Durham must now decide how to best navigate this seemingly lawless landscape. Based on my time writing about and occasionally riding Charlotte’s scooters, I have some suggestions for the city and Durham residents who are likely to see scooters on their streets and sidewalks very soon:

1. Are scooters street legal? 

Durham residents gave high marks to the first year of the dockless bike share program. But if there’s any indication that regulating bikes and scooters is getting hairier, it’s the name of the proposed ordinance: Shared Active Transportation.

The euphemism speaks to the complexity of regulating very different types of vehicles.

There’s also debate over whether or not scooters are a good fit for the city’s roads – and how they should be classified.

Under North Carolina law, electric scooters may be considered mopeds, which triggers certain requirements: The scooters must have lights, license plates, and rearview mirrors. Bird and Lime scooters have lights, but not license plates or rearview mirrors.

This makes it seem like either state law needs to change or the scooters need an upgrade.

Some believe the moped designation doesn’t apply to scooters. Shea Denning, professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in a blog post that she doesn’t think the legislature or the Department of Transportation had stand-up scooters in mind when they created definitions for different types of vehicles, including mopeds.

In a statement, the Department of Transportation said, “It is unclear how state laws apply to electric scooters.” The statement also directs people to follow traffic laws and be aware of local ordinances.

Durham’s interpretation is that scooters fall into the moped category, according to Bryan Poole, a transportation planner with the city. So companies will need to show that they meet all of the moped requirements in the state law in order to receive a permit.

“Alternatively, the state law needs to change and/or the DMV needs to issue some type of interim guidance on how to classify electric scooters,” Poole said in an email.

2. Wear a helmet.

Whether they’re fleeing freezing office buildings or dressed up for a night on the town (which, in Charlotte, means brewery hopping), adults riding scooters is a common, though somewhat cringeworthy, sight.

But these two-wheelers aren’t like your beloved childhood Razor scooter; they accelerate quickly, topping out at 15 mph. And while it’s recommended that users wear helmets, few actually do.

Bird will mail a helmet to riders if people request one, but that doesn’t help you if your dinner reservation is in 20 minutes.

Durham’s proposed scooter ordinance does include specific direction on helmets: “Persons operating motorized scooters must be at least 16 years old and wear a helmet.”

If the ordinance passes, then it will be up to law enforcement to hold people accountable for wearing helmets.

California cities from Beverly Hills to San Diego have cracked down on scooter safety. Now, helmetless riders run the risk of getting a ticket and paying hundreds of dollars.

Instead, Durham could partner with local businesses to set out bins with helmets that riders can borrow. People who use and return the helmet could get a discount on their ride. (The idea is to improve safety without increasing ticketing, which often creates a financial burden for low-income members of the community who are intended to benefit from these transportation programs.)

3. Plan for parking.

The influx of dockless bikes turned Durham’s sidewalks into a jungle of discarded Lime and Spin bikes. Scooters may initially bring a similar surge, with people leaving them pretty much everywhere.

Luckily, as more people use the vehicles, they tend to disperse into neighborhoods, freeing up downtown. And Poole said he thinks people will adapt.

“We don’t think about all the cars parked in our downtown, but when we saw 100 bikes, it was all of a sudden a travesty,” Poole said.

However, there’s no question that if vehicles are discarded irresponsibly, they can create serious hazards, especially for people with disabilities.

With scooters coming, too, Durham is considering innovative ways to minimize parking problems. For instance, Poole proposed converting parking spaces for cars into areas designated for shared dockless bikes and scooters.

This could be a great solution. It’s also important to remember that scooters are charged overnight and then neatly parked the next morning, so they shouldn’t pile up.

4. Durham, don’t settle for less.

The scooter ordinance would hike fees for bike and scooter sharing to $100 per scooter, $50 per electric assist bike, and $25 per non-motorized bike.

Last year, the city only charged $10 per bike.

A Bird representative who spoke before the City Council complained that the fee is “one of the higher ones of all the cities we operate in.”

But, let’s face it, dockless bikes and scooters pose plenty of logistical challenges, and Durham should charge a fair price for the additional services it will need to provide. From city officials and police to attorneys and neighborhood improvement services, the bikes and scooters siphon time and resources away from other projects.

The revenue will help pay for administration as well as infrastructure for bikes and scooters, according to Poole.

The ordinance also streamlines data collection for the city. Last year, Durham had trouble obtaining data it requested from bike companies, making it difficult to enforce the requirement that 20 percent of bikes to be in certain census tracts at all times.

When Uber and Lyft debuted across the country, local governments were complacent about regulating the companies. One of the major consequences was that cities didn’t have access to data to help inform decisions about traffic and transportation infrastructure.

This data will help ensure that Durham isn’t in the dark, giving the city the tools to enforce equitable access to bikes and scooters.

5. Looking for a new side hustle?

Last summer, I wrote about people who make money from scooters while they sleep. They pick up scooters at the end of the day, charge them overnight, and return them the next morning.

And they make bank. Some earn $200 a night, for only a few hours of work.

The pay is good if you are able to charge many scooters a night, but as more people sign up to be chargers, the two-wheelers get harder to find.

(Photo by Elizabeth Rennie)

This story has been updated with new information based on a more recent version of the Shared Active Transportation ordinance that will be reviewed at the Durham City’s Council’s work session on October 4.