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How a Durham artist tracked the city’s public safety budget for a decade

Andrea Cobb, a nationally known artist based in Durham, collected and filed away the annual property tax notices she received in the mail for more than a decade. She carefully examined each, paying particular attention to the chart at the bottom of the page explaining how the city spent its general fund — taxpayer money that covers core city services.

“I wanted to know where my taxes are going,” said Cobb, a 55-year-old Durham native whose art clients include Burt’s Bees, INDY Week, Whole Foods and Kleenex.

Self-portrait by Andrea Cobb. Courtesy of the artist.

She saw a glaring trend in the numbers: In 2009, 35% of the general fund spending went to public safety, which includes the city’s police department, fire department, 911 call services and emergency management. 

That public safety spending rose steadily over the years, reaching a high of about 52% in the 2017- 2018 fiscal year.

Durham’s final city budgets over the same period show that about 60% of public safety money went to the police department each year.

In 2019, property taxes in Durham paid for half of the general fund’s budget. About 50% of the general fund was allotted to public safety at large, and $65 million of that went to the police department — about 61% of the total public safety budget last year.

Cobb said the realization that a decent chunk of her taxes were going to police, rather than public services like education and social services, concerned her.

“It’s a lot of money,” Cobb said. “And, you know, it’s abusive what police departments are doing, and there’s people in our city that have been killed by police.”

Over the years, Cobb has repeatedly asked city officials publicly and privately about the way the city spends property taxes. She’s still grappling with one question: Why is such a large proportion of taxpayer money going to public safety? 

City manager Tom Bonfield told 9th Street Journal that there are several reasons for the increase, including annual raises for police officers and firefighters. “That’s something like a million dollars a year for both the fire department and the police department,” he said. 

There are also specific expenses that account for changes over the years, he said. In 2009, the city scaled back the number of police officers covered in the general fund budget for several years and then added them back in later, which led to increases in the public safety budget. In 2017, the city built a fire station and hired 60 firefighters.

“To take a 2009 number and a 2020 number and then try to run the math without going in and looking at every year, it is a significant oversimplification,” he said. 

Cobb’s concern about the police budget is one that has been discussed in Durham for years. And this year, it’s top of mind for many residents and officials amid protests against police brutality and the City Council’s recent decision to increase the police budget by 5%.

Gathering the data

Cobb has been a resident of Old West Durham since 1994, and said that illegal activity took place in the duplex she called home for years. One incident involved her neighbor; she called the police due to her suspicions about drug dealing. But she said not much changed after that.

“I got to a point where I’m paying the police to keep me safe, and I don’t feel safe,” she said.

So she started saving her tax notices.

Durham General Fund 2019 expenditures, seen at the bottom of Cobb’s tax notices. Photo courtesy Andrea Cobb

In 2011, she reached out via email to Steve Schewel during his City Council campaign to ask about the budget. According to their email correspondence, he told her to contact him again if he won. 

So Cobb emailed again the next year about the suspected drug dealer, writing that she was “a bit peeved with the police asking me to keep helping them given 45% of property tax is paying them to keep [the] district safe,” according to an email she shared with 9th Street Journal. 

In 2014, her questions came up in a more public way when the city held a virtual town hall to discuss increasing city property tax rates to pay for voter-approved debt and public safety spending. 

Interested residents were asked to submit their questions for the town hall via email or twitter, so Cobb sent an inquiry to former assistant director of Budget and Management Services, John Allore, asking why there was a need for an increase when “so much of taxpayer funds were going to public safety.”

Former mayor Bill Bell told attendees that public safety is a combination of many departments. “I constantly remind others that it’s not just a law enforcement piece alone,” he said, adding that the police budget included enough funding to pay the number of officers the department requested.

Don Moffitt, a City Council member at the time, said the city could always do more to keep the public safer and encourage the police to engage with the community more. “Are we doing enough? That’s what you’re asking, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ We try to hit the balance.”

Graphic by Cameron Oglesby.

(For more information on the city expenditures above, click here for an interactive graphic.)

Cobb said that she gave up on contacting city officials after that, since no one followed up with her about her data. “I just got really discouraged by the responses,” she said. “After a few years of persistent effort, I became disenchanted being a lone seeker.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson was not on the council at the time Cobb brought up her grievances. She told 9th Street Journal that the annual police budget increases this year were largely due to an increase in retirement benefits and an increase in health insurance — things she said the council doesn’t have “much control over.” 

“Even if we never hire another police officer in the city of Durham the cost of employing the police officers that we already have will drive the budget up every year,” she said. 

Bonfield also said that most social services are covered through Durham County’s budget, and can’t simply be switched from public safety to other areas. 

“To say, ‘I don’t want to pay for the police, I just want that money to go to education,’ [is] a  misnomer because that’s not the structure of the way the state of North Carolina is around public services,” Bonfield said. 

Hope for her hometown

While Cobb has continued to save her tax statements, she isn’t as vocal about it as she used to be. She tries to keep the conversation going with her friends and family. She’s also created more artwork centered around guns, drug use and systemic racism, and said she is open to working with the city should they desire art focusing on these concepts for awareness. 

Cobb said it’s “too much” to go out and join protests against police violence at her age, but she supports the effort to pressure cities to defund city police departments. 

The work to evaluate police budgets and responsibilities, which has been a years-long conversation among city officials, is progressing in Durham. The City Council recently launched and funded the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to figure out how to redistribute police services and funding.

Painting by Andrea Cobb

City officials will look at their recommendations and determine whether they are financially and operationally feasible. Bonfield said that from a budgetary perspective, conversations about police defunding will not end with the task force recommendation. 

“There was an acknowledgment that this wasn’t going to happen overnight and this was an aspiration, not a guarantee,” he said.

Cobb is hopeful that in sharing her tax statements and the observations she’s made, she can help advocate for more clarity from city officials during this time of social unrest, and move towards redistributing police funding.

“My place in Durham’s community is tiny, although I have contributed a lot of artwork for businesses here,” she said. “If I continue to live in Durham, I want to cultivate a bigger purpose.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Pavement protest murals: Will they stay or will they go?

Chances are you’ve spotted them on social media streams: super-sized words painted on pavement outside two government buildings in downtown Durham.

“DEFUND” yells one in large yellow letters in front of the police department headquarters. “FUND” demands the other, outside the Durham County Human Services Complex a block away.

People pushing for massive change in local policing created them in protest last month, days after the City Council approved the city’s $502.6 million 2020-2021 budget. Tucked inside was $70.3 million for the police department, a 5% spending increase from last year’s budget.

What’s not known is how long the street murals will remain. City officials with the Cultural and Public Art Program and the transportation department remain undecided about keeping the pavement art, city spokesperson Amy Blalock told 9th Street Journal.

Talking back

On June 19, scores of people answered a call from local activists to join a “community art action” and rally coinciding with Juneteenth. That’s the holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when the last group of enslaved people in the Confederate states learned the Civil War was over and they were free.

The action occurred during week three of national demonstrations against racism and police violence after George Floyd’s death on a Minneapolis street. An officer, since charged with murder, kept pressing a knee into Floyd’s neck after the handcuffed man repeatedly said he could not breathe.

Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of activist groups planned the pavement-art protest. The group was formed in 2016 to oppose the construction of the new Durham Police Department Headquarters, which cost $71 million.

“Juneteenth means abolition,” organizers wrote on the Durham Beyond Policing page on Facebook, referencing police abolition, a movement seeking to replace police and prisons with other approaches to community safety.

The coalition had organized a mass email campaign urging City Council members to redirect police funding to education, health care, and alternative community safety programs. After all City Council members voted to pass the city’s proposed 2020-2021 budget at their June 15 meeting, supporters of the coalition were disappointed. 

The lettering of the protest mural isn’t easy to read up close. This portion was painted outside police headquarters on East Main Street, near shelters protesters set up. Photo by Henry Haggart

“The unanimous vote really hit our collective and community very hard,” said Kyla Hartsfield, an organizer with Durham Beyond Policing. “We tried through comments, emails – and here’s another way to push the message of defunding the police,” she said.

During the event, participants went to work with paint rollers, spelling out big yellow letters and an arrow pointing at the police headquarters on East Main Street.

As police officers and volunteers diverted traffic, protesters marched one block down the street to paint again, this time with an arrow pointing to a building hosting county services such as public health, social services, and veteran services.

A local, national trend

The Durham street murals are part of a growing number of anti-racist street murals sprouting up in cities across the nation.

In past weeks, local governments and businesses have signaled support for police reform by commissioning painting of the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” slogan. The artworks can stretch across multiple city blocks.

Not everyone pushing for changes to community safety likes the trend of murals paid for by elected leaders. Some activists say city officials painting streets distracts from protesters’ demands for systemic change.

“Cities are co-opting language we’re using but not actually making change or making Black folks safer,” said Hartsfield, from Durham Beyond Policing. 

The Durham street art was created by protesters who did not seek the city’s approval to make it. It highlights a central question: whether communities should fund police and prison reforms or give more money to programs that help people rather than punish them.

Organizers have circulated a striking top-down view of the two murals, produced by a camera mounted to a participant’s drone. Though the words are difficult to make out at street level, the paint remains bright and visible from above.

Marcella Camara, a Durham-based artist who helped organizers plan the pavement art, said using artistic expression as an anti-racist protest was keeping with the spirit of Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth is a day of mourning, but it’s also a celebratory day for Black people to get together,” she said, noting that the rally also featured music, free food, and dancing.

Camara said she saw the art project as an opportunity for community members to come out and learn about the concept of police abolition and Durham Beyond Policing’s proposals.

“This may be their first time engaging with the sociopolitical issues of our time,” she said. “Art makes that more accessible.”

9th Street Journal reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at charlie.zong@duke.edu

At top: While hard to read from the street, the meaning of the protest street art is crystal clear from above. Photo used with permission

Fire at Stagville plantation was set

Last week’s early-morning fire at Historic Stagville state historic site was set, according to a fire department chief who was among the first on the scene. 

The site is located on part of what once was North Carolina’s largest pre-Civil War plantation, which covered more than 30,000 acres in northern Durham County. Approximately 900 enslaved people once lived there. 

Four exterior portions of the 18th century Bennehan family home were on fire when Chief Allen Needham and other members of the Bahama Volunteer Fire Department pulled up at about 6:45 am, Needham said. 

Because the building is so old, the wooden materials burned easily, like “a lighter box,” said Needham.

Fire, smoke and water used to extinguish flames on a front corner of the building damaged furnishings inside, including a rug, table, chairs and portraits hanging on the walls, Needham said. Fire on the back of the building damaged a porch and doors but firefighters put it out before the interior there was harmed, the fire chief said.

The Lebanon and Redwood volunteer fire departments also rushed to the scene, Needham said. Fires in two other spots on the building were small and easily extinguished, he said. 

The fact that fire was detected at multiple sites on the building indicated that someone set the fire, Needham said. “It was definitely some human hands involved,” Needham said. “It was definitely a set fire.” 

Needham said he found “other stuff” that indicated it was a case of arson, but was not authorized to disclose what that is. 

Programming at Stagville for years has focused on teaching visitors about the lives and work of enslaved people confined there by the Bennehan and Cameron families. In addition to a Bennehan family house, the site includes four buildings where enslaved people lived and a large barn

Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office and the county Fire Marshal’s Office are looking for leads on who set the fires. Anyone with information can contact the Sheriff’s Office criminal investigation division at 919-560-7151 or Durham Crimestoppers, which welcomes anonymous calls, at 919-683-1200.

If a tip leads to an arrest, a caller could be eligible for a cash reward.

At top: Fire damage is visible on the front of the Bennehan family home at Historic Stagville state historic site. Source: Durham County Sheriff’s Office.  

Six Durham County jail staff test positive for COVID-19

Six Durham County Sheriff’s Office employees assigned to the county jail have tested positive for COVID-19. 

No inmates have tested positive, according to a press release from Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. It’s not clear how many of the 262 inmates detained as of Wednesday have been tested for coronavirus.

Citing privacy concerns, the sheriff’s office did not identify where the six employees work at the Durham County Detention Center or the extent to which they interact with inmates or attorneys.

That didn’t sit well with Durham defense attorney Daniel Meier. Nor did the fact that the sheriff’s department did not notify local lawyers directly that some detention center staff have tested positive for coronavirus, he said.

That leaves lawyers with no idea whether they interacted with the six employees when checking in to speak with clients via video kiosks in the lobby of the detention facility, Meier said.

“Our frustration is they’re not even telling us what parts of the jail they worked in,” Meier said.

State officials report that 652 individuals have tested positive for coronavirus at state and federal prisons and in county jails in North Carolina. Among them, five have died.

The press release regarding the positive tests was released in conjunction with the Durham County Public Health Department, said David Bowser, the department’s communications and public relations manager. A state Department of Health and Human Services tally Wednesday says COVID-19 has been detected in correctional facilities in 12 counties, including Durham.

The sheriff’s department is working to prevent new inmates from bringing coronavirus to the detention center, Bowser said. When entering the facility, he said, new detainees are screened by a health provider. Those tested for coronavirus are held in one-person cells until test results are received.

The six employees who have tested positive are complying with coronavirus protocol, meaning they are under quarantine or being treated at a medical facility, Bowser said.

Only sheriff’s deputies assigned to the detention center work there now, Bowser said. All entering have their temperatures checked and must answer screening questions regarding COVID-19 symptoms.

Sheriff Birkhead’s office has been implementing additional procedures to protect inmates from coronavirus since mid-March.

“We really feel that we’re really adequately staffed over there to handle any situation,” Bowser said.

At top: The Durham County Detention Center is located downtown. Photo by Ildar Sagdejev, via Wikimedia

With domestic violence uptick during pandemic, Durham shelter adjusts services

Stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic present a dangerous reality for victims of domestic violence: a government mandate to remain at home, in an isolated space, with their abuser. 

Across the country, there has been an uptick in domestic violence cases, and Durham is no different. According to Beth Moracco, a researcher at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, there have been more domestic violence calls in recent weeks and the violence reported is more severe than usual.

Stephanie Satkowiak, a domestic violence specialist in the North Carolina Judicial Branch, echoed this. 

“What I am seeing, which is horribly alarming, is the uptick in the number of domestic violence homicides or attempted homicides,” she said in an email. 

Satkowiak pointed to an example in Johnston County. The last domestic violence-related homicide there was in 2012, but in the past month, there have been two incidents: a homicide and a standoff with the police

Domestic violence victims are exempted from both Durham’s stay-at-home order and the statewide stay-at-home order. The Durham order has been in place for nearly a month, and Mayor Steve Schewel has encouraged people experiencing domestic violence to seek resources and shelter. It’s one of several steps the local government and non-profit groups are taking to protect a highly vulnerable group of people at a time when many in-person services are on hold. 

“Under the stay at home order we are all feeling increasingly isolated, and survivors are often isolated to begin with,” Moracco said. She added that the most important thing to help people is “being able to break that isolation and let survivors know that resources are still available and support is still available.” 

Moracco said she has been impressed with the online resources available to support victims. One benefit of the Durham County court system is the ability to file a domestic violence protective order online, a program that has been in place since 2017. Protective orders require perpetrators to stay away from victims or risk being arrested by law enforcement. 

Satkowiak said that across the state, agencies in 14 counties that allow online filings have reported fewer domestic violence protective orders in recent weeks.

“These stay at home orders … restrict movement for victims of violence and prevent them from being able to seek assistance,” she said. “It’s too complicated at some point for them to reach out for help. So that is alarming.”

The orders are still being processed at the Durham County Courthouse, according to a press release from the Crisis Response Center, Durham County District Attorney’s Office and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office on March 26. 

“We are still here, we are still prosecuting cases and we will be there to help you during this time,” said District Attorney Santana Deberry in a video statement. 

How Durham’s shelter is responding

 The Durham Crisis Response Center is the only domestic violence shelter in the city. Its emergency shelter, which has 17 beds, remains open. 

Executive Director Kent Wallace-Meggs said residents and employees are following social distancing protocols. The center also has a temporary agreement with some hotels in Durham for people to stay, though funds to support the program are limited, Wallace-Meggs said.

The center has moved quickly to offer support online and via phone. Employees and volunteers are running the 24-help hotline remotely from their homes. In 2019, the hotline received 5,970 calls. Wallace-Meggs did not provide the number of calls so far this year or during the pandemic. 

The Durham Crisis Response Center has moved some of its services remote or online during the pandemic. Photo by Corey Pilson

Counseling sessions are being held remotely and the center is not taking walk-ins for other services like legal advocacy, assistance with filing or support groups until further notice. 

Wallace-Meggs said that those experiencing domestic violence are particularly vulnerable because the pandemic presents an opportunity for their perpetrator to manipulate their situation. 

“Abuse is all about control,” he said. “During this outbreak, the abuser can use it as a form of control, keeping hand sanitizer away from the person and sharing information with them and filtering the information that they are receiving.” 

Moracco said she is especially concerned about more vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities or undocumented individuals. 

She said any changes in circumstance during the pandemic have implications for domestic violence survivors. 

Satkowiak shares similar concerns. “Mix in unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues, stress, depression, anxiety, and you have the perfect toxic cocktail for violence,” she said. 

One safety tactic to help people who may be under strict surveillance by an abuser is to develop a signal to friends or neighbors that indicates they need help. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines different forms of home safety planning, like a code word with children to instruct them to call for help. Wallace-Meggs said the volunteers on the Durham Crisis Response Center hotline can help callers develop individual home safety plans. 

If an individual at a hospital is identified as a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence, the center typically sends an advocate to the hospital to meet with the individual. Wallace-Meggs is working with hospitals to offer this service over the phone or through an online video chat. 

Online services offer more opportunities for outreach, as well. Through online counselling, support groups and other resources, Moracco has seen an increase in accessibility for people who have restricted access to transportation or live far from service providers.

She said  the pandemic highlights the need for long-term planning for domestic violence survivors during future pandemics or natural disasters. 

Despite the many challenges, Moracco said she has been inspired by the resources made available in Durham and quick plans to adapt services. “What’s been really encouraging to see,” she said, “is how quickly and how well communities have responded to the changing situation.”

 If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the Durham Crisis Center’s 24-hour helpline at 919-403-6562 (for Spanish: 919-519-3735). For more North Carolina resources, visit the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence website

The National Domestic Violence 24-hour hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Their website also offers a 24-hour online chat.

Top photo: The Durham Crisis Response Center, which supports those experiencing domestic violence. Photo by Corey Pilson

What you need to know about the city council’s 4-hour meeting on coronavirus

During a four-hour virtual Durham City Council meeting on Monday, Mayor Steve Schewel announced that the city is flattening the growth curve of COVID-19: The daily rate of case increases has fallen from 12% to 8%, he said. 

Representatives from different sectors of the city discussed changes they have implemented to continue flattening that curve.

Social distancing, sanitation and support 

Multiple city officials said they have taken significant steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus while still supporting employees and residents. 

According to Durham City Manager Bo Ferguson, the city has adjusted day-to-day activities to ensure unnecessary services are suspended and employee contact remains at a minimum.

Key services still in operation include water and sewer management, litter clean-up in high use public facilities, emergency street and concrete repair and garbage and recycling pickup. Custodial services are still in place in facilities where employees are working; employees are using enhanced cleaning protocols.

Ferguson recognized the 250 city employees who are not permitted to work even though they need to.

“Some of our heroes are the ones who are sitting at home and helping us not to spread this,” he said.

Many of those who do need to work rely on public transportation. 

GoDurham buses and GoDurham ACCESS have waived fares during the pandemic, according to transportation department director Sean Egan. He said the department’s workforce is receiving a 5% pay increase.

The city reduced the frequency of routes and buses stop running at 9:30 p.m. In order to reduce contact between passengers and drivers, passengers may only board using rear doors. Egan said his team has implemented more rigorous sanitation practices, including pressure washing stations and wiping vehicle interiors down with Lysol.

Drivers are not currently required to wear masks during their shifts, but some city officials expressed interest in seeing them do so. 

“I would like to see our bus drivers wearing masks,” Schewel told Egan. Referencing the CDC’s recent recommendation for people to wear cloth masks in public settings, he added, “I think that is great guidance and I just worry about them so much.” 

During the meeting, some speakers recognized the importance of protecting the city’s low-income and homeless people. 

Durham’s Office of Emergency Services, which coordinates disaster response, has created an interagency task force to work with Durham Public Schools, which is currently providing meals to 5,500 children each day.

Colin Davis, the manager for homeless systems for the City of Durham Community Development Department, said that to prevent the virus from spreading in Durham’s homeless shelters, the department is setting up an agreement with local hotels where the medically vulnerable can stay. 

Davis did not shy away from the harsh reality of the homeless community’s vulnerability. “There will be probably people who will remain unsheltered during this process,” he said.

How police are enforcing stay-at-home orders

The Durham Police Department has changed its protocols to protect officers and the public, said police chief Cerelyn Davis. Many calls about minor crimes are handled by phone rather than in person, and inquiries about COVID-19 are redirected to Durham One Call, the city’s information hotline, to avoid 911 interruption.

When speaking to residents in public — especially while monitoring social distancing — officers are supposed to use distinct verbal commands from 15 feet away and use the PA speaker system in police cars.

Davis said the police department has responded to multiple calls about residents failing to practice proper social distancing, but none have resulted in a formal citation. 

Economic impacts of the coronavirus

Small businesses across the city are struggling during the pandemic. 

Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said the department is working with members of Durham’s Small Business Advisory Committee to provide small business owners and employees with as much information as possible about their financial options, including unemployment insurance and Small Business Association (SBA) programs. Pettigrew and his team are disseminating information and advice through webinars and a website portal

He said one of his biggest challenges is helping small business owners and independent contractors who do not have the required information to submit their application to the SBA for relief services.  

Even those who do qualify will have difficulty reaping the benefits because of bottlenecks in the system. On April 3, its first day of operation, the SBA payroll program received applications requesting between $3 and $5 billion.

City officials are currently in talks with other large cities to project the impact COVID-19 will have on the economy. Durham’s Budget and Management Services department director Bertha Johnson said there is a projected 10% loss from sales tax alone — a significant blow to the city given that sales tax generates $71 million a year.

According to Johnson, budget development guidelines will be revised to address complications caused by the pandemic, and the city manager is scheduled to present his budget for the next financial quarter on May 18. 

City council changes 

Amid the coronavirus news, council member Vernetta Alston announced her resignation and plan to join the state’s General Assembly, effective April 9. 

The council debated how to fill Alston’s seat. Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said that instead of filling the seat in the next 30 days, it should be on the ballot this fall.

Middleton argued that the proposed time frame would be unfair to residents who, under different circumstances, would apply for the position, but are unable to due the pandemic. 

“I don’t think we should create a higher bar than already exists to sit on this council for folks who may not have computer access, who would have filled out an application but are worried about unemployment right now, or are worried about bills,” he said.  

However, other members of the council disagreed, citing concerns about leaving the seat open for an extended period of time. The motion to appoint a new member in 30 days passed 5-2. The application and questionnaire will go live online on April 13.    

Top photo: Screenshot from the Durham City Council meeting on April 6.

Where you can and cannot go while stay-at-home order is in effect

Now that most everyone in Durham is two weeks into staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a question emerges: If you need something besides groceries and gas, what’s still open?

There has been some confusion about stay-at-home orders. One Reddit user, under the name fireberri, asked, “Sorry if this is a dumb question. With this new order, does this affect all of Durham county, or just the jurisdiction of the City of Durham?”  

The first order, which was citywide, went into effect March 26. The second was Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide order; it started on March 30. The third was the countywide order, announced last week by Durham County Board of Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs. It went into effect March 29. 

In an effort to quell confusion and prevent the coronavirus from spreading, Schewel and Jacobs announced Friday afternoon that they combined and amended their orders into a stricter one. It goes into effect Saturday at 5 p.m.  

The orders outline rules for what businesses are deemed “essential” and allowed to stay open to the public, what type of travel is permitted and reasons residents can leave their homes. It also states that the Durham Police Department and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office will enforce these rules.

Here is what you need to know about “essential” businesses in Durham County. Before you go, look online or call ahead — though many of these types of places are allowed to remain open, some have changed hours or closed temporarily. 

Food

No restaurants are open for dine-in service, but you can still get takeout or drive-thru. Some are offering delivery, either through their own employees or through services like UberEats, Postmates and Doordash. Coffee shops are closed, but many are offering limited walk-up menus and encouraging customers to order bags of coffee online. 

Grocery stores, food banks and ABC Liquor stores remain open. Farmers markets can only do pickup and delivery. 

Businesses allowed to stay open must comply with social distancing precautions. For instance, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods only allow a certain number of customers in their stores at a time, and enforce social distancing when customers are waiting to check out. The chain grocery stores have reserved hours for seniors and other high-risk shoppers. 

Healthcare

Almost all medical facilities are open, including pharmacies, hospitals, dental and eye care clinics, urgent care facilities and physical therapy practices. However, the county is requiring them to offer as many of their services online as possible.   

Pet food suppliers and veterinary offices are open. Some vet offices are not letting owners in, instead providing curbside drop-off and pickup of animals. 

Transportation

In order to allow residents to get to where they need to be, businesses needed for transportation — gas stations, car dealers, bike shops, and auto repair shops — are still open. Construction can still continue, as well, which is why you might see road work happening.  

Parks and Gyms

Though all gyms, yoga studios, and other workout facilities are closed, you can still get out of the house for exercise. Anyone can walk, bike, hike, or jog through local public parks and trails, including Durham Central Park and Duke Forest. Due to excessive crowds, Eno River State Park, as well as some other state parks, are temporarily closed. Dog parks in Durham are off-limits. All sports with shared equipment are banned, including tennis.

For at-home workouts, check with your local gyms and studios; many are doing online video classes during the pandemic.   

Other stores and services 

All stores that remain are required to have social distancing and sanitation practices. Spas, nail and hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors are all closed. Laundromats, dry cleaners and laundry services are open. You can still buy home supplies at convenience, warehouse, hardware, and supply stores. As of Friday, businesses providing services in a residential setting must require employees to wear masks covering their mouth and nose. 

Entertainment

When it comes to entertainment, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and board games may be your best bet: Malls, movie theaters, bookstores, libraries and amusement parks are closed.

Banks and post offices

You can still send and receive parcels since the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS and the like are operating. You can still visit banks and other financial institutions, but health officials recommend avoiding going if you can get access services online.

The countywide order is expected to remain in place until April 30. In the meantime you can support local businesses forced to shut down by purchasing gift cards to use when they reopen, buying merchandise online or donating to relief funds. Here’s one: the North Carolina Hospitality Workforce Relief Fund

Photos from City of Durham

Pregnant woman, fiancé forced out of apartment just before evictions freeze

Three hours before a court order froze evictions across North Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Durham couple was forced into homelessness. 

On March 19, the couple — Abriel Harris, who said she is three months pregnant, and her fiancé DeAngelo Reddick — were ordered to leave their place at Foxfire Apartments. The eviction occurred just before North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley extended deadlines for legal filings and gave North Carolina sheriffs the ability to stop serving evictions. 

“There’s a lot of feelings, having to deal with the stress of being high risk of catching the virus and of having to deal with the stress of being put out of my apartment,” Harris told the 9th Street Journal. 

According to the CDC, pregnant people are at an increased risk of COVID-19 complications. Homeless people are also at high risk because they don’t have quick access to healthcare or hygiene and sanitation facilities. 

Harris said the couple lived out of a car for several days before moving in with family. “When you’re living in your car and have to go to the gas station to wash, you can’t get a good scrub,” she said. “I’m worried about germs, about trying to keep myself clean… it’s hard to close your eyes and go to sleep when you don’t know if you’re safe.” 

Sarah D’Amato, a Legal Aid attorney who is handling Reddick and Harris’s case, told the 9th Street Journal she was surprised Foxfire went forward with the eviction.

“The landlord is the one who gives the last thumbs up or down,” D’Amato said. “They had the ultimate power to say, ‘You know what, we’ll work it out, we’ll deal with it later.’” 

Foxfire Apartments, which is run by a company that claims to manage over 30,000 apartments in the Southeast, declined to comment on the eviction. The complex’s website states they are taking precautions regarding the spread of the coronavirus, including closing their office. 

“Our highest priority continues to be the health and well-being of everyone who visits or is a part of our community,” reads a message on Foxfire’s homepage.

Struggling to make rent

The couple missed their January rent payment while they were in and out of work, according to Harris. When their landlord brought them to small claims court for an eviction hearing, they lost. After appealing, a new court date was set for late March. 

D’Amato said the couple paid their rent bond in February. When the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. canceled new work opportunities, they couldn’t pay their next rent bond due March 5, Harris said. Foxfire filed for a writ of eviction a few days later, and the sheriff sent the couple a notice that they would be evicted on March 17. 

Then, Reddick, who D’Amato said is a marine reservist, got a job at Amazon. With new income, the couple thought they’d be able to pay the rent they owed and negotiate with Foxfire to stay. But the company wanted several months worth of rent, including rent they hadn’t paid: a total of $3,000, according to Harris. The couple told Foxfire they could pay by mid-April, Harris said, but couldn’t make it work in only a few days. Foxfire moved forward with the eviction. 

“We tried to come to them to make a payment,” Harris said. “I felt like they weren’t being very considerate of what was going on.” 

The sheriff’s office postponed for two days while trying to determine if they were still legally required to conduct evictions after a March 13 order from Chief Justice Beasley halted nonessential court proceedings, Durham County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer AnnMarie Breen told 9th Street Journal. 

Once the office received clarification that it was still required to evict, they rescheduled for March 19, said Breen. The couple was evicted at 9:30 a.m. By 12:30, Beasley announced an order giving sheriffs across the state power to stop serving evictions. 

D’Amato said she understood why the sheriff’s department felt legally obligated to carry out the eviction since Foxfire decided to go through with it. 

What she didn’t understand was why the sheriff claimed two business days later that no recent evictions resulted in homelessness when her clients had to live in their car. In a statement about pausing evictions, Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said that he takes “the safety and wellbeing of every resident of Durham County very seriously.”

“No one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders,” the statement said.

Harris said the sheriff’s office never reached out to her or Reddick to see if they were evicted into a homeless situation. D’Amato said she wasn’t contacted, either. 

“At no time did Mr. Reddick [whose name was in the lease] indicate that he did not have any place to live,” Breen said, adding that Reddick told the deputy “he said he had just gotten a new job,” and that “he was reported to be pleasant and cooperative.”

An uncertain future

While evictions have temporarily come to a halt in Durham, delayed eviction hearings are being rescheduled and the city is still receiving eviction filings. Attorneys say the backlog may lead to a “tsunami of evictions” when courts reopen. Legal Aid NC is continuing to work with Durhamites facing eviction. 

D’Amato is trying to work with Foxfire and the courts to get her clients into their apartment. Harris said the company told them if they paid the past due rent along with some future rent — now a total of $4,000, she claims — by March 31, they could move back in. 

“That’s not grace,” Harris said of the company’s offer. “That’s highway robbery,” 

For now, the couple is living with Harris’s family. Harris said she’s grateful to have somewhere to stay, but would feel safer and better able to manage her pregnancy if she had her own place. She’s looking for a new spot, but it’s hard to find one.

“We went to different apartment complexes, but most of them are closed,” Harris said. 

That exact problem is one of the reasons D’Amato questions why Foxfire evicted Reddick and Harris. 

“What’s the urgency in clearing out an apartment which will likely sit empty until the time my clients are able to come up with all their past due money?” she said. “I don’t understand that.”

Top photo: A screenshot from Foxfire apartment complex’s website.

Durham sheriff and state police use fake website to disrupt sex trafficking

Durham sheriff investigators want people to think twice before using the internet to buy sex at local hotels or anywhere else. 

To disrupt that trade, they set a trap early this month. Undercover investigators posed as local sex vendors online, posting fake ads on websites to draw buyers in. 

After men fell for the scheme, investigators arranged to meet each of them in a Durham hotel, where 18 men were arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution on Feb. 7.

That was a record number of such arrests in one day in Durham and one of many online operations intended to deter human trafficking and prostitution statewide.

Many groups are spreading word that many women in the sex trade are coerced into this work and need help. Source: UniteWomen.org

“We’re using all the resources that we can to look into these issues and figure out a way to stop them or slow them down,” said Capt. Jimmy Butler of the Durham County Sheriff Office’s criminal investigations division. 

After responding to online advertisements posted by undercover agents, suspects made arrangements to meet in a room at hotel investigators declined to name. The men expected to pay for sex but undercover investigators arrested them instead, said AnnMarie Breen, the sheriff’s public information officer. 

The ages of the men ranged from 21 to 64 years old. One third were from Durham, with the rest from elsewhere in the Triangle or beyond. Suspects were given a court date and released. 

Butler said there are no concerns of entrapment in these operations because investigators do not recruit people to do something they would not have done on their own. Instead, undercover officers wait for people to reach out.

The partly virtual raid was coordinated between the local sheriff’s office and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking unit. This was the first investigation of its kind for the Durham sheriff’s office.

Such operations against sex trafficking can take two approaches: demand reduction, such as the Durham action, and outreach to people trafficked into prostitution, said Carl Wall, special agent in charge of the SBI unit. 

In a demand-reduction operations, undercover agents pose online as sex sellers to arrest people attempting to solicit prostitution.  

In outreach operations, undercover agents pose as sex buyers. The goal is to rescue people, usually women, from sex traffickers who coerce them to work as prostitutes. 

Investigators are placed outside a meeting place to look for traffickers to arrest. Social service professionals go inside to meet the sex workers to offer help. Services may include temporary housing or assistance in returning to their families, Butler said. 

Throughout his 26-year career in law enforcement, Wall has never seen a more manipulative crime than human trafficking, he said.  

“Until this assignment, I had never seen the violence, both physical and mental, the sickness and the controlling that a trafficker has over a victim,” Wall testified before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security in 2019. 

North Carolina authorities solicit help to detect and disrupt sex trafficking via a confidential hotline. Source: NC Human Trafficking Commission

Wall is the only full time SBI agent who focuses on human trafficking. The SBI has 14 agents trained in investigating human trafficking assigned throughout the state. However, that is their secondary duty, meaning that each officer has a different primary responsibility, whether that be on narcotics or homicide teams, that is their main area of investigation. 

One of these agents is assigned to Durham County, with a primary focus on drug investigations. With that agent’s interest and relationship with the local sheriff’s office, the two agencies decided to conduct an investigation together, Wall said.

The tactic of using online websites and advertisements to catch traffickers is something that has been used in previous cases throughout the state.  

“In our society, everything’s online. So we utilize that for us to do our types of investigations. We’ll go online, whether we’re posting ads, as a decoy, undercover female, attracting the males, or as the males, you know, reaching out to the girls,” said Wall. 

Another tactic to fight human trafficking is through advertisements in liquor stores and other locations across the state. Posters feature a hotline number, 888-373-7888, where people can ask for help or share a tip.

“We would rather have 100 false tips than one missed tip,” Breen said. 

Unrelated to these operations work, Polaris, a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking, ranks states based on their criminal-record relief for trafficking survivors. North Carolina ranked 21 out of 40 states assessed.  

North Carolina has stricter laws that other states relating to the level of evidence people have to provide in court to show that they were victims of human trafficking, for example, Polaris found. The state also does not protect a victim’s confidentiality in court. 

Under existing state law, if a woman was charged as a prostitute, it is hard to expunge this criminal record, according to Wall. In North Carolina, one specialized court — in Cumberland County — focuses on human trafficking cases. 

However, Breen has noticed a cultural shift in the way law enforcement the court system and the public think about women working in the illegal sex trade in recent years. Rather than viewing them as criminals, people recognize many as victims

“That has that has really opened up the lines of communication and when people see things like the things that they are suspicious of, they’re more open to calling us now because the stigma has been lessened,” said Breen.

Correction: This story was modified to say undercover investigators posted fake ads, not websites, to pose as sex vendors online.

What has Durham learned from last year’s fatal gas pipeline explosion?

Nearly a year ago, a natural gas pipeline exploded in downtown Durham, killing two people, injuring 25 others and damaging more than a dozen buildings. 

One of those buildings was Saint James Seafood. When the pipeline blew up, the restaurant’s glass windows shattered and gold chandeliers crashed to the ground. 

After 10 months of work repairing the building and worrying what the future held for him and his employees, Saint James owner Matt Kelly reopened the restaurant in late January.

He held a dinner for first responders who were there the day of the explosion to thank them for risking their lives. 

“I don’t think anyone could ask more of what that group of people did that day,” he said. 

Those responders say they’ve learned from the disaster and have outlined ways to help prevent it from happening again. 

In November, Durham County Emergency Management released a “Lessons Learned Report” about policy changes that have taken place since the deadly explosion, including improving communication with the public and other agencies in times of disaster and educating the public and responders about natural gas as downtown Durham grows. 

“The way that Durham’s building up, it is kind of changing our way of thinking, knowing that we’ve got a huge shift in population to downtown and everything that goes along with that,” said Jim Groves, the city’s emergency management director. 

Natural gas pipeline leaks and incidents are fairly common throughout the U.S.; most are caused by excavation work like digging utility lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. North Carolina has had 44 natural gas-related pipeline incidents in the past 20 years, but April’s explosion were the first deaths ever recorded in the state.

While laying fiber optic cable on North Duke Street on the morning of April 10, 2019, Optic Cable Technology hit a ¾-inch natural gas pipeline distribution line at the intersection of North Duke Street and West Main Street, causing a gas leak. 

About an hour later, the pipeline exploded, nearly leveling the block. Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee was killed, and Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC Energy worker, died two weeks later. 

A Durham fire department investigation found that the explosion was an accident. But the contractors working that day faced some responsibility: The North Carolina Labor Department fined Optic Cable Technology $7,000 for failing to immediately contact authorities after damaging the line, and another $7,000 for failing to dig a test hole to determine where the pipeline was.

The agency also fined PS Splicing $2,100 for failing “to perform frequent and regular inspections of the site” and PSNC Energy, a subsidiary utility of Dominion Energy, $5,000 for “ineffective response procedures” that exposed a first responder to fire and hazards. The energy company disagreed with the state’s findings. 

The fire department’s report stated that communication systems between city, county, and state agencies about such incidents need to improve. Groves said that on the day of the explosion, Durham public information officials were distracted by the city’s 150th anniversary celebration party downtown, which slowed communication with the public. The delay in reporting the leak made response difficult and more dangerous. 

City and county managers have also developed an initiative for a joint crisis communication plan to more efficiently and uniformly release emergency information to the public through social media and public information officers—a process that was too chaotic on the day of the explosion, according to officials. 

After 10 months of repairs from the natural gas pipeline explosion, Saint James Seafood reopened in January. Photo by Corey Pilson

Still, city policies for the supervision of contractors working near natural gas lines “haven’t changed” since the explosion, said Durham city manager Thomas Bonfield. The state government has jurisdiction over underground development like laying fiber, so the county and city have no authority to send inspectors to monitor work more closely, he said. 

Groves said he wants Durham residents to feel safe downtown, because although natural gas lines can burst or leak, they can typically be prevented if they are reported immediately. 

He said if people “smell [gas], or if they hear a loud hissing, when they call 911 and law enforcement gets there and they give them directions to evacuate — listen and take immediate action.”  

Durham Fire Department chief Robert Zoldos said the fire department came up with 11 points of improvement since the explosion, including more training for hazardous materials situations like the pipeline leak and assigning full time drivers to the hazmat units.

The department also reopened a downtown fire department unit, Rescue One, which specializes in rescues above general expectations of a firefighter, including hazardous material cases. 

“All of those things will provide us with a little better response than we had before—not perfect, but much better than we had,” Zoldos said.  

The Lessons Learned Report offered some closure to Saint James and other businesses. 

“When that came out it was definitely a relief that there was a direction of some blame and that what happened was very thoroughly investigated,” Kelly said.

The block remains quiet since several businesses in the area are still closed. The United Way of the Greater Triangle is hosting fundraisers and looking for grants to help businesses get back on their feet. Kelly said he and others are optimistic the city can keep moving forward.

“We encourage people to come back,” Kelly said. “The Brightleaf area really just wants normalcy, and we’re waiting for our friends next door, Torero’s, to reopen, and get this block back in business.” 

Top Photo: Emergency responders on the scene of the April 10, 2019 fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in downtown Durham. Photo by Katie Nelson