For revealing a Durham County jail inmate’s lethal exposure to coronavirus, 9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley has won the 2021 Frank Barrows Award for Excellence in Student Journalism.
The North Carolina Open Government Coalition award recognizes student journalists whose work uses public records, open meetings or press access to shine light on how government performs.
In October, Quigley published a story revealing that Darrell Kersey died of COVID-19 at Duke Regional Hospital after contracting coronavirus while in the custody of Durham County Detention Facility.
The High Point man was sentenced to a state prison term by then. But he remained in the county jail due to pandemic-related delays in moving people to state prisons.
Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did not disclose the fatal exposure. Quigley, a Duke University senior, did after obtaining Kersey’s death certificate and scouring county and state records.
Those records detailed who was detained in the Durham County facility, Kersey’s criminal case and sentencing, and COVID-19 deaths among state prison inmates.
“During the past year, a wave of COVID-19 cases and related deaths occurred in North Carolina prisons and jails. Quigley’s use of public records and inmate databases situated Kersey’s death in the context of a statewide — if not nationally significant — story about health and safety in carceral facilities,” today’s award announcement states.
Read more about the award and Quigley’s work here.
At top: Dryden Quigley, a Duke University senior, covers Durham County for The 9th Street Journal.
When Susan Rankin realized someone stole her Prius sedan’s catalytic converter for a second time in three months, it was really frustrating.
“Grrrrrrrrr,” she recalled saying, followed by a resigned: “Okay…”
Rankin, a Prius owner since 2008, discovered the thefts in October and January, both times in her driveway in Durham’s Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood.
The theft of catalytic converters from Prius owners here started increasing again in early October, according to news reports. At least 17 thefts occurred within the first 12 days of the month, with most of them in District 5, a narrow band of mostly downtown streets clustered just north of the Durham Freeway, between Route 55 to west of Ninth Street, cbs17.com reported.
What motivates the thieves? It’s the precious metals in the emission control devices. These metals, palladium and rhodium, can be sold for $2,421 per ounce and $26,100 per ounce, respectively. With gold currently selling for only $1,731 per ounce, according to goldprice.org, the metals inside a Prius catalytic converter are highly sought after.
Thefts have occured in recent years around the country and abroad, making it difficult for owners of the hybrid vehicles to find replacements. It can cost up to $3,000 to get back on the road. “The first time, I was without a car for a week and the second time, three weeks,” said Rankin. “Because of the frequency of this happening in our area, and actually across the country, there is now a shortage of catalytic converters for Priuses.”
Given that their cars have become prey, Prius owners try to protect their vehicles. Experts advise trying cages, shields, tapes, and welding to make their converters more difficult to steal.
None of these are foolproof, prompting Prius owners to reach out to one another and ask for help. “The problem is that if they don’t realize it’s welded, they can do a whole lot more damage to your car trying to get it off.” Rankin has learned, for instance.
Members of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood recently connected in an online forum and gave each other advice. One resident suggested Becker Automotive on Hillsborough Road for the installation of her Cat Security shield.
“It would be really cool if an automotive magazine decided to do some surveys to see what’s most effective. That would be helpful,” Rankin said.
In 2012, Durham police arrested multiple people for this crime, including one person charged with stealing 20 catalytic converters and causing more than $20,000 worth of damage to car owners.
In 2019, police reported 65 of these thefts from January to July, with vehicles in church parking lots and commercial vans frequent targets. Police then recommended that owners of targeted vehicles park in garages, engrave converters with license plate numbers or some other identifier, and set security systems to highly sensitive.
Rankin opted for the protective shield after her converter was stolen for a second time. She’s been lucky, she said, because her insurance covered the cost of getting her car running again. But, it’s a hassle. In other words, catalytic converter thieves don’t cause bodily harm. But they hurt. “It’s not a victimless crime.” said Rankin. “It costs $3,000 to fix this. To someone who is in a different situation from me, who doesn’t have resources or can’t afford comprehensive insurance, it’s a big deal.” 9th Street Journal reporter Clara Love can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
When someone at the Durham County Sheriff’s Department hit send on a tweet showcasing a new “ghost car,” the reaction was likely the opposite of what was expected.
A video embedded in the tweet showed lights that flash after the vehicle emerges from hiding engaged people from Durham to London. Almost 5,000 people commented, mostly with criticisms. Two critical comments generated over 20,000 likes.
“This ‘ghost’ car will be used by our #CommunityPolicing & traffic unit. W/ its low profile graphics you’ll never see it coming, especially at night. Make sure you’re not speeding, wear your seatbelt, and stay sober behind the wheel,” the Jan. 13 tweet read. Department tweets typically spawn less than 10 responses. But outrage over police killings of George Floyd last May and many other unarmed Black people has greatly expanded critiques of U.S. policing on social media.
“if the mission is to serve and protect, why do you need to be invisible?” @man7186 asked. Others echoed this sentiment, arguing that visible cars are more effective at stopping speeding, drawing comparisons to the brightly marked police cars of Europe.
“Here’s what a UK police vehicle looks like. Intentionally visible and recognizable. Almost as if police are PUBLIC SERVANTS and should be immediately recognizable to said public. American police exists solely to prey and profit not protect nor serve,” read the top comment by @alsharptondurag, which amassed 25,800 likes. Commentators also took issue with using taxpayer money in the middle of a pandemic while so many in Durham County are struggling financially. “…People are out here financially broken and I’m sure this 30k could’ve been allocated to an improvisational stimulus check for 15 random families within the community,” @CLtheCHEF wrote, attracting 5,300 likes.
Not all comments were factual, with some alluding to the Durham city police budget instead of the Durham Sheriff’s Department. Clarence Birkhead, Durham’s first Black sheriff, was elected to run the department with a reform-minded platform in 2018, including a vow to reduce officers’ use of force in the community. After Floyd died, he shared mourning and outrage. “As a law enforcement leader, I am embarrassed, and outraged, at the behavior of a few officers …,” the sheriff said in a statement. “No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot understand how these incidents continue to occur and those officers responsible seemingly go unpunished.”
Speeding at illegal road races is one issue his department deals with, Birkhead noted in a Jan. 29 statement. “A week does not go by when our deputies are responding to individual residents and local neighborhood groups calling us for service about reports of loud, late-night ‘car meet-ups’ across Durham County,” Birkhead wrote. “This activity is not only illegal but obviously dangerous. We are committed [to] getting a handle on this reckless behavior and will hold those individuals accountable.” Experts counsel police forces today to take extra care with social media posts, reminding them that everything on Twitter and other social platforms is visible worldwide. They encourage messaging that reinforces positive relationships between citizens and law enforcement.
Emily Tiry, a research associate at the Urban Institute, co-wrote the Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies. It lays out four steps for a more effective social media presence, including establishing a baseline for social media use.
Tiry emphasized the importance of having a social media policy, which the Durham sheriff’s department has. “The Durham Sheriff’s Office endorses the secure use of social media to enhance communication, collaboration, and information exchange; streamline processes; and foster productivity,” it reads.
When asked about repairing community confidence after a post receives backlash, Tiry said she knows of no research about that. But it would be important for the organization to ask themselves some key questions such as, “Was the tweet following the social media policy? If it was then, maybe, reassess the policy?” she said.
Five days after heralding the ghost car, Birkhead’s department posted another tweet to clarify its intentions. “We never expected such a large response to this video. Its intent was to be a light-hearted look at a tool our traffic unit uses to keep roads safe but it was taken out of context for some. DCSO values your thoughtful feedback &will continue to be engaged w/the community it serves.”
Still users were unsatisfied. “This tone-deaf response to a tone-deaf post is why people are upset,” @sisson-darrell replied. When asked about the negative response, department spokesman AnnMarie Breen suggested enough had been said already. “We don’t have anything more to say about this topic,” she responded.
9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at email@example.com
As Durham faces a surge in gun violence this year, it’s not just shootings that can pose risks to residents. Police videos released this week show how terrifying it can be for children and parents when officers rush into a neighborhood looking for someone they believe is armed and dangerous. Teenager Jaylin Harris and two young friends were playing tag on the lawn at Rochelle Manor apartments on Aug. 21 when Durham police arrived. Officers were responding to a 911 call that reported a Black man in a white tank top who was armed and selling drugs out of an SUV parked near where the children were playing.
The videos, recorded by officers’ body cameras and a Rochelle Manor security camera, show Jaylin, the 15-year-old, watching from a rear corner of a building as officers scouted the building and the parking lot.
After an officer saw him, the teen went behind the building toward the other side. At least four officers drew handguns and ran after him as residents and children nearby screamed.
Jaylin’s playmates, 8-year-old Zakarryya Cornelius and an 11-year-old boy, cowered on stairs next to him as officers ordered Jaylin to the ground. One officer briefly pointed his gun toward one of the younger boys before recognizing that he was a kid. The officer then cuffed Jaylin’s wrists behind his back and yanked at his tank top and shorts to frisk the teen.
As adults rushed to the scene, officers ordered them to keep a distance. Makeba Hoffler, Zakarryya Cornelius’s mother, arrived frantic and nearly hyperventilating. She begged an officer to let her get her boy. Once she beckoned her son and the 11-year-old boy over from the stairs, she tried to help Jaylin.
“He’s a baby. He’s a child, he just turned 15,” an anguished Hoffler said, pointing to Jaylin. “Please take them cuffs off him!”
“Well we’ve got to figure out what’s going on,” an officer replied.
Officers uncuffed Jaylin after about 2 minutes and 30 seconds. They told the teen to sit on the sidewalk. Before letting him go, one officer told Jaylin that he should not run from the police. Long wait for videos Superior Court Judge Josephine Kerr Davis ruled in September that City Council members could see the body camera footage. But the city could not release it to the public until after the Durham Police Department finished an internal investigation, Mayor Steve Schewel said. The investigation was completed last week.
After the investigation, Police Chief Cerelyn Davis disciplined two of the seven officers involved in the incident, including a one-day suspension of Officer Zack Starritt, according to City Attorney Kim Rehberg.
Release of the footage was long overdue, said Hoffler. She said she requested that the videos be made public within days of the incident, when the mothers of the children involved met with Chief Davis.
“We should have had it by that Monday. They just stalled a lot,” Hoffler said, referring to the police department. “They didn’t want it released because we were in the right, and they were wrong.”
Attorney Daniel Meier, who represents officers involved, said the footage showed that officers followed the department’s procedures.
“They’re responding to someone with a gun, they’re going to have their weapons ready,” Meier added. “They see a person who matches the suspect run, they’re going to detain them.”
Meier stressed that he didn’t believe anybody involved had acted inappropriately. “The officers did nothing wrong here but the kid didn’t either,” he said, referring to Jaylin, the teen. “He just got caught up in an unfortunate situation and, I mean, this is what policing is.”
But Schewel said he thought that a 15-year-old handcuffed for even two minutes and 30 seconds was restrained for too long in that situation. “I think that he should have been immediately uncuffed,” the mayor said. “I can certainly see why that was so traumatic,” he added. “It would have been for anyone. And I could certainly see why it was what it was for his mother, and for all the people who were there. It would have been incredibly traumatic.”
Although Schewel said he couldn’t speak to the exact reasoning behind Chief Davis’ decision to discipline the officers, he made clear that he supported her response.
“Clearly, the officers made a mistake in identification. And it was a mistake that I’m sure has very adverse consequences for this young man, and for the other children who were there watching and their families,” said Schewel.
Gulf between families, police
Fear swept through the people present when police started chasing Jaylin.
Surveillance cameras showed two small boys who immediately raced up the stairs on the other side of the building to get indoors. But other young children clung to parents and watched from a distance while Jaylin was handcuffed on the ground. The fact that residents and police officers don’t know each other is repeated again and again during the videos. Officers and parents made clear they feel that’s a serious problem, but for different reasons. After Jaylin was released, Ashley Harris, his exasperated mother, told an officer that Jaylin was a child. Police should not have pointed guns at him no matter what, she said.
“I understand you’re upset — Ma’am, we’re responding to a 911 call, a person with a gun,” the officer said, explaining that the police had no way of knowing Jaylin was just a child.
“And he don’t know y’all, that’s what I’m saying,” Harris said. “Y’all are killing people, he’s terrified.” “When officers come out here, and they respond to a threat — somebody out here called, alright? We don’t know nobody out here. We don’t know if he’s 15 or 25,” said the officer, who asked Harris if she wanted him to call Jaylin the following week.
“No, I want y’all to stay away from my kids,” Harris said.
Months later, the mothers are still trying to help their children cope with the incident. “How can I tell my kids to trust you when the last thing they remember was you holding a gun to them?” Hoffler, the mother of Zakarryya Cornelius, who turned 9 the day after the incident, said during an interview this week.
“We still got to be careful calling the cops to our own house because they’re so gun happy,” she added. “Now we have to protect our kids from the people who’re supposed to be protecting us.”
Hoffler said officers needed to get to know the community so they would be familiar with kids who are usually outside playing, rather than treating them as suspects. An increasing number of teens aged 15 to 17 are participating in gang-related shootings in Durham, Chief Davis revealed in a recent interview.
“If they came around and got to know these kids, they’d have a whole different perspective with how they approach our community,” Hoffler said. “They would have known it’s the same boys out here every single day doing the same thing.”
Hoffler said she hoped the release of the footage would lead to more accountability for the officers involved.
“I hope they review this case again and take more action against these officers, take them off the streets for a little bit,” she said. “What if it happens to someone else’s kid and they aren’t as lucky as our kids were? Is that what it’s going to take?”
“One day, that’s a little vacation for him,” she said, referring to the 8-hour suspension handed to Zack Starritt, one of the officers at the scene. 9th Street Journal reporters Charlie Zong and Cameron Oglesby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
At top: Recordings from body cameras and surveillance video capture police handcuffing a teenager at Rochelle Manor. The footage from August shows Durham police responding to a 911 report that an armed man was seen at the apartment complex. Mothers say police were wrong to point guns towards kids and handcuff a teenager. City officials released the video this week after police investigated the officers’ behavior and disciplined two officers. Video edited by Cameron Oglesby.
Kenneccia Woolard was in her North Carolina Central University dorm room when she heard gunshots outside. Just as she was about to look out the window, a stray bullet shattered the glass and sent splinters flying.
“I was just inches away of losing my life,” the visibly shaken student told City Council members on Oct. 8.
“I believe that we need an action plan immediately, because our campus is not safe from the residents and criminals that are surrounding our community,” Woolard said after describing the September incident. “I am facing this trauma each and every day, the anxiety, the fear.”
Woolard is one of a growing number of people demanding that Durham leaders take action to reduce rising gun violence, which has soared here over the last twelve months. As cities across the nation confront a rise in violent crime this year, Durham is facing a surge that is a stark reversal of a downward trend since 2017. Stories of tragedies involving students, children, and elders are emerging from communities most vulnerable to daily gunfire, which residents say makes them afraid to go outside or sleep at night.
At the same virtual meeting where Woolard made her plea, NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye emphasized the need for city leaders to act to reduce the dangers posed by gunfire. “Doing nothing at all is not an option,” Akinleye said.
City Council members agree a response is urgently needed. But they haven’t reached consensus on what to do, in part due to long-standing disagreements over policing.
Gangs, guns, coronavirus
Data makes clear that gun violence is surging in Durham.
From Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020, 1,081 people were reported as victims of shootings. Police define victims as people close enough to be hit by a bullet, including people in rooms that bullets fly through. That figure is up 56% from 693 victims in the previous twelve month period.
The number of people shot in Durham has also soared 59% during the past twelve months to 221 people. One out of every six gunshot victims in Durham during that time was younger than under 18, including eight children under 12.
On a recent City Life broadcast, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said city residents are increasingly encountering “random gunfire” coming from “neighborhood conflicts and individuals warring with each other” on city streets.
Many of these conflicts are motivated by gang activity and are fought with weapons reported as stolen from legal gun owners, Davis said.
The pandemic is also playing a role. Jails are releasing inmates to reduce coronavirus exposure risks, children are at home rather than attending school in person, and some community programs that diverted teens from joining gangs have been paused, Davis said.
“This is just an environment that has allowed for various gangs in the city to wreak havoc,” Davis said.
Numbers don’t come close to conveying the scope of this problem, which disproportionately harms Black families and children, said City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton. He has made it a personal mission to try to reduce daily gun violence.
“We saw a major stakeholder in our city come forward saying, essentially, that this is a state of emergency,” Middleton said, referring to the statements from NCCU students and administrators.
City Council reacts with debates Middleton supports five recommendations that Chancellor Akinleye presented to the City Council on Oct. 8. Fellow council members DeDreana Freeman and Pierce Freelon also voiced support for all of the initiatives during the meeting.
Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said she supported Akinleye’s request that NCCU police be allowed to patrol neighborhoods surrounding their East Durham campus. She said she wanted city staff to research and prepare a report on the other four recommendations. Akinleye also urged the city to increase its own police patrols nearby and install speed bumps around campus, which is near neighborhoods the city has identified as hard-hit by violent crime.
The city should accept a six-month trial of ShotSpotter, an automated service that alerts police when shots are fired, something that residents who hear shots so often don’t always do, he said. Akinleye also pushed for the city to appoint an NCCU administrator to serve on the city’s new public safety task force. The City Council rejected ShotSpotter in 2019 and again in September. Council members Javiera Caballero, Charlie Reece, Freelon, and Johnson cited the unclear evidence for its effectiveness and the $195,000 the city would need to pay each year. They also said they were reluctant to embrace a tool they felt would lead the city to continue depending too much on police to solve problems.
Middleton, a longtime backer of trying ShotSpotter, reiterated during an interview last week that the six-month trial would at least give the city valuable data for free. He also rejected the idea that ShotSpotter would lead to over-policing of already-vulnerable neighborhoods.
“We know that unreported gun violence is a problem,” he said. Refusing to invest in tools to measure the extent of that problem, he said, was “morally indefensible.”
For Mayor Pro Tem Johnson, solving the problem of gun violence means tackling deeper “root causes” in the community, rather than reflexively expanding the police.
“There will be less violence in Durham if people can stay in their homes and not be evicted, if people can find jobs that are safe,” she said during an interview the day before the Oct. 8 meeting. “It’s not a lack of policing that causes our economic and social disruption.”
Johnson said she feared that continued job losses linked to economic disruption from the pandemic, a coming wave of evictions, and other problems caused by the pandemic will fuel an increase in crimes, like selling street drugs, that often turn violent.
The city set aside $5 million for its COVID relief fund and poured another $1 million into Durham County’s housing and rent relief program. But Durham doesn’t have the scale of resources to offset residents’ financial distress, she said.
“What we really need, number one, is more federal support,” Johnson said. “We’ve been watching very closely the situation with the federal relief bills.”
In addition, City Council members haven’t taken a close enough look at alternatives to increased policing, she said.
Johnson pointed to Bull City United, a “violence interrupter” program overseen by Durham County. Paused during the pandemic, the program trained workers to identify and defuse potentially violent conflicts in McDougald Terrace and the Southside neighborhood, two communities especially affected by gun violence.
“Those conversations need to continue,” she said.
Tracking gangs, tracing guns
The police department is working to reduce the surge in gun violence by focusing on the gang members who are committing most of the shootings, Chief Davis said.
Officers are being trained to identify shooters linked to gangs, she said, adding that she wants her department to focus on tracking and stopping repeat offenders rather than “casting a wide net on communities.”
A serious challenge is the widespread availability of stolen guns used during violent conflicts, said Davis. She estimated that 40% of the guns recovered by her department were reported as stolen.
The department is trying to educate gun owners on ways to store their weapons more securely, hoping to stem the flow of illegal firearms onto the streets.
Davis said she agrees that gun violence is a problem that requires more than a police response. Many of the people involved in violent conflicts are teenagers between 15 and 17, she said.
“There have to be other entities involved in helping to redirect our young people’s activities on a daily basis,” said Davis. She noted that officers are working on building relationships with residents by being more visible in communities, including by attending neighborhood events.
Programs in the works City leaders are making plans, Johnson said, to develop and fund an expanded violence interrupter program run by the city, an initiative Middleton supports.
City staff are also analyzing 911 calls to identify tasks like responding to mental health crises that could be redirected to other city departments, freeing up police resources to address violent crime, Johnson said.
“The police department has a very specific mandate from council to focus their resources on violent crime,” she said.
The city is still working with the county and school board to launch the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force, a group of residents and researchers tasked with recommending alternatives to policing, which Johnson has said will be more successful at reducing violence compared to “reactive” tools like ShotSpotter.
“If we don’t deal with root cause issues, the need for police will actually increase,” she said.
But for Middleton, too much is at stake to not act more aggressively now while discussions about long-term interventions continue.
“Every time somebody says root causes, I want somebody to point to our budget and say here’s a root-cause initiative, and here’s the amount of time it’s going to take for gun violence to come down in our city,” he said. 9th Street reporter Cameron Oglesby contributed to this article. 9th Street reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Data shows a surge in overall shootings as well as gunshots between Oct. 2019 and Sept. 2020. Shooting victims increased by 56% to 1,081 people. The number of people shot increased even more by 59%, reaching 221 gunshot victims. Data provided by the Durham Police Department. Graphic by Charlie Zong
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.
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 email@example.com
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
When Chris Kenan pulled up to his childhood home in East Durham last month, he saw seven mothers standing resolutely with a crowd of children.
At the Rochelle Manor Apartments to help run an event bringing police and residents together, Kenan quickly realized that something was very wrong.
Police had confronted three kids playing tag with guns drawn earlier that afternoon while searching for an armed suspect. The oldest, aged 15, was handcuffed. The mothers were furious at what they saw as the latest example of unjustified harsh treatment by police.
“The mom said, ‘The police just came over here and threw my child on the ground and pointed guns at the kids’,” Kenan recounted. “I was blown away by what had just taken place.” Mayor Steve Schewel, at Rochelle Manor to attend Kenan’s event, quickly arranged a meeting between the families and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis. “I thank God that we came right after it happened because we had the mayor there,” Kenan said. “It was able to escalate pretty fast without a lot of blowing up.”
Helping families in communities like Rochelle Manor feel heard and supported by police and city leaders is why Kenan helped create BLAST, or Building Leaders for a Solid Tomorrow. The 32-year-old father of three, a physical education teacher and football coach at Neal Magnet Middle School, in 2015 began giving away toys and bikes at Christmas to kids at Rochelle, where he lived as a kid.
After George Floyd died in May when a Minneapolis police officer refused to stop pushing his knee into his neck, Kenan organized a rally for athletes to protest racial injustice outside the Durham County Courthouse in June. Some of Kenan’s former students, Duke University football coach David Cutcliffe, and members of the Duke football and men’s basketball teams attended.
After that, Kenan and three friends decided to put a name to their efforts and launched BLAST, which now includes a team of around 30 volunteers — students, lawyers, doctors, athletes, and other professionals included.
At a time when activist groups and city council members are pushing to reduce the role of police in key discussions about the future of public safety, BLAST is working to strengthen relationships between children, parents, and the police working in their neighborhoods.
Chief Davis praised Kenan for creating “an avenue for positive community engagement between the police and the community” in a statement emailed to The 9th Street Journal.
The chief was intrigued by Kenan’s passion, said police spokesperson Jacquelynn Werner. “Using the trust they built, and trusting us, we’ve been able to allow our officers to go to the events and start new dialogue, as well as continue some existing conversations,” she said.
Persistent lobbying helped grow BLAST from a project by four friends into a group with significant buy in from decision makers. “We send texts out to every judge, every lawyer, every city council member, the chief, the sheriff, the mayor,” inviting them to events, Kenan said.
Some view efforts to better unite residents and police as urgent in Durham. Gun violence is on the rise. As of Sept. 19, there were 689 shootings in the city this year. That’s up from a total of 495 shootings to that date last year.
And after a summer of protests, this is a time when relationships are frayed between officers and Durham residents most vulnerable to that violence.
Since July, BLAST has put on nine “Safe Zone Friday” events at Rochelle Manor and at four Durham Housing Authority complexes. Kenan and his co-founders hand out groceries and school supplies and go door-to-door to sign students up for free tutoring. Over a dozen police officers typically attend, allowing kids to enjoy a few hours outdoors without the risk of hearing gunfire, Kenan said.
“My biggest concern is simple,” he said. “Can the kids come outside and play?”
After police body camera footage emerged in July of an incident in 2019 where a Durham police officer was accused of assaulting a high school student, and recent protests over the treatment of the Rochelle Manor youngsters, BLAST’s mission has deepened. Now improving relationships between police and residents, especially youth, has become more urgent for Kenan.
“People think that these matters are just national matters,” Kenan said. “I’m glad that we were able to have a real incident in this city that we can shine a light on but that nobody was hurt from physically. But we still have some healing to do.”
Kenan’s personal history motivates him to help the community heal. Like Zakarryya Cornelius and Jaylin Harris, two of three kids at the center of the drawn-gun incident, Kenan grew up at Rochelle Manor, experiencing the social and financial challenges that many children living in subsidized housing still face.
“My mom raised us in a tough environment, and she did a great job – I could never thank her enough,” said Kenan. He was the only one to graduate high school and college out of 10 childhood friends, he said.
“Everyone else I grew up with is either dead or in prison,” he explained.
At each Safe Zone Friday event, BLAST leaders invite adults and kids to speak out about their needs and any long-standing issues in their neighborhood at Safe Zone Fridays, gun violence and conflicts with police included. That allows Mayor Schewel or other decision makers who attend to hear directly from the community.
A rainy day gave way to sunshine and a cool breeze by the time two dozen officers congregated last Friday at a grassy corner at the Hoover Road complex shortly after 5 pm. As children lined up for ice cream, Kenan and volunteers laid out food trays donated by Home Plate Restaurant, owned by long-time supporter Brian Bibins, whose son was coached by Kenan.
Loud speakers blasted a song that put perceptions about policing center stage. It started with the sound of blaring police sirens. Then a male voice, raw and staccato, rapped about George Floyd’s death and the “shooting, shooting, shooting” of Black people by police.
The officers, a mix of city police and county sheriff’s deputies, didn’t flinch. They talked and bumped elbows with kids and their parents. One deputy threw a football across a muddy clearing to a boy.
After passing out food and goodies to the kids, volunteers ushered residents and officers into a large circle around a grassy clearing. Devonte Smith, a BLAST co-founder, stepped forward and offered help.
“If you need to find a job, maybe we know somebody,” Smith said. “If you need better relations with the police, you come talk to us.”
But mostly, he said, he wanted those present — including City Council members DeDreana Freeman and Pierce Freelon — to hear residents say what they and their children needed.
“Education!” one woman offered. “Computers, basketballs, you know, simple stuff — a jump rope!” added another.
Residents called for better parks and community centers too. Several parents said they wanted safe outdoor activities for their kids. Kenan said BLAST plans to respond to that need with “Training in the Trenches,” an after-school program BLAST will kick off in October. Police officers and former student-athletes, including some of Kenan’s former students, will teach kids sports ranging from football to golf.
Officers did not speak during the circle at Friday’s event. But after the event, Sgt. Daryl Macaluso of the Durham Police Department said that community policing, where officers are assigned to neighborhoods where they get to know residents, is essential. Macaluso is with the department’s Community Engagement Unit, which focuses on crime prevention in Durham’s public housing communities. The department doesn’t have enough officers to ensure that those who respond to a call know the people in neighborhoods where they are dispatched, he said.
“I don’t think that would have happened if the officers knew the kids,” he said of the Rochelle Manor incident.
As the Safe Zone event finished, Hoover Road resident Dontray Cole, 45, was laughing and filming as BLAST volunteer Omar Humes, 50, played a spirited game of basketball with one boy.
“Almost, man! Get it!” Cole chided as the neighbor’s son ran across the packed dirt, dribbling past Humes to try to make a basket into an old hoop shorn of netting.
Cole’s expression became more pained as he described how he views the way police usually interact with Hoover Road residents. He praised a white officer who he said comes and speaks with the kids every morning. But some officers were “rude” and “hostile” to residents they perceived as dressing or appearing similar to gang members, he said.
“It gets to your heart,” Cole said. “Don’t treat us like zoo animals.”
Cole said that gunfire in and near the complex, which he attributes to gang members who don’t live in Hoover Road, is a problem. “The kids are way too young, the shooting gets to their mind,” he said.
Events like Safe Zone could help with both gun violence and residents’ relationships with the police, Cole said.“That’s what we need — show their support. Come check on how everything’s doing,” Cole said, as about half a dozen kids started heading toward their homes as night fell. 9th Street reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Sgt. Daryl Macaluso, who work with police department’s Community Engagement Unit, throws a football to a kid at the Hoover Road community. Photo by Henry Haggart
After Durham’s most violent night in months of protests, Mayor Steve Schewel blamed unidentified outsiders for busting windows, spray-painting graffiti and hijacking “righteous” dissent.
“The people who inflicted this damage last night are not advancing the cause of justice,” Schewel said Thursday during a press conference. “What they’re doing is co-opting this movement for racial justice for their own purposes.”
Street protesters Wednesday damaged at least 13 buildings, both public and private, and left a church with repairs that will cost tens of thousands, the mayor said.
Because the police department had no warning of what was coming, they were unable to arrive in time to stop the vandalism, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said. For months, police have steered clear of confronting peaceful protesters calling for fundamental changes to policing locally and nationally. That’s because the department supports their free speech, Davis said. From now on, officers will be more visible, she vowed. “That is the strategy that we feel that we have to take at this point, not in an antagonistic way, but in a manner that our community members know that we are there and we’re paying attention,” she said.
Neither Schewel or Davis offered any specifics on the identities of the people they accused. Most in the crowd participated in the vandalism, Davis said. “The folks that were just inflicting the damage last night were white, I just want to be really clear about that,” the mayor said. “This is an attempt to co-opt a racial justice movement.”
On Wednesday night, an estimated 75 or more people gathered at CCB Plaza downtown for a protest advertised to express outrage over a Kentucky grand jury indicting only one of the three police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor in her home on March 13.
Chanting “No Justice, No Peace” and “Defund the Police,” the group of mostly white men and women marched through the center of downtown Durham, making stops at the police department headquarters and the Durham County Justice Center.
As the march progressed, protesters at the back of the group threw trash cans, scooters, traffic cones and other objects they found on the streets into roadways to block police patrol cars following them. Officers exited their vehicles to clear the obstacles but kept their distance.
Occasionally, small groups of protesters would run to a sidewalk, umbrellas raised to conceal their faces, and spray paint messages like “say her name” and “burn it down” on the sides of buildings.
Protesters with umbrellas also harassed members of the press trying to photograph or film them, including following and briefly surrounding a 9th Street journalist. The Rev. Paul Scott, founder of the Black Messiah Movement in Durham and a Black nationalist, was downtown Wednesday to observe the protest.
“They got a Black Lives Matter rally going on. As usual — no Black people. See they got a civil war going on. And they’re doing these things in our name, in the name of Black Lives Matter. But no Black people!,” he said during a video he made Wednesday night and posted on Facebook.
When asked Thursday if the city police could have handled Wednesday night any better, Scott said this: “I think if they were Black teenagers, they would have been dealt with a lot more harshly. I think there’s a double standard. And I think it’s a classic example of white privilege.”
He noted how police officers approached three youngsters with guns drawn at a city apartment complex last month while looking for an armed suspect. A 15-year-old, the oldest in the group playing outdoors, was handcuffed. Wednesday night was “white anarchists getting a police escort,” Scott said.
The assault on property downtown by a majority white crowd comes just as many restaurants and other businesses are beckoning paying patrons to return after six months of bleak disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. Just last week, Downtown Durham Inc. launched The Streetery, a project to transform downtown into a socially distanced and entertaining eating experience, equipped with lights and performances on Friday and Saturday nights. A front window of Viceroy, an Indian restaurant and British pub on West Main Street, was damaged Wednesday night, said co-owner Smita Patel. The restaurant’s landlord asked them to put up plywood, but she and her team do not feel unsafe.
“Overall, I think we still feel safe, we always have, and Durham is doing a good job of keeping people together,” Patel said. “It does affect our business, of course, the boards being up, but we’re hoping that we won’t regress back to how it was a couple months ago.”
Thursday’s press conference was a short, solemn event, with Chief Davis saying she didn’t view violence during Wednesday’s protest as a response to what many consider inadequate action against officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. Instead, it was people “taking advantage of an opportunity to express other ideology.”
Police are investigating whether they can identify those who did the damage, a group that, she said, dispersed quickly. “We are still looking at the video footage,” Davis said, to identify who they can. 9th Street reporters Rebecca Schneid and Charlie Zong contributed to this report. 9th Street journalists Cameron Oglesby and Henry Haggart can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Two men clean up broken glass Thursday outside 5 Points Gallery on East Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Henry Haggart
Because exposure to the coronavirus remains a risk inside Durham County Detention Center, the sheriff wants funding to test inmates and staff more frequently. One hospitalized inmate sick with COVID-19 has been on and off ventilators over the past four weeks, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told county commissioners on Tuesday. To keep staff, inmates and the wider community safe, Birkhead asked county commissioners for funding to have jail inmates and staff tested for the virus every two weeks.
“We take this very seriously,” Birkhead said during a commissioners meeting. On April 25, Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr.died from COVID-19. After an outbreak in August, testing confirmed 21 cases among 262 inmates and five among staff. Testing staff and inmates every two weeks would cost between $60,000 to $110,000 each time, depending on whether the county health department or Duke University handled the testing, Birkhead said. Alternatively, his department could test 20 employees every two weeks he said.
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow asked whether an approach that falls between those two options might be preferable. “One is the Cadillac at 200 and one seems quite low at 20, is there one in between?” she asked. Birkhead agreed to return to the commissioners with more details about testing options as early as Monday. An important group to test are inmates getting released from center custody into the community, the sheriff said. The center releases 73 residents on average a month and they are not tested before departing, he said. The sheriff also proposed requiring that each new detention center hire test negative for the virus within seven days before beginning work.
“Every employee and every person housed here can be infected with COVID-19,” said Anothony Prignano, chief deputy for detention said. Beyond testing, department staff continue to take steps to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading at the facility, Birkhead said.
If a previously confined person leaves the detention center and returns, they are placed in quarantine for 14 days. That includes people in custody who go to the Durham County Courthouse, where multiple cases of coronavirus have been detected in the clerk of court’s, magistrate’s, and district attorney’s offices, the sheriff said.
For the 14-day quarantine, jail residents are housed in a part of the detention center separate from the rest of the population. People admitted to the center stay there too until it’s clear they are not carrying the virus, said department spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen.
Center staff are sticking with cleaning protocols started in March. Using a disinfectant, staff clean every four hours and whenever residents leave and return to their cells.
Reckhow and board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs questioned why insurance would not cover county employee testing costs. A member of Birkhead’s staff explained that current workers compensation insurance does not cover preventative COVID-19 tests.
Commissioners also asked why the hospitalized inmate who was convicted of a felony remains in the Durham detention center.
Typically such an inmate would have been transferred to a state prison within 20 to 25 days of their conviction, Birkhead said. The state, which is also working to reduce coronavirus exposure among its inmates, is paying the county detention center $40 a day to continue to hold these individuals, as well as covering their medical costs.
9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at email@example.com
At top: People inside the Durham County Detention Center peer out to watch street protesters march by on Sept. 4. Protesters were demanding more information about why police officer approached youngsters with guns last month. Photo by Henry Haggart
A summer of change was just beginning when Durham’s elected leaders vowed on June 15 to “transform policing” in response to local and national protests against systemic racism and police brutality — matters long debated in Durham. Among other promises, Mayor Steve Schewel and council members pledged to review and reform the police department’s rules on police use of force in the next 90 days.
With that deadline approaching, the mayor and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis are preparing to release a presentation concerning the department’s rules on police use of force, said David Anthony, executive officer to the police chief.
The mayor’s office and police department have not specified a release date or whether the presentation will be the city’s final response to the 90-day pledge. “Force” in this context means physical tactics police can use against people who don’t comply with lawful orders as spelled out in department policies. The department updated those policies in June, but activists and some city council members say some rules are still not clear enough.
The reform campaign 8 Can’t Wait, a project by Campaign Zero, a national group that promotes what they say are evidence-based reforms, won the support of some Durham officials, activists and residents. Launched June 3, the campaign urges police departments across the nation to adopt eight policies intended to restrict the use of force. They include banning chokeholds, requiring officers to exhaust all means before using deadly options like firearms, and requiring police to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force.
Durham police department spokesperson Amanda Fitzpatrick said in an email that the department’s rules “are currently aligned with the recommendations.” But an analysis by The 9th Street Journal of Durham’s manual of rules for officers — which was updated on June 10 — found that DPD written policies meet only six of the eight recommendations explicitly.
Years in the making
Efforts to reform how police interact with residents began long before this summer.
In 2013, a 17-year-old named Jesus Huerta committed suicide in the back of a Durham police cruiser. Investigators determined Huerta shot himself with a gun hidden on him at the time of his arrest, and officer Samuel Duncan was suspended without pay for violating search protocols and failing to switch on the cruiser’s video and audio recording devices. Though the Huerta family ultimately accepted the findings, police donned riot gear and released tear gas at a vigil for Huerta. The controversy intensified pressure on the city to reform its police department.
From 2013 to 2019, 203 people were killed by police in North Carolina, according to the Mapping Police Violence research project. Black people were 38% of those killed, though they make up only 21% of the state’s population.
Durham, where police killed 5 Black people and 1 white person between 2013 and 2019, had the largest racial disparity between rates of Black and white civilians killed by police among major cities in the state, the research project found. Officers were not charged in any of the cases, as tracked by Mapping Police Violence.
In 2015, the city commissioned a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that found the Durham police department faced “deteriorating relationships” with the community and a “lack of public trust” in part from perceptions of racism and discriminatory practices.
Durham has made significant strides since Huerta’s death in 2013, said City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton.
They include requiring police to obtain written consent before vehicle searches, de-emphasizing marijuana violations, and monitoring data on traffic stops for racial disparities. Davis has been a “change agent” who led “a definite shift in the culture of our police department,” Middleton said.
The 8 Can’t Wait recommendations are based on Campaign Zero’s 2016 analysis of civilian deaths involving officers and restrictions on the use of force at 91 of the 100 largest police departments in the country, including Durham.
The group’s analysis says the typical department uses only three of the eight deadly force reduction practices intended to help prevent officers from harming or killing civilians. According to the group, in 2015 Durham had only two of eight policies on the books explicitly.
“Harm reduction is important and you can’t enforce what isn’t against the rules,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a co-founder of 8 Can’t Wait.
Cities across the country, including Raleigh and Durham, have moved to reform their policies in line with 8 Can’t Wait’s recommendations.
With revisions made in June, Durham police department’s General Orders Manual explicitly lists six of the eight recommendations. What’s missing?
Durham officers are encouraged — but not required — to exhaust all possible alternatives before resorting to deadly force, the manual states.
Officers are required to file a use-of-force report only if physical force or injury occurs. The 8 Can’t Wait recommendations say reports should be filed every time violence is threatened, including when officers point guns at people.
Fitzpatrick told The 9th Street Journal that the manual is being updated “to explicitly state officers have a duty to intervene to prevent or stop excessive force if witnessed.”
The manual states officers are not trained in the use of chokeholds. Nor are they listed among authorized force options, which escalate from hand techniques and pepper spray up to firearms. But the manual does not explicitly say chokeholds are prohibited, either.
In an interview, Mayor pro tem Jiillian Johnson said that ambiguity in the policy is a problem.
Johnson early this year criticized Durham as “one of the poorest performing cities” when it comes to having a clear and explicit use-of-force policy, citing the absence of an explicit ban on chokeholds and the department permitting officers to use deadly force before exhausting other options if the officer deems it “objectively reasonable,” according to the manual.
“When you give the officer discretion to determine whether it’s reasonable … That’s my main point of contention with the interpretation that we meet these guidelines,” Johnson said. “Those hedges make it so that we don’t actually meet the guidelines as they’re written.”
She and a co-author called for “significant improvements” in a January op-ed in USA Today that recently retired city manager Tom Bonfield and council member Mark-Anthony Middleton strongly rebuked.
Middleton said he did not agree that police use-of-force rules were only effective if they closely followed the wording in standards created by 8 Can’t Wait or other groups.
“It’s not true that our department is woefully lacking in use-of-force standards,” he said.
Debate over police reform to continue While 8 Can’t Wait has gained traction among local governments being pressured to take action, not all local activists agree its agenda is enough.
Some say cities, Durham included, should “defund” or abolish their police departments and focus instead on community wellness and crime prevention. Andréa Hudson, director of the North Carolina Community Bail Fund, said she considers the emphasis on 8 Can’t Wait a distraction from defunding the police and spending more money on community health and safety initiatives.
“A system that has white supremacy embedded in it will not change just because you banned them from doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place,” said Hudson.
But city council members remain focused on achieving what they say is sustainable, long-term change. The city council in June unanimously passed the city’s $502 million 2020-21 budget, which included $70 million for the police, despite a vocal campaign from local activists.
In a June op-ed in Spectacular Magazine, council member Middleton pointed to the city council’s 2019 decision to reject hiring 18 officers — only to hire 6 officers several months later in response to gang violence — as evidence that the city needs to first develop viable alternatives to the police.
Also in June, council members committed $1 million to form a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force, a resident-led group that will recommend alternatives to traditional policing. As the city wraps up its 90-day pledge to review police use-of-force rules, Johnson said she wants to see an explicit ban on chokeholds and more comprehensive reporting when police use force. But Johnson’s end goal is deeper.
“These reforms are useful, but they’re not systemic reforms,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, I want to do less policing overall.”