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Nearly 100 firearms turned in at gun buy-back event

On a recent Saturday, nearly 100 shotguns, handguns and assault rifles of all shapes and sizes were unloaded from police vehicles outside of the Durham County Detention Facility. 

Some were rusty muskets that looked straight out of the Revolutionary War. Others were sleek black pistols with added metal devices making the gun fully automatic and equipped to kill quickly. Most ominous of them all were revolvers with shiny metal barrels that conveniently don’t drop shell casings when they’re fired. 

Michael Taylor, a member of District Court Judge Pat Evans’ community outreach team for her reelection campaign, pointed at one of the revolvers. “That’s the murder weapon,” he said. 

The assortment of guns had one thing in common: they had all been bought back from Durham residents by the sheriff’s office April 9 in the county’s first-ever “Bull City Gun Buy Back.” 

The sheriff’s office offered Visa gift cards as compensation, $100 for a shotgun, $150 for a handgun and $200 for an assault rifle. At both the Mount Vernon Baptist Church and Durham County Stadium, residents could bring their guns in for a financial reward. 

The buy-back event officially began at 2 p.m., but by noon cars had lined up down the block at both locations. The event was scheduled to last until 6 p.m., but by 3 p.m. the officers had run out of their rewards gift cards at both locations. In one hour, they bought back nearly 100 firearms, giving away $10,000 worth of gift cards.  

At each location, deputies turned more than 40 people away after they had run out of gift cards. 

One man brought in 13 guns. “If someone had broken into his house and robbed him, that’s 13 guns hitting the streets,” Taylor said. 

“I was thinking if we got 10 that would be amazing. I’m stunned,” said Lieutenant John Pinner as he unloaded firearms from his trunk.

The buy-back event was organized by Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead in partnership with Evans. Both Birkhead and Evans are running for reelection and are on the ballot in the May 17 primary. 

The buy-back process was anonymous and voluntary, and there was no limit to how many guns an individual could turn in. The press release from the sheriff’s office stated, “No questions will be asked.”

Guidelines for the event were straightforward: Individuals were instructed to drive up in their vehicles, making sure their firearms were visible, so deputies could then retrieve the guns. Participants were compensated only for firearms that were operational. 

“Some people gave us their guns even after we ran out of gift cards,” Evans said.

Evans, a former lawyer with the Durham County District Attorney’s office, has lived in Durham County for 39 years and served as a District Court Judge for the last four. 

Fighting gun violence in Durham is one of the main promises of her reelection campaign. She proposed the buy-back event about a month ago as a way to get guns off the streets.

Evans noted that gun violence in the past four years has been especially bad. More than 1,900 shooting incidents have occurred in Durham since the start of 2020, wounding 650 people and resulting in nearly 90 deaths.  

The sheriff’s office will catalog the guns collected during the buy-back event, then keep them for six months and issue public notices to verify that there are no legal owners who wish to claim them. Then, Evans will sign an order to have the guns either destroyed or used for training purposes, she said. 

After both locations ran out of gift cards, the guns were brought to the Detention Center and loaded onto two large carts. Evans posed triumphantly behind them for photos. As Taylor recorded her on his iPhone, Evans said, “Thank you Durham, for joining us and taking ahold of our vision to make Durham a safer place.” 

Evans said another buy-back day may take place later this month. Many residents who brought guns after organizers had run out of gift cards want to come back next time, she said. 

Taking guns off the streets is only a first step, Evans added. She favors additional solutions that address the root of the gun violence problem. 

“It’s not enough to just take these guns,” Evans said. “We need to replace them with jobs, with mental health treatment, with substance abuse treatment, with tools for people to have a sustainable life.”

Above: Firearms of all sorts were collected at Durham’s recent gun buy-back event. Photo by Sophie Horst — The 9th Street Journal 

Black football players say Durham sheriff’s office gave distorted and insensitive account of traffic stops

On a Monday morning last October, Duke football players shuffled into the team meeting room. Mondays are usually their day off, but they had guest speakers arriving bright and early.

Representatives from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office delivered a message that would leave many of the players offended and unsettled: Cops are more vulnerable than Black men. So, behave.

The sheriff’s representatives showed the players a PowerPoint presentation that contained misleading statistics and an incomplete account of legal rights at traffic stops, according to legal experts. A copy of the presentation was obtained by The 9th Street Journal.

The incident provides a glimpse into how the office, led by Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead, conducts community outreach. In this case, Birkhead and other officials angered a group of mostly Black college athletes.

The 9th Street Journal interviewed five Black players who provided details about the meeting and said they and other teammates were bothered by the presentation because it distorted the facts of police shootings in which Black men were unjustifiably killed.

Police misconduct has been a serious problem throughout the nation, leaving civilians dead and injured. Of the 13 fatal shootings by police in Durham and Raleigh from 2013-2020, nine victims were Black men, according to an analysis by Indy Week and data compiled by The Washington Post. 

Players told The 9th Street Journal the sheriff and his representatives seemed out of touch. 

They were particularly bothered by one slide about police encounters nationwide. “In 2019, police fatally shot 9 unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed white males,” the slide read. “By contrast, a police officer is 18 ½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.”

“What it felt like (the presentation) was saying is that it’s more dangerous for white men in America than Black men in America,” said sophomore James Hopson II. He added that to him, the sheriff’s office implied “it’s more dangerous for the killers than the people who are getting killed.”

“They’re telling us to stay calm,” junior Jacob Monk said. “They’re talking about how cops are very nervous when they do these things. But you’re the one with the gun.”

Said sophomore Isaiah Fisher-Smith, “It sounds like an excuse to be more trigger-heavy.”

Birkhead had no apology for the presentation in a statement to The 9th Street Journal.

“The relationship between the black community and law enforcement has always been strained,” wrote Birkhead, who is Black. “The presentation was not intended to assign blame to either law enforcement or citizens. Rather, the presentation was intended to spark a dialogue between police and citizens…The presentation is something we have shared before and this is the first time we have received feedback like this. We felt then, and still feel now, the subject matter is the reason several players in the audience might have concerns.”

* * * 

The football team invites three to four guest speakers each semester, such as deans or career advisors. According to Birkhead, Will Cole, the team’s director of player development, invited representatives from the sheriff’s office to speak. 

Cole told The 9th Street Journal that the team envisioned a presentation about traffic stops and invited Birkhead because he is Black and has had a “long-term relationship” with Duke. (Birkhead is a former Duke police chief.) “We just wanted to bring him in to inform the guys for educational purposes of the kind of police encounters that come up with students,” Cole said in an interview.

Black players were bothered by the PowerPoint presentation. “I’m no mathematician,” said player DeWayne Carter, “but 2% of 375 million is a lot of people.”  (Slide from Sheriff’s PowerPoint.)

The week before the Oct. 18 presentation, one of the coaches announced the sheriff was coming to promote “building relationships” and “community engagement,” according to sophomore Khilan Walker. 

The players were already annoyed about having to wake up early on their day off. They were even less enthusiastic when they heard they would be lectured by a cop.

Some hoped the conversation would be productive. Others were skeptical. Hopson and others said that Kevin Lehman, chief of staff for the football team, told the team that since Sheriff Birkhead is Black, the players might be able to “relate” to him. 

* * * 

At the start of the meeting, Cutcliffe introduced the speakers. (Cutcliffe declined to comment for this story.) Birkhead delivered some brief remarks and Lt. Eric Carpenter, who is white, replaced him at the podium and began the 30-minute presentation with a set of statistics.

The statistics immediately bothered the players. There they were, a group of mostly Black men, dragged out of bed on a Monday morning only to hear a cop suggest that they were threatening. They traded glances that communicated their shock. Why are we here? they wondered.

The players said the presentation made traffic stops of Black men seem dangerous – for the deputies. 

“We’re nervous,” a speaker from the sheriff’s office said, according to several players. 

Monk said, “They’re telling us to stay calm. On the next slide, they’re talking about how cops are very nervous when they do these things. If we’re unarmed, why do we have to stay calm when you’re the one with the gun?”

“They painted themselves as victims,” DeWayne Carter, a junior and one of the team captains, said. “They didn’t even give us a chance to give them a chance.”

Carpenter’s presentation used statistics that presented a biased account of racial patterns in traffic stops, the players said. As he continued, many members of the team lost interest.

“When it got to that point, everyone had zoned out,” Monk said. “No one was locked into the meeting anymore, because we honestly felt disrespected.”

“I felt like it was a shot at us,” said Hopson. “It feels like less value (was being) put on our lives. That’s what it felt like.”

Eventually, Carpenter gave the players a chance to ask questions. For the most part, they were silent.

“I felt like it would be pointless to interact, because this is how (law enforcement officers) truly feel,” said Carter.

* * * 

The PowerPoint used by the sheriff’s office presented a one-sided view of traffic stops. 

Players said they found the presentation disturbing from the first slide. It said that during a “12-month period” with “over 375 million contacts” between police and the public, “only 2% experienced threats or use of force from police. Handcuffing was (the) most prevalent type of force.”

Carter said he found that number alarming, even if the sheriff’s office did not intend it so. 

“I’m no mathematician, but 2% of 375 million is a lot of people,” he said. As he looked around the room at his teammates, their surprised faces indicated they agreed.

The next slide attempted to explain and minimize police shootings, saying that “in 2019, police fatally shot 1,004 people, most whom were armed or otherwise dangerous.” It said that those fatally shot included “9 unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed white males.” 

The slide also said, “By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.” 

The PowerPoint is attributed to federal data. But it echoes a Wall Street Journal opinion column by writer Heather Mac Donald. (Sheriff’s PowerPoint)

The slide attributed the data to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal agency. But identical wording appears in a 2020 Wall Street Journal opinion column titled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” by Heather Mac Donald, whose analysis cites Washington Post data and other sources. Mac Donald is a conservative political commentator and author of “The War on Cops.” Jeff Sessions, who served as attorney general in the Trump administration, once called her “the greatest thinker on criminal justice in America today.”

Birkhead did not directly address The 9th Street Journal’s questions about the wording being identical to Mac Donald’s or the source of the data on the slides. He again referred to the statistics as coming from the U.S. Justice Department.

Sonja B. Starr, a law professor at the University of Chicago, tweeted a thread of 25 criticisms of Mac Donald’s article and its sources. Among the critiques, Starr noted that Mac Donald excluded a growing body of empirical studies that point to racial discrimination in policing and the criminal justice system. She also said Mac Donald’s article also relied upon a study that used faulty logic in explaining white officers’ fatal shootings of racial minorities

Frank R. Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The 9th Street Journal that the statistics in the PowerPoint “seem designed to suggest that it’s reasonable for a police officer to treat you differently based on your race and gender.” 

Baumgartner analyzed 20 million traffic stops in North Carolina for “Suspect Citizens,” a book he co-authored, and found that Black people are about twice as likely as white people to be stopped by officers while driving on highways, and approximately twice as likely to be searched.

The presentation’s characterization of police as vulnerable confirmed his suspicions about the inner workings of law enforcement: “They put it right there on the PowerPoint, that they’re scared of Black men.” 

He found the presentation “a complete overstatement of the risk to the officer at a traffic stop.”

* * * 

The football players said the deputies emphasized their own rights when searching vehicles but said little about the rights of the people they stop. Law professors who were told about the players’ accounts and provided a copy of the PowerPoint said the players received a skewed perspective on racial dynamics at traffic stops, their own rights, and how they should interact with officers.

For example, the Durham City Council in October 2014 implemented a mandate that requires city police officers to provide a consent form before searching a vehicle, which explains the extent to which an officer may search. Baumgartner said consented searches in the city decreased afterwards, falling by 95% by the end of 2020. 

The PowerPoint did not mention this form, which presumably could be relevant for a Duke student who is stopped near campus.

Another piece of advice from the PowerPoint reads, “Be honest with the officer. If you really didn’t see the stop sign, or were unaware of the speed limit, let the officer know. Being honest about any situation never hurts.”

But a defense attorney might disagree with that advice. Duke School of Law Professor Lisa Kern Griffin said if a law enforcement officer stops someone, they should pull over, keep their hands on the wheel and provide requested documentation such as a driver’s license. However, they should not answer probing questions or try to offer excessive explanations about their situation without talking to a lawyer. “Try to stay calm, to be polite.” However, because the outcome of police stops is unpredictable, it is “better to stay silent.”

Professor James E. Coleman Jr., a Duke School of Law professor, agreed. He said he was troubled with the tone of the presentation.

“I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the football team, or Duke, inviting police officers to come talk to students about issues like this,” Coleman said. 

“What concerns me about the presentation is that it seems to have been set up to suggest that the police have reasons to stop Black people more often than white people; that they have reason to fear Black people more than they fear white people, and that, therefore, Black people being killed is not a reflection of racism, but a reflection of how dangerous they are, and how legitimate it is for police officers to be quick to use their deadly force…

“What they ought to be doing is addressing those issues and trying to train their forces so they stop doing these discriminatory traffic stops—and they stop killing Black people.”

* * * 

The day after the presentation, Cutcliffe summoned the players into the football meeting room once again. 

The players gathered inside, some wondering if he would apologize or address the sheriff’s presentation that left them so angry.

The head coach was angry, too – at the players.

He said the players were disrespectful. They seemed tired. They were eating. Phones were going off. He caught some eye rolls. Their masks were too low.

The players were disappointed in the coach’s reaction, they told The 9th Street Journal. But no one spoke up. The team was struggling, having lost four of its seven games.The players wanted to focus on football.

“I felt like saying something to the coach, but I didn’t feel like my voice would be heard,” Hopson said.   

* * * 

On the day of the meeting, Duke Football tweeted a picture of the unmasked Lt. Carpenter at the presentation with the caption: “Thankful for the @DurhamSheriff Department every day, but especially today. They took time this morning to stop by our team meeting to educate us and give helpful tips on how to interact with law enforcement.”

This tweet from Duke Football was deleted after players complained.

Carter and a few other players emailed the social media team to say the tweet was distasteful and to ask them to take it down. The team deleted the tweet, but several students, professors and community members were already outraged by it. The tweet had gone viral, accompanied by an onslaught of angry comments.

Duke Football has a long history of engaging with organizations to speak with student-athletes on various life-skills topics,” Art Chase, Senior Associate Director of Athletics/External Affairs for Duke Athletics, said in a statement to The 9th Street Journal.

This specific presentation was designed to provide a deeper understanding of North Carolina laws (and their own personal rights).”

“We greatly value the perspectives of our student-athletes, and, as our programming continues to evolve, will seize the opportunity to further evaluate our speakers, topics and formats,” he added. “We were in unison with the student-athletes that specific images of the presentation were insensitive as the posted content did not properly provide the full context of the event, and thus, (the tweet) was removed.”

Cole, the team’s director of player development, said, “I can see and understand the frustration…I know it’s an uncomfortable conversation. But I thought the meat of the presentation was great stuff. I thought you could have easily walked away from there gaining information.”

* * *

The players had mixed feelings about online reaction to the presentation, which was overwhelmingly negative. Some wanted to join the criticism on social media, while others did not want to jeopardize their standing on the team or inflame further controversy during a difficult season. 

Carter said he understands that often, when police interact with civilians they are “obviously” scared. 

“But at the same time, you’re the ones with the power,” he said. “Whenever I get stopped by police, I literally will sit there and not move, hands the wheel, do whatever I’m instructed, all the windows down, because there’s just that innate fear, already.”

Photo at top: The Durham County Sheriff’s Office posted this photo of the meeting with Duke football players on its Facebook page. Players said the sheriff’s representatives presented a distorted view of traffic stops. 

Durham County Sheriff’s statement on Duke football presentation

Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead issued a written statement in response to inquiries from The 9th Street Journal. The full text of the statement is included below:

In September 2021, my office (DCSO) was first approached by the Duke University football program to make a brief presentation to their players to discuss “what to do when stopped by the police.” Our point of contact and the Duke employee who made the initial approach was Will Cole, Director of Player Development. It is our understanding Mr. Cole is still associated with Duke athletics. DCSO accepted the invitation because we think it is important to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the community, especially here in Durham.

After being welcomed by then Head Coach David Cutcliffe, I introduced a member of our SCOPE Unit who gave the presentation. SCOPE is an acronym for “Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort.SCOPE’s mission statement is to perform numerous functions including funeral escorts, event security and traffic control, traffic enforcement, impaired driving education, community watch, and much more to help build and maintain relationships with Durham County residents. I highlight the italicized part to justify the reason why my office accepted the invitation from Duke football.

The presentation we shared in mid-October 2021 can be interpreted as uncomfortable because the cited references from the United States Justice Department are concerning. The relationship between the black community and law enforcement has always been strained. This strained relationship is highlighted by the recent protests arising from police-citizen encounters and specifically officer-involved shootings and use of force; some of which occur during traffic stops. The presentation was not intended to assign blame to either law enforcement or citizens. Rather, the presentation was intended to spark a dialogue between police and citizens.

As Sheriff, part of my responsibility is to address the disconnect that has existed between law enforcement and the community. This includes sharing data and other information related to these encounters. The conversation with the Duke football team, and our youth, is an opportunity I welcome and would accept again. The presentation is something we have shared before and this is the first time we have received feedback like this. We felt then, and still feel now, the subject matter is the reason several players in the audience might have concerns.

Hillside High production captures the cost of gun violence

The trouble started when Hillside High School student Logan Lewis hopped off the stage and into the audience wielding a fake handgun. 

Gunshots sounded, and a student actor on stage crumpled to the floor, dropping another fake handgun. The victim’s friend picked up the gun and chased Lewis to his home where he pounded his fists on the door, screaming for his mother. More gunshots rang out, and Lewis’ mother opened the door to find her son dead on her doorstep. 

In the blink of an eye, the fictional community became a crime scene: Yellow tape wrapped around the porch and desperate sobs from huddled family members pierced the air, echoed by sniffles from the audience. 

It was all made up, an emotional scene toward the end of Hillside’s production of an original play “State of Urgency.” 

But the play also reflects actual events. “State of Urgency” originated as a response to Durham’s worsening gun violence problem. It also draws upon the real-life experiences of Hillside students, linking the experience of street violence with classroom struggles. 

The play was performed three times over the weekend of November 14-16, and discussions are underway about presenting the play to other school audiences around Durham in the future.

A student-teacher collaboration

Hillside Drama Director Wendell Tabb wrote the play together with 16 Hillside students, including 11th-grader and Drama Club President Aniya Lowe.

“I got emotional at times,” Lowe said. “It’s really the nicest people to go through the worst things…They’re speaking about it to you and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, this happened to you and I didn’t even know’.”

The play—the school’s first in-person production since the pandemic began—featured powerful monologues drawn from students’ personal experiences, as well as moving original songs and dance numbers. It addressed a range of issues, from colorism and school bullying to police brutality and Black-on-Black violence, forming a collage of the harsh realities feeding the growth of gun violence in Durham. 

A call to action

Act One of “State of Urgency” opens with a flurry of emotions: Students, all wearing t-shirts with taglines such as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” yell out desires for peace, safety and mental health support. The voices crescendo into a collective question, perhaps pointed at the police, the government, the adults in the room, or all three: “Where are you?” 

It is the first of many appeals to the audience. 

The play’s action takes place on a city block, with a corner store, community recreation center and living quarters. 

The audience first sees the block as it was in 1979: unified, safe and lively. Things quickly deteriorate as flashing lights and eerie music bring us into the present, where the block feels isolated and unsafe.

Scenes of police brutality follow, along with scenes of school strife, where colorism and materialism lead to bullying and exclusion. 

Act Two opens with the students wandering the block, lamenting the violence they are living through. 

The scenes that follow look beyond the world of high school, including a depiction of a traffic stop gone fatally awry. A traffic officer mistakes a man’s phone for a gun and shoots the man as passersby capture the tragic death on camera. The stage sweeps into a Black Lives Matter protest, with students hoisting signs and chanting.

The play also spotlights intergenerational debates over police reform and the value of protesting.

“Preserve the good and weed out the bad,” the cast says in unison, summarizing the debate.

The play wraps up with the students returning to the stage and imploring the audience to look within and be the change they want to see.

“This was a call to action,” Oral Chinfloo, a Hillside parent said after the performance. “I hope people reflect on what they just witnessed.”

Fiction and real life

The play pays homage to civil rights leaders of the past, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. 

Outside the theater, Tabb also highlighted local activism. In the building’s foyer, organizations such as Bull City United and Guns Down Hearts Up set up tables devoted to their work against gun violence. The Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt stretched along the foyer, holding over 800 names, each written on a cloth square. One square held the name of Robert Antone Baines, who was fatally shot in February 2021. His mother, Brenda Young, stood quietly nearby.

Before the play began, Tabb welcomed Young to the stage. Young shared how senseless violence took the lives of three of her family members. She begged members of the audience to help end local gun violence. 

“I grieve every day,” Young said. “Don’t wait ’til it hits you… You do not want to go through this pain.”

Tabb then asked any victims of gun violence in the audience to stand. Six people rose.

After the play, as students greeted their families outside the theater for congratulatory hugs, a few people congregated around the memorial quilt. Young stood over the quilt, looking at the square with her son’s name on it. Closer to the middle of the quilt,  a young dancer wept quietly over another cloth square. 

“Even though this is make-believe for us in terms of theater, this is not make-believe in real life,” Tabb said in an interview afterward. “It’s not a game. And as a community, we can’t treat it as a game.”

Above, Brenda Young points to her son’s name on the Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt, on display at Hillside High School during the production of ‘State of Urgency’. Photo by Olivia Olsher – The 9th Street Journal 

Council approves pay raises for police, firefighters

City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve pay raises for police officers and firefighters of every rank, in an effort to counter staff shortages in Durham’s police and fire departments.

The raises, which take effect immediately, are intended to bring Durham’s public safety salaries up to competitive levels, after years of falling behind. Police officers and firefighters will begin receiving increased pay as soon as their next paycheck, on Jan. 28. 

“Durham will be where I believe it belongs, right at the top of the list of our peer cities in terms of compensating our first responders,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton. 

Before the raises, pay for Durham’s police and firefighters trailed behind market levels. Market research conducted by the city in August across 13 municipalities in North Carolina and Virginia found that Durham Police Department salaries lagged behind that of other cities by 12.4%, while fire department salaries lagged by 10.4%. 

Police recruits will receive a 10.6% raise, increasing their annual pay from $38,511 to $42,593. Firefighter recruits will receive a 14.3% raise, from $35,592 to $40,682 annually. Employees of higher ranks will receive proportionately equal increases in pay. The raises will cost the city a total of just over $4 million for the remainder of the fiscal year. 

Many Durham community activists have advocated for reforming or defunding the police, and reform efforts are underway, including the city’s new Community Safety Department. However, advocates for police reform did not comment during Tuesday’s meeting. 

Instead, Durham community members voiced their support for the raises in the public chat alongside the meeting’s livestream. The commenters included numerous police officers and firefighters. 

“Hoping to see the right thing done for Durham’s firefighters tonight,” wrote one firefighter ahead of the vote. 

The new compensation plans were developed collaboratively by the Durham Human Resources Department and the city’s public safety staff. 

Under the newly approved pay plan, Durham’s police and fire departments now offer the highest or second-highest salaries among a group of peer cities including Fayetteville, Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. City officials said they hope the increase in pay will help attract and retain new recruits to fill vacancies in both departments.

Turnover rates among police recruits have increased from 43.3% to 55.6% over a 12-month period as of November 2021. To make up for the lack of personnel, Police Chief Patrice Andrews announced in December that high-ranking officers and detectives would temporarily join patrol units.

The pay raises also come during a spike in crime and gun violence in Durham. A recent rash of shootings has taken the lives of many community members, while the city recorded its highest number of homicides ever committed in one year in 2021. 

Durham’s police and fire departments were overdue for a boost in salaries, based upon previously announced city goals.

A city pay plan adopted in 2017 calls for regular market adjustments to police and firefighters’ pay scales, along with merit raises for employees based on effective job performance. In recent years, however, both market adjustments and annual performance-based raises have been lacking.   

In 2018 and 2019, pay rates for police and fire department staff went unchanged. In 2020, due to pandemic-related budget constraints, there was again no market adjustment, and employees also failed to receive annual merit raises. In 2021, the city once again did not offer annual performance-based raises.

The new compensation plans approved on Tuesday will help the city recover ground lost in the past two years. 

“It’s not a final destination, but it’s an incredibly important step towards closing disparities in compensation for our workers here in Durham,” Middleton said.

9th Street Journal reporter wins state journalism award for revealing inmate’s death

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.

Prius owners scramble to outwit thieves

Susan Rankin does what she can to protect her twice-targeted Prius.

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 clara.love@duke.edu

Sheriff’s department hit a nerve on Twitter

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 dryden.quigley@duke.edu

In city with surging shootings, police looking for armed man terrified children and mothers

By Charlie Zong
and Cameron Oglesby

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.

With Jaylin Harris at left, Zakarryya Cornelius thanked people for showing support at a rally on their behalf in September. The boy’s mother, Makeba Hoffler, stood behind him, to the right. Photo by Henry Haggart

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 charlie.zong@duke.edu and cameron.oglesby@duke.edu.

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.

City Council divided on best response to gun violence surge

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.

A collage of a fraction of Durham Police Department descriptions of shootings posted on Twitter this month.

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.

Two Durham Police Department cruisers downtown with lights flashing. Photo by Henry Haggart

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 charlie.zong@duke.edu

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