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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 to develop and fund an expanded violence interrupter program run by the city, Johnson said, and 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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some groups want no police, but BLAST works to better connect

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.”

Chris Kenan watches a woman fill out a voter registration form at the Hoover Road public housing complex. Photo by Henry Haggart

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.  

Some police officers stood at the edge of the circle when residents, officers and city officials created a circle at the Hoover Road event. Photo by Henry Haggart

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.

Blast co-founder Arkeem Brooks knocks at an apartment door at the Hoover Road community. Photo by Henry Haggart

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.”

A BLAST call for donations to help residents at McDougald Terrace public housing community posted on Twitter.

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 charlie.zong@duke.edu

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

Durham leaders: Night of vandalism at odds with racial-justice movement

By Cameron Oglesby
and 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.” 

A left-behind banner lay crumpled on the ground after Wednesday’s vandalism spree downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart

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 cameron.oglesby@duke.edu and henry.haggart@duke.edu

At top: Two men clean up broken glass Thursday outside 5 Points Gallery on East Chapel Hill Street. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham sheriff requests more COVID-19 testing for county jail

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 dryden.quigley@duke.edu

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

Durham debates more change to rules limiting police use of force

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. 

In 2016, the city hired police chief Cerelyn Davis, who vowed to build a “culture of trust” between police and the community.

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.

But recent controversies over a police officer being accused of assault of a high school student and officers drawing weapons on three youngsters have renewed demands for an end to police violence.

The reform campaign

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.”

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

At top: Protesters march through downtown last week in support of the families of three Black kids who police confronted with drawn guns at an apartment complex in August. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham police confronting kids with guns sparks more demands for change

By Henry Haggart

New demands that Durham Police Department improve how it treats residents swelled last week after news broke that police officers approached Black children with guns drawn at an apartment complex.

Three days after dozens of community members, many parents and children, gathered in front of Durham City Hall in protest, event organizers continued to demand action today.

They want police to release body camera footage of the encounter, which involved kids aged 8, 11 and 15. They also want a recording of the phone call that summoned police to Rochelle Manor Apartments on Aug. 21.

Most importantly, commit to reforming community policing efforts to ensure the officers are not only members of our community but be regular participants of engagement, committed to strengthening the relationships between officers and civilians,” organizers wrote Monday on a Facebook post.

Durham resident Travis Jones spoke Friday to the crowd outside of city hall. “Until these cops lose their badge or their paycheck, it’s going to be a problem for me,” he said. Photo by Henry Haggart

Sarah Hinton and others organized Friday’s protest after seeing a WRAL report about parents’ anger at the incident, which resulted in police temporarily detaining the oldest kid in the group, 15-year-old Jaylin Harris, in handcuffs.

Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis on Sunday said the officers were responding to a call about a “suspicious person with a weapon” at Rochelle Manor in East Durham. The caller claimed that the person in question had “a gun and drugs” and suspected that he had been involved in a prior shooting, her written statement said. 

City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton spoke to the families of children who police approached with guns drawn at Friday’s protest. Photo by Henry Haggart

The families of the children met with members of the Police Department, including Davis, last week. But on Friday they said they were not satisfied with the outcome.

“The solution that we wanted, we didn’t get,” said Makeba Hoffler, the mother of Zakarryya Cornelius, the youngest of three boys who family members said were playing tag when police arrived. His birthday was the day ofter the encounter.

“We didn’t get an apology,” Hoffler said, adding after the meeting she was not convinced that officers cared for the children. 

City Council member Charlie Reese also addressed the protestors and urged them to push city leaders to address their concerns. Photo by Henry Haggart

Davis wrote that she had expressed “sincere remorse” to the families in her statement. “We recognize that the current climate of adverse encounters by police in communities of color around the nation continue to resonate,” she said.  

City Council members Charlie Reece and Mark-Anthony Middleton attended Friday’s protest and encouraged participants to keep demanding change by contacting city officials and pursuing other avenues. 

“Stay in our faces, stay in our inboxes” said Middleton, who assured participants that the city, as Davis said in her statement, will thoroughly investigate the incident.

If officers violated any rules, they will be held accountable, Middleton said. “If badges need to be snatched, they’ll be snatched,” he promised.

With Jaylin Harris at left, Zakarryya Cornelius thanked people for showing support Friday. The boy’s mother, Makeba Hoffler, stood behind him, to the right. Photo by Henry Haggart

Before the crowd dispersed, 15-year-old Jaylin Harris, and 9-year-old Zakarryya Cornelius spoke and expressed gratitude for the people who gathered on their behalf.

The incident with the police “made me feel like I won’t be able to come outside,” Cornelius said. “Thank you for coming to stand here and listen to us.”

Organizers said they plan to reconvene on Friday, for a second protest at city hall to be followed by a march to the Durham Police Department headquarters.

9th Street photographer Henry Haggart can be reached at henry.haggart@duke.edu

Top photo: After Friday’s protest finished, a child studied a sign protesters brought to Durham City Hall. Photo by Henry Haggart

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gathering the data

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

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

So she started saving her tax notices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic by Cameron Oglesby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope for her hometown

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

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

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

Painting by Andrea Cobb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A local, national trend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire at Stagville plantation was set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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