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Six Durham County jail staff test positive for COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With domestic violence uptick during pandemic, Durham shelter adjusts services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Durham’s shelter is responding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social distancing, sanitation and support 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How police are enforcing stay-at-home orders

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

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

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

Economic impacts of the coronavirus

Small businesses across the city are struggling during the pandemic. 

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

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

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

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

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

City council changes 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food

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

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

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

Healthcare

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

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

Transportation

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

Parks and Gyms

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

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

Other stores and services 

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

Entertainment

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

Banks and post offices

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

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

Photos from City of Durham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struggling to make rent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An uncertain future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeks into McDougald Terrace evacuation, a mother yearns for normalcy

When Shimey Harvey first found out she was getting a public housing apartment at McDougald Terrace three years ago, she rejoiced.  

Harvey was living with her best friend in Chapel Hill, sharing a single bedroom with her daughter and son. She worked the night shift at Cruizers, a gas station chain, and got a call from the Durham Housing Authority when she returned home one morning.  

“They said, ‘Your lease is ready to be signed’,” Harvey remembered. “I said, ‘I’ll be there!’”  

That day, she signed a lease for a three-bedroom apartment in the city’s oldest and largest public lodging, a site long plagued by substandard conditions. But to Harvey, the apartment was a new beginning.  

“I cried by myself for an hour after I got back to Chapel Hill,” Harvey said. “It had been so long since I had my own space.”  

When her son Robert, then eight, got home from school that day, Harvey put an envelope on the table with the McDougald Terrace apartment keys inside. Open it, she told Robert.

“He looked and said, ‘Keys! Mommy, you got your own apartment!’ He cried and cried,” Harvey said.  

McDougald Terrace quickly became home. But Harvey and Robert, now a sixth grader at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, left Jan. 3, when the housing authority started evacuating 270 families after carbon monoxide and other hazards were detected in apartments.  

Losing home

Shimey Harvey and her son, Robert, in their one-room lodging at Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road. Photo by Cameron Beach

Harvey, Robert, and other affected families didn’t simply lose their mailing address. They lost child care, social communities, stability, and, in Harvey’s case, her job.  

Harvey and her son are only two of nearly 900 displaced McDougald Terrace residents, mostly women and their children, living in 16 hotels across Durham.  

After multiple residents were treated for carbon monoxide exposure, the housing authority evacuated nearly 75% of McDougald Terrace’s 360 apartments, including Harvey’s. Residents who were not required to leave were allowed to if they wished.

Evacuations were originally planned for a week. Instead, they’ve dragged on for more than a month. After weeks of inspections, DHA found that 211 gas stoves, 38 furnaces and 35 hot water heaters needed replacing or repairing due to inadequate venting of potentially lethal carbon monoxide. Contractors are also repairing electrical wiring, cleaning up mold, and tackling insect infestations in the 67-year-old public housing complex.  

After multiple extensions and an estimated $4.3 million worth of repairs, DHA officials have said they expect Harvey and other residents can begin moving back to McDougald Terrace this month.   

Harvey wants to get back home. Another week in the Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road means another week of no kitchen, no job and lots of family anxiety.  

Coping with evacuation

When using public transportation, Harvey takes two buses to travel between her temporary lodging and McDougald Terrace.

Each morning in the hotel, Harvey sets her alarm at 5 a.m. to wake Robert for school. He needs to get up early to eat the hotel’s continental breakfast at 6:30 a.m. or make it to Lowe’s Grove in time for school breakfast.   

Once Robert is where he needs to be, Harvey does laundry, stops at the grocery store, and runs other errands. Then, she takes an hour-long trip on two bus routes from the Quality Inn to McDougald Terrace to meet Robert’s school bus. Together, they make the hour-long journey back to their hotel.  

“When you don’t have a car, it’s a lot,” she said.  

Transportation isn’t the only challenge Harvey is dealing with. Before the evacuation, Harvey worked part-time in housekeeping at Rose Manor, a local nursing home. If she couldn’t make it back to McDougald Terrace in time to get Robert off the bus, that was okay. Friends and family there stepped in to help.  

Harvey checks on her apartment when she reaches McDougald Terrace. Photo by Corey Pilson

“My child care was my community,” Harvey explained. “Robert’s father lived across from me at McDougald. His godmother lived about four houses down.”  Now, with displaced residents spread out across 16 different hotels, Harvey has lost that community — and child care for Robert.

“I can’t bring him to work with me, and I have nobody to watch him,” she said. “So I had to let this job go.”  

Harvey resigned from Rose Manor on Jan. 23. Her boss told her he’d hold the job if she could return within a week, she said. “It takes a village, but I don’t have a village right now,” Harvey said. “I have no child care.”  

Harvey has worried for weeks that Robert’s health could suffer from this crisis. At McDougald Terrace, she started sleeping with the windows open to reduce the risk he breathed in carbon monoxide. At the Quality Inn room where Harvey and Robert live, packed with snacks and shoes and bags of clothing, Robert has little room to move.  

“Our children can’t run and play like before,” Harvey said.  

DHA has been providing daily stipends to displaced McDougald Terrace residents. Those living in hotels with kitchens receive $30 per adult and $15 per child each day, while those without kitchens, including Harvey and her son, receive twice that amount. Harvey is grateful for the money she’s received from DHA.  

“The stipends they’ve been giving me have helped,” she said. Harvey has used hers to buy cooking supplies for her hotel room, like a microwave and a pressure cooker.  

Space is at a premium in the hotel room. Harvey uses what’s available, including a bedside table, to store her and her son’s belongings. Photo by Corey Pilson

From their room at the Quality Inn, Harvey and Robert can walk to fast food vendors like COOK OUT, McDonald’s, and Bojangles’. But Harvey wants to feed her son healthier meals.  

“I just started trying Zaxby’s, because they have salads,” she said. “I’m trying to be healthy for him, but it’s expensive. Money goes quick.”  

Eager for normal

Volunteers from across the city have come together to support displaced McDougald Terrace residents. They’ve started donation websites, served meals and coordinated transportation.  

Frances Castillo, one of those volunteers, helped start a GoFundMe page for residents. Some of the funds Castillo and the team have raised are used to cook and deliver hot meals to each of the 16 hotels. Harvey and Robert have enjoyed three of those meals so far.  

Volunteers also see firsthand the toll displacement has taken on residents.  

“One woman I heard from now has a commute over an hour each way to get to work because she’s no longer near a direct bus route,” Castillo said. “Imagine being moved with none of your belongings, across town, into one small room.”  

Harvey doesn’t have to imagine. Moving all her family’s necessities — clothes, snacks for Robert and school supplies — from a three-bedroom apartment into a one-room hotel reminds Harvey of all the times she’s spent without a place of her own.  

“It’s like I’m in the New York shelter system again,” she said during an interview in her hotel room.  

Robert, at home on a weekend morning, nodded his head. “All of us were cramped up in one room when we were there,” he said.  

Harvey is frustrated by what she sees as negligence from DHA. She wants people to be held accountable for dangerous conditions at McDougald Terrace, which has failed repeated inspections in recent years. But above all, she wants her life back.  

“I want to be able to go to church,” she said. “I want to be able to make my son happy. That’s it. Stability. That’s all I want.”

At top: Shimey Harvey departs her temporary home, Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, on foot. Photo by Corey Pilson

Correction: This story was modified to correct a misspelling of Shimey Harvey’s first name.

‘It was like a bomb’

Freddy DiVallerino was trimming trees on the 100 block of North Duke Street when he heard the explosion.

“It was like a bomb,” he said. “I had my back turned, and when I looked around I saw glass and chunks of the building hitting the ground.”

One person was killed and at least 17 people, including a firefighter, were injured after a gas explosion rocked downtown Durham Wednesday morning. Residents blocks away felt the blast and wondered what happened. But for those nearby, there was no doubt that something enormous and lethal had just occurred.

DiVallerino owns Freddy’s Tree Services. His staff was working on the landscaping in front of the Ingram Collection, a private museum of Porsches, right before the explosion.

Video of the immediate aftermath of the Durham gas line explosion Wednesday, shot by Freddy DiVallerino. Graphic language included. Used by permission. (Click here if you have trouble viewing.)

He said he began to smell gas around 9:30 am and told a nearby employee to call 911 and the gas company. Members of the Durham Fire Department, dispatched at 9:38, arrived quickly and evacuated people from businesses on the block.

DiVallerino was standing in the parking lot outside the Ingram Collection at 111 North Duke St. when the blast struck at 10:07 am.

“I was screaming, cussing,” he said. “But I knew I had to look for people, because someone might still be in there.”

DiVallerino said he jumped through the window of Prescient, a construction company at 115 North Duke St., in the worst-hit building. “The walls were collapsed, the ceiling was collapsed,” he said. “I went to the second floor and yelled for any survivors, but I didn’t hear anything back. Then I knew I had to get out of there.”

A few minutes later, tall flames roared from the roof of the building, which quickly collapsed.

Casey McCollough, an inspector for the NC Department of Transportation, said he was waiting for co-workers in his truck a block from the blast.

“I heard the loudest explosion I’ve ever heard in my life,” McCollough said. “Then I see a man running down the sidewalk. His face was full of glass, his back and arms had glass in them, and his hair was completely burnt off,” he said.

“He was just walking past the sidewalk when the explosion happened,” said McCollough, who said he took out his first aid kit from his truck and waited for an ambulance to help the man.

Durham firefighters remained on the block where the explosion occurred all day Wednesday. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

The cause of the blast is under investigation. Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn Wednesday morning said it appeared that a construction worker damaged a gas line. “The gas leak was caused by a contractor drilling under the sidewalk. He hit a two-inch gas line,” Glenn said.

The collapsed building also included Kaffeinate, a coffee shop. The building housing the Ingram Collection was also severely damaged.

At midday, Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said that the Durham Fire Department will continue searching for any remaining victims. “Units are starting search and rescue operations,” Zoldos said. Tunneling and “delayering” the damaged buildings could take days.

City officials closed the blocks surrounding the site of Wednesday’s explosion to everybody but emergency responders. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Ethan Stansbury, a Duke University junior, said he was across the street in his West Village apartment when he felt the blast.

“I thought a truck had crashed into the side of our building,” he said. “The windows of our apartment blew inwards, so there’s glass all over. It knocked stuff off our walls, too.”

When Stansbury went outside, he saw chaos. “People were crying, and there was glass and debris in the streets three blocks away. There were broken windows everywhere, and water leaking from pipes in the parking deck two blocks over.”

This is not what city officials were expecting today, the 150th anniversary of Durham’s founding.

“It’s a sad day,” said Mayor Steve Schewel, who also emphasized how well front-line emergency workers responded to the disaster.

“It’s also a day that I feel a lot of gratitude and pride for the way the employees of the city and county have responded,” he said.

(Alex Johnson contributed to this article)

Photo at top from video shot by Freddy DeVallerino. Used by permission.

Durham police chief brings hope back to department, though change is taking time

When Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis stood before the City Council for the first time in May 2016, she introduced her plan to revamp a police department in turmoil.

Davis vowed to address the “alarming increase in violent crime” that rattled the city in 2015 and 2016, and she promised to immediately begin rebuilding strong relationships with community and business leaders.

Thirty months later, Davis has delivered on most of her promises, particularly on limiting violent crime. She has also appointed liaison officers and cooperated with Durham’s Misdemeanor Diversion Program, which helps decriminalize first-time minor drug offenses, but racial disparities in traffic stops and searches are still concerning for minority groups in Durham.

Making Durham safer

Davis took charge of a department on its heels when she began her job on June 6, 2016 after serving as a deputy chief in the Atlanta Police Department.

There were 37 homicides in Durham in 2015 under “won’t-be-missed Jose Lopez,” as longtime former News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders labeled the former chief. Lopez was forced to resign at the end of that year, but homicides kept increasing to 42 in 2016, the most since at least 1980.

That trend immediately stopped in Davis’ first full year as police chief, as homicides were cut in half to 21. Overall violent crime remained relatively flat in 2017, but it was down 17 percent through three quarters in 2018.

“I give her a huge amount of credit, and not only is violent crime down 17 percent, but crime with a gun is down 26 percent,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said. “We are in a very sweet spot right now. We are reducing violent crime at the same time as we’re increasing the trust within the community.”

Council member Charlie Reece noted that the drop in violent crime is particularly impressive in a city with a rising population like Durham. But the population growth could also work in Durham’s favor — many newcomers are wealthier than previous residents and are gentrifying downtown apartment complexes and condos.

Some of the violent crime seems to have moved to poorer surrounding areas, where crime rates have grown in the last two years, though Davis insisted her department deserves credit for catching and imprisoning repeat offenders.

“It didn’t just happen. We moved some staff around, more visible, paying really close attention to hot-spot areas and being laser-focused at individuals committing violent crime and catching up with them,” Davis said after her third-quarter crime report at a City Council meeting last month. “That’s what it really takes is for us to look at the few people that are committing the most violent crimes.”

More lenient, but far from perfect

Questions about racial profiling linger. A March 2016 report by the independent research firm RTI International found that the odds of a male driver stopped by police being black were 20 percent higher during the day — when officers can more easily determine drivers’ races — than at night in Durham between 2010 and 2015. The report did not find similar disproportionate treatment of black drivers in Raleigh, Greensboro or Fayetteville.

The RTI report confirmed what community leaders in Durham had long suspected, providing data to support concerns of racial profiling. A month after it went public, the Durham Police Department took its first major step in repairing its image by hiring its first-ever African-American woman chief.

“Anecdotally, the people with whom I’ve spoken, they feel that it’s easier to ride around now without getting hassled by the cops, because I think that’s pretty much what led Lopez to being ousted,” Saunders said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “At least I think people are optimistic now, which I don’t think they ever were under Lopez.”

Davis appears to have addressed the outcry over racial profiling on the roads by deemphasizing traffic stops altogether. Durham police conducted 44.2 percent fewer stops in 2017 than in 2015, representing a sharp drop from 20,780 to 11,587 in just two years.

“It’s just about shifting the culture for all of us to be involved in community engagement,” Davis said. “If it’s just introducing yourself, if it’s just giving a person an opportunity to speed one time and just get a warning, it works. It helps people to think twice the next time they’re lead-footed.”

Fewer stops doesn’t mean racial profiling has been solved, though. In 2017, 58 percent of drivers stopped were black, more than their 41 percent share of Durham’s population. Once drivers have been stopped, they are also far more likely to be searched if they are black — 79.9 percent of searches in 2017 were conducted on black drivers.

“I didn’t expect her to come in and work miracles in that regard. I think most people are willing to give her time because they realize it wasn’t just about one bad officer. Durham has some of the greatest police officers I’ve ever met, and they’ve also got some assholes too,” Saunders said. “Institutional change isn’t going to occur just because you change the leadership. She’s got to get her opinion and her thoughts to the rank-and-file officers.”

Schewel said Davis has appointed community liaison officers for veterans, Hispanic people, the LGBTQ community and low-income areas in Northeast Central Durham. Those officers have built better relationships with people who were previously wary of the police. He also commended her for doing away with random traffic checkpoints last year, which often got undocumented drivers tangled up in the immigration system.

Schewel praised Davis most for improving relationships with African-Americans in Durham with her changes in drug enforcement. He noted that drug arrests were cut in half last year from 1,200 to 600, with marijuana possession accounting for most of that reduction.

“Instead of arresting people, they’re referred to the misdemeanor diversion court where they’re given community service or treatment or whatever it is that they need,” Schewel said. “They don’t get a criminal record, which is really important, especially for a young person starting a career.”

(Top photo by Katie Nelson)