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App steers you away from Durham’s crime; but does it spark fear and magnify social divisions?

The Parlour in downtown Durham is a happy place where the line for ice cream often overflows out the door. Children enjoy their cones on the plaza outside and chase each other around the city’s landmark bull statue as their parents look on.

Those parents probably don’t know they’re about 16 times more likely to be robbed and eight times more likely to be murdered on that plaza than the national average. At least, that’s what it says in Crime and Place, a remarkable new iPhone app that tells you the risk of crime for your location.

Sorry for ruining dessert.

Crime and Place calculates the likelihood of murder, rape and assorted other crimes by distilling reams of data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. It simplifies that data into a score from 1 to 10 for every census block group in the United States. The app uses maps and a “Crime Compass” with shades of red, orange, yellow and green that tells users not only how safe they are, but  essentially how to escape high-crime areas.

That approach bothers some policy experts, including Robert Korstad, a Duke professor of public policy and history who has researched Durham extensively, and Martine Aurelien, policy fellow at the North Carolina Justice Center. They say the app has some useful features but fails to account for fluctuations in crime during different seasons and times of day. They’re also concerned that it can reinforce stereotypes about race and crime and that it fails to account for users’ race and gender, which influences how likely they are to be the victim of crimes.

Korstad called the app “both impressive and horrifying.”

Pointing you to safety

For just $15 plus $5 for a year’s worth of data, Crime and Place will tell you where the crime is.

As you drive through Durham (or any other city), the app’s compass changes colors, giving you an escape route to get away from the bad guys. Drive around Durham and you’ll see it go from green (“low”) to yellow (“average”) to light orange (“elevated”) to red (“high”). When areas of the compass start to turn yellow or green, you can follow them to escape to safety. (For more details, see A trip through Durham with the Crime Compass.)

The app’s user manual offers some advice for road trips: “Try to stop for gas, meals, etc. when the compass shows green. Avoid stopping when the compass shows red.”

The Crime Compass shows high levels around Durham Tech.

Most of Duke’s campus is in a yellow “average” zone, but walk to Ninth Street for brunch at Elmo’s and the crime level becomes “elevated.” That’s still a safer meal than in the heart of downtown at Pompieri Pizza or The Pit, where it’s “high.” Hope Valley Country Club is in a “low” region, but that isn’t true for all of Durham’s wealthy neighborhoods — crime is “elevated” at Croasdaile Country Club.

If you want the app to keep you safe without having to watch it constantly, you can set a threshold for notifications that shout, “Entering high crime area!” whenever the rating rises above your chosen number.

The people who created Crime and Place say its meticulous data modeling makes it better than other crime apps. It reflects long-term crime trends with separate models for all nine census regions in the country and for the seven types of personal and property crimes.

Indeed, the app does some impressive math. For each area, it calculates a separate number for murder, rape, robbery and assault to create an overall personal crime score. It also tallies a property crime score using burglary, larceny and auto theft. It shows those scores relative to the national average, which is 4.0.

Each additional point on the scale doubles the likelihood of crime relative to the 4.0 national average. So at the Durham Bulls’ ballpark and the Durham Performing Arts Center, the 8.1 robbery rating means you’re more than 16 times more likely to be robbed than the national average.

Crime and Place’s lead developer, Jolly Salehy, said the app is primarily intended to inform people visiting unfamiliar cities or looking to buy a home, but he acknowledged it could change how people view their own hometowns.

“A lot of us had similar stories of business trips where you’re sitting in a rental car or you’re in an unfamiliar city and you end up somewhere that is unsafe, and then you start to get that panicky feeling,” Salehy said. “Living in a place for a while, you get a feel for where is generally safe and where is generally unsafe, so it possibly has limited use in those cases, although we have had some people that end up being kind of surprised.”

Avoiding the red in Durham: An impossible challenge

In front of the Duke Chapel, the personal crime score is 4.9, just low enough to sneak into the average range, and most of the compass is yellow except for one orange slice in the southern tip of campus.

The maps on the app show how arbitrary the differences between those labels can be.

The border between “average” and “elevated” crime is roughly the 50-yard line at Wallace Wade Stadium. Visiting teams looking at the compass from their locker room would feel less safe in Durham than Duke’s players in the home locker room on the other side of the stadium.

The map on Crime and Place shows a line going through the field at Wallace Wade Stadium, which suggests that visiting teams are more at risk of crime than the Blue Devils.

Drive across Cameron Boulevard to the Duke Faculty Club or go for a run around the Al Buehler Trail and you’ll be in an “elevated” orange region throughout your workout. The Duke professors and physicians who drive a couple of miles down Academy Road to drop their children off at the Durham Academy middle school may be alarmed to see that their 10-year-olds are walking on the sidewalks to class in an “elevated” region, too.

The darkest shade of red in Durham is around Durham Tech Community College and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex southeast of downtown. The personal crime score is as high as 7.3, and murder and robbery ratings are 8.3. The Crime Compass calls it “high.”

That red region borders North Carolina Central University, a historically black public college, and roughly correlates with the old Hayti neighborhood when the city was segregated. Today, the area is home to much of Durham’s low-income housing.

“Looking at that app and understanding the history of Durham, I think it just helps just to corroborate an unfortunate narrative that has already been in place,” Aurelien said.

Other crime apps have been driven out of existence after being labeled as racist. SketchFactor, a crowdsourcing app in which the public could assign subjective ratings to points on a map and submit comments — The Washington Post reported that one comment criticized “homeless crackheads” — was rebuked upon its launch in 2014 and is no longer available.

Aurelien said Crime and Place is more reputable because it uses pure data, but she acknowledges it could provide more nuance to help overcome stereotypes if it presented the rate of change of crime.

Since predominantly black areas often overlap with low-income areas in Durham, wealthier white neighborhoods already have a head start with a lower initial crime rate. But if people can see that the crime rate in a poor community is decreasing, they might be more encouraged to shop, eat or even buy a house there.

The app’s emphasis on longer time periods makes it more resistant to outliers and randomness from quarter to quarter, but with such a large time range, users don’t know whether an area is red because of something that happened two months ago or two years ago.

“Although it might be red, if the app provided how this changed from five years ago, two or three years ago, sometimes people aren’t just interested in knowing and understanding whether crime is prevalent but also understanding if it’s growing, decreasing or remaining stagnant,” Aurelien said.

Salehy said the app’s creators talked about the influence of racial stereotypes before launching Crime and Place in 2016 and called it a “touchy subject,” but decided there was no harm in repackaging public information.

“That was one of the things we kind of struggled with early on — how is this going to be interpreted by the public? Will this be kind of taken the wrong way? Will this seek to reinforce stereotypes?” Salehy said. “At the end of the day, all we’re doing is facilitating visualization of some data. We can’t control how our customers choose to interpret that or the decisions that they make based on that.”

Criminals come out at night

Aurelien noted that the app doesn’t change based on the time of day, but crimes do. Many crimes are more likely to occur when it’s dark.

“There are some areas where there’s only a handful of petty crimes that occur during the day, but the mood completely changes at night,” Aurelien said.

The app’s ratings also do not shift by season even though some crimes are more common during the summer when more people are outside.

Korstad’s biggest qualm with the app is that it doesn’t have any way to evaluate how susceptible each user is to crimes.

He said it would be useful if he could punch in demographics such as, “White college professor with a PhD driving a big car that has plenty of speed and plenty of gas,” and the app would customize a prediction on his likelihood of being a crime victim.

Korstad said using objective data instead of anecdotes also does not make the app immune to claims of prejudice.

Although the first sentence of Crime and Place’s methodology page boasts that it presents “well established, long term trends in criminal activity in the United States,” Korstad said there is a difference between criminal activity and crime rates. Criminal activity is not always caught or enforced by police, who often monitor and arrest people in minority communities at a disproportionately high rate.

“If I was interested in criminal activity around drugs, I know that one of the major places for criminal activity involving drug possession, drug sales and drug use is the Duke University campus,” Korstad says. “Because the police aren’t enforcing the law and they aren’t arresting or trying to arrest Duke students, it skews these numbers.”

That raises another issue that makes the app’s data incomplete: Crime and Place doesn’t include data on drug crimes at all. The seven crime categories it tracks make up Part I of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, and drug offenses all fall under Part II, making the app’s claim that it “paints a more accurate picture of overall crime levels in a given area” only partially true.

(Photo at top by Katie Nelson)

A trip through Durham with the Crime Compass

The Crime and Place app’s “Crime Compass” tells you where the danger is and how to get away. The colors change as you drive through the city. Here’s how the compass looks at different locations in Durham. (For more details about how Durham is portrayed in Crime and Place, see our full report.)

Emily K Center: At the Emily K Center on W. Chapel Hill Street at the edge of downtown, the crime level is “high.” The only safer region within a half mile is a light orange “elevated” slice toward Duke’s campus.

Emily K Center: At the Emily K Center on W. Chapel Hill Street at the edge of downtown, the crime level is “high.” The only safer region within a half mile is a yellow “average” slice toward Duke’s campus.

Elmo’s: Crime is “elevated” at Elmo’s Diner, a popular breakfast joint on Ninth Street. There are “average” regions to the north and south, marking Duke’s East Campus and the Hillandale Golf Course, and a “high” region toward Northgate Mall in the northeast.

By the bull: At the bull statue next to The Parlour downtown, crime is “high” with no easy escape route in sight.

Academy Road: Durham Academy’s middle school is in an “elevated” crime area on Academy Road, but if you hop on 15/501 on the way home from school, you’ll be in the clear in an “average” zone.

Near 15/501: University Tower, better known to Durhamites as the Pickle Building, sits in an “average” region, but the grass is finally green in a “low” zone to the north and west on Pickett Road.

Durham Tech: The crime level is highest near Durham Technical Community College and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex, southeast of downtown.

Durham picks Fairfax firefighter who helped at Pentagon on 9/11 as next fire chief

Robert Zoldos II, an experienced firefighter whose career includes rescues at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, will be the next chief of the Durham Fire Department, the city announced Tuesday morning.

Zoldos, 49, has worked for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Fairfax, Va. for 25 years and is now the deputy chief of its health, safety and wellness division. In Durham, he will replace Interim Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi, who has served in the position since Daniel Curia left in July to take over Charleston, S.C.’s fire department.

Zoldos was the commander of the urban search and rescue team in Fairfax before transitioning to the deputy chief position.

Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield cited Zoldos’ emergency medical and search and rescue experience in Fairfax in explaining the decision to hire him. “With the Durham Fire Department being very active in fire and emergency medical calls as well as in North Carolina Task Force 8, we felt his extensive leadership experience and on-the-ground ‘know-how’ was a great fit for Durham,” Bonfield said in a press release.

As a member of Virginia Task Force One, Zoldos was certified for both domestic and international deployment for emergency rescues. In addition to his efforts as a rescue squad officer after the Sept. 11 attacks, Zoldos was deployed to help after Hurricane Katrina and has served on 11 international rescue missions. He testified before Congress about a week-long mission in Japan to try to find survivors of an earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the country on March 11, 2011.

Zoldos also served three terms from 2012-18 as the mayor of Lovettsville, Va., a small town of about 2,000 people at the northern tip of Virginia.

Zoldos will take charge of the Durham Fire Department just after it merged with the county’s fire department on July 1 to speed up response times to emergencies. The department now has 318 employees.

Defense attorney from ‘The Staircase’ says owl might have killed Kathleen Peterson

An owl might have killed Michael Peterson’s wife, his defense attorney said Wednesday night.

David Rudolf, the attorney who defended the novelist after his wife Kathleen died in 2001, gave credence to the popular internet-driven theory at a talk entitled “Inside the Staircase: Lies, Fake Science and the Owl Theory.”

“It’s a very plausible theory,” Rudolf said. “I can’t sit here and say that it’s accurate. Do I think it’s more plausible than any other theory that I’ve heard until now? Yes.”

The owl theory says that a barred owl killed Kathleen Peterson. (Photo by Gareth Rasberry / Creative Commons )

WRAL-TV anchor David Crabtree, who moderated the talk at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, noted that Rudolf had said offstage that the theory was “correct.” Durham was Rudolf’s first stop in a world tour, with future events in London, Dublin and Glasgow, among other places.

The theory, which argues that an owl left Kathleen Peterson bloodied and dead at the foot of the stairs of their Forest Hills mansion, gained popularity after “The Staircase”, a 13-episode documentary on the case, was released on Netflix this summer. Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife in 2003 and served time in prison until 2011, when he was released after a judge ruled that jurors were misled about blood evidence by one of the prosecution’s key witnesses.

Peterson was granted a new trial but pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2017 and avoided additional prison time. The 74-year-old has continued to maintain his innocence.

The case began when Peterson called the police in the early hours of the morning Dec. 9, 2001, saying he had found his wife unconscious at the foot of the stairs. Kathleen Peterson later died.

The prosecution argued that Peterson struck and killed his wife. Rudolf and the defense had argued that Kathleen Peterson had died from a fall down the stairs after drinking wine and taking Valium.

The owl theorists believe otherwise. The idea was first theorized by Peterson’s former neighbor, attorney Larry Pollard, during Peterson’s trial. He saw the photos of the wounds Kathleen Peterson had suffered and noticed they looked like talon marks. He called an ornithologist who he had seen recently and asked if bird attacks were common—and the ornithologist pointed him to owls, which are known to attack humans.

Pollard deduced that an owl swooped in and grabbed Kathleen Peterson’s head with its piercing talons when she headed outside to put Christmas decorations on the porch—the blow leaving a feather found in her hair.

“I called it my smoking feather,” Pollard told the 9th Street Journal. A throng of onlookers crowded Pollard after the event Wednesday, including one fan wearing a shirt that said the owl committed the crime.

Pollard had brought details of to his theory to Rudolf just before closing arguments for the trial. Evidence had been closed for the trial at that point and Rudolf had been arguing to the jury for months that Kathleen Peterson had died in a fall.

Rudolf said at the event Wednesday night that the tip came too late to raise in the trial. “I [couldn’t] now stand up and say forget about all that, she really didn’t fall, it was an owl.”

But with hindsight, Rudolf said that he had noted a number of apparent inconsistencies with a fall in evidence—including a bloody palm mark on the frame of the front door. As Pollard developed the theory, Rudolf said it became more credible.

“I had tunnel vision,” Rudolf said. “I had a theory that it was a fall, and anything that was inconsistent with that theory or might have been, I came up with my own explanations for.”

Rudolf said he believed that Kathleen Peterson died from a fall because that was what Michael Peterson thought had happened when Rudolf first came on the case.

“He finds his wife at the bottom of the stairs, she’s bleeding profusely. What do you think?” Rudolf said. “If you’re Michael, you say your wife just fell down the stairs. That set the tone.”

What’s driving the city’s drop in crime?

At a meeting last month, City Council members heaped praise on Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis for a dramatic drop in violent crime.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel interrupted her presentation to express his glee.

“I want everybody in this room and everybody who’s watching this at home to wrap their mind just for a minute around that 28 percent figure,” Schewel said. “That is a big number. I just want to congratulate you.”

Davis attributed the drop to the department’s focus on more uniformed police on patrol, an emphasis on catching repeat criminals, more coordination with prosecutors and better engagement in the community.

But she left out what criminologists say is probably the biggest factor.

N.C. State criminologist James Brunet said the biggest influence in the drop in crime isn’t about cops or uniforms: it’s a decline in poverty.

And Durham’s good news came with an asterisk: Although robberies declined by 36 percent and aggravated assaults fell by 25 percent, homicides rose from 10 in the first six months of 2017 to 14 in the same period this year.

Durham police said they did not think the rise in homicides indicated a concerning long-term trend, noting that last year’s mark of 10 killings was a particularly difficult figure to beat after it fell from 21 homicides in the first half of 2016. Brunet cautioned against reading too much into quarterly statistics when the numbers are small, but acknowledged that poverty’s effect on different crime categories can vary.

“In the worst situation, you could have a shooting situation, a domestic violence situation where three or four individuals are killed, and that could really move the quarterly numbers pretty significantly, but it’s not indicative of the public safety within a city,” Brunet said. “The factors that lead to those different types of crimes are very different, like an assault versus a drug homicide.”

Criminologist Barry Latzer wrote in an analysis in the Daily Beast last October that crimes like murder are quarrel-based, stemming from anger or gun-fueled disputes. Robberies are often more correlated with economic factors, when poor people resort to stealing money and property by force out of desperation. And Durham’s poorest residents are often being pushed out by the rapid redevelopment of the city.

The Herald-Sun reported this year that the median household income in Durham County has increased 8.1 percent since 2010, and it has risen by more than 40 percent in six of the county’s 60 census tracts. As home prices and rents have soared, people who could no longer afford to live in Durham may have moved to poorer neighboring areas like Person County to the north and Chatham County to the south.

Cities in those counties have not been as fortunate with the direction of their recent crime rates. Lieutenant Shorty Johnson said the Pittsboro Police Department had nine violent crimes in 2017 and has seen seven through the start of September this year, on a similar pace for the full year. Roxboro does not differentiate between violent crime and property crime and does not track quarterly statistics, but total crime in the town rose nearly 10 percent from 2016 to 2017.

But even if the economy is the driving force in the declining crime rate, Brunet said police may deserve a little bit of the credit. He noted that police initiatives in community support have been shown to have a measurable impact in cities like High Point, N.C., and Boston, Mass., and may have contributed to some of the drop in Durham.

“Police can have a role in curtailing crime. It may not be the most important factor. Poverty and other conditions would be more prevailing,” Brunet said. “But if they’re instituting a new program that’s directed at gang violence, that could potentially impact violent crime rates.”

Davis revealed that a new community engagement unit assigning 10 officers to McDougald Terrace this year helped cause a 62.5 percent drop in violent crime in the southern Durham public housing complex. The officers in the unit hosted a community clean-up event to increase visibility, and they also ran safety education programs and intervention initiatives.

“Sometimes you hit a sweet spot,” Davis told the City Council. “Officers have been remaining vigilant and visible.”

Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton asked Davis how to replicate that unit and assumed the answer would be more money and staff. Davis pushed back on his cynicism.

“I don’t think it’s money,” she said. “It’s individuals that know how important it is to have good relationships with the community members that live there and those little kids that live in that community, who in another five to 10 years will be adults and have some impression of who police are.”

Durham Hispanic residents targeted in armed robberies of iPhones, cash

A series of armed robberies targeted Hispanic victims last month, the Durham Police Department said.

Police said no victims were seriously harmed in the incidents, which occurred in “parking lots of apartment complexes with a large number of Hispanic residents,” and usually involved two or three suspects.

Crime data on showed six armed robberies were reported in Durham on the morning of Aug. 20, the most of any day in the last month.

According to a police report, a 39-year-old Hispanic man reported on Aug. 20 that one or more robbers armed with a handgun stole an iPhone, $400 in cash, two credit cards and his wallet. The crime occurred at an apartment complex on Lednum Street in North Durham.

A 40-year-old Hispanic man reported being robbed at gunpoint of an iPhone and $700 in cash at a nearby apartment complex on New Castle Road about 30 minutes later the same morning. The six robberies were all reported in an 82-minute span from 5:18 to 6:40 a.m.

The crime spree marked an unusual spike after the number of reported robberies in the city fell 36 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period a year earlier. Sharp drops in robberies and aggravated assaults accounted for most of a 28 percent decline in violent crime in the first six months this year.