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Posts tagged as “Durham Sheriff’s Office”

Student pushed to change policing in Durham schools before street protests swelled

Aissa Dearing remembers a talk on gang violence prevention in her seventh-grade health class.

This is how gangs recruit students, school security and police officers told her and classmates at Lucas Middle School in northern Durham County. This is how long you will spend in jail if you sell Drug X, they said. Drug Y brings a longer sentence.

Dearing, a recent graduate of JD Clement Early College, wonders why the encounter wasn’t designed to inspire rather than promote fear. Say if a member of Project BUILD, a gang intervention program, talked to students. Or if her class was brought to a career fair to help motivate them at school. 

“Wouldn’t that be more substantive than police officers talking to you about crime?” Dearing asked during an interview. 

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, national conversations about police aggression, funding and training are everywhere. Yet, these are not new concerns for Dearing. 

The 18-year-old has been pushing Durham Public Schools to rethink the need to employ law enforcement officers in public schools. It started when she and other students published a list of proposed improvements in 2019. With petitions and protest, recently she has promoted a complete abolition of school resource officers (SROs).

Working for change

During her junior year at her magnet high school, Dearing joined the Youth Justice Project. That’s a Southern Coalition for Social Justice initiative that promotes equity for young people in education and the criminal justice system. 

Through the Youth Justice Project, she and others invited students, administrators and SROs to a town hall forum on the topic of school safety in April 2019 at the W.G. Pearson Center. They named the forum with the acronym SRO, but instead it stood for “Students Reaching Out.”

The risk of over-aggressive policing is not an abstract issue for Dearing. SROs were not assigned to her high school, which is located on the campus of North Carolina Central University. But Dearing recalls watching some of these officers break up fights between students during football games at Hillside and Riverside high schools. Altercations sometimes ended with students escorted to the back of a patrol car or handcuffed at the scene, she said. 

In Durham, 27 sheriff deputies work in middle and high schools in the district. The county spent $2.7 million dollars to fund 30 officers, three of which are not assigned to specific schools in the 2019-2020 budget, with the same amount recommended for 2020-2021

The officers, who are armed, are there to enforce the law, provide delinquency prevention resources, and offer law-related guidance and counseling to students, according to Durham Public Schools.

After the town hall forum, the Youth Justice Project published a list of recommendations for school board members to consider. Items included increased transparency through a public data report about what SROs respond to, a student-friendly complaint process to report any concerns regarding SROs, and a redefined outline of what types of incidents a SRO should be involved in. 

 After seeing little change, Dearing has a new request. 

“A year later, now we’re asking for just a complete defunding and end of relationship with the sheriff’s department,” she said. 

From reform to abolition

Elijah King, a recent Riverside High School graduate, is Dearing’s  partner-in-action and biggest advocate. The pair met while working with Made in Durham, a non-profit that helps students enter the workforce after school.

In their collaborations, Dearing is Steve Jobs with big-picture ideas, while he is Steve Wozniak, fine tuning the details for operation, King says. 

Aissa Dearing holds an umbrella over the head of fellow student activist Elijah King at a press conference they staged at last week. 9th Street Journal Photo by Henry Haggart

One big-picture action Dearing took recently was circulating a petition addressed to Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee on Instagram. It asked Durham residents to sign in support of removing SROs from all schools and attracted over 2,000 likes and 3,000 comments from people ranging from Duke University students to Durham Public School parents. 

“She’s a leader. She’s a great speaker. She knows all about how teamwork makes the dream work. She is ambitious. And that’s why I like working with her,” King said.

To promote her Instagram request, Dearing and others solicited comments supporting removing SROs ahead of the Board of Education work session on June 10. That generated 256 pages of written comments.  

In response to all of this, Durham Public Schools published a statement on its website endorsing its SRO program and agreeing to conduct the impact assessment of the program by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, as the Youth Justice Project had requested last year.

“We would be happy to participate in a community forum to learn from our stakeholders and develop solutions to ensure the safety and security of our students,” the statement reads.

As the statement did not clarify who are stakeholders, Dearing, King, and others organized a  “March for Black Students” on June 13 to show them. 

Organizing a march in a pandemic is not an easy feat. Aside from the tasks of contacting de-escalators, people assigned to diffuse any conflict, and medics to attend, she and co-organizers ensured people wore masks and used hand sanitizer.  

Dearing led marchers half a mile from DPS headquarters to the sheriff’s department in a yellow shirt that read “free Black mamas” with a patterned fabric mask on. When holding the microphone to speak to the crowd, she, and other speakers wore a blue plastic glove as a cautionary measure.

Dearing is not letting adults dominate conversation about school policy. Instead, she is putting student voices at the center of her actions, said Katherine Shor, a former youth engagement coordinator at Made in Durham and a mentor to Dearing.  

“To have youth be the leaders, the voices and the stakeholders of what happens in their schools that is a policy planning, organizing 101,” Shor said.

Lee said he hears Dearing’s requests. However, he said, he needs to better understand alternatives for SROs before he is willing to remove them from schools. 

Although SROs mainly interact with students, they also handle external threats to the school, Lee stressed. That can range from disruptions related to parents’ custody battles over students or trespassers on school campuses. 

Lee emphasized SROs protect not only 33,526 students in all Durham public schools but also 5,003 employees on school campuses. He fears if he cut SROs, he may have employees who will quit, he said.

“I need solutions to help assure the security of those 38,000 people in our buildings every day before I can make any kind of a decision,” he said. 

Dearing and King are working on suggestions for SRO alternatives, which will include having people at schools trained in conflict resolution responses such as de-escalation and restorative justice. Next steps will include a youth summit to collect more student ideas. After that they will present a proposal to the county, the sheriff’s department and school board that King has been compiling. 

The pair will keep working to build as much support as they can around their proposal before they both head separate ways in the fall. Dearing will enroll at Howard University; King will enter the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

“I can speak as a former student, but now I kind of have to take a step back and pass the baton,” she said.

9th Street Journal reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

Photo at top: Aissa Dearing and Elijah King led a “March for Black Students” on June 13. Photo courtesy of Abraham Gonzalez

Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss

Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr., 55, died last week and his death certificate is very clear about the cause of death: “COVID-19 / acute hypoxic respiratory failure.” 

But several days after his death, the Durham County Sheriff’s office won’t acknowledge why he died or give any details on where he worked or if he could have exposed inmates or other staff at the county jail. Spokesman David Bowser said the office can’t discuss the cause of death or details about Pettiway because it is a “personnel” issue and his privacy is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). 

Bowser could only offer assurances that no inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. He did not say if there had been any changes in procedures following Pettiway’s death. The sheriff’s office and the death certificate conflict on the day of his death: the office says Saturday, and the certificate says Friday. 

Last week, the Sheriff’s Office had announced that six Durham County Detention Center staff tested positive for COVID-19, but also declined to say where they worked or how much the workers interacted with others. 

The office’s lack of details doesn’t sit well with Durham defense attorney Daniel Meier. 

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.” 

Along with others, Meier has to go into the jail frequently to visit clients via video kiosks, so he said it would be helpful to know if he had come into contact with any staff that had tested positive. He said he also is frustrated that the sheriff’s office didn’t directly tell local attorneys that staff had tested positive for the highly infectious virus. 

Meier said he and other lawyers are criticized for filings asking for relief for clients due to the dangers of COVID-19 in jail, but there isn’t enough information to know that the jail is safe. 

“They say it’s not [dangerous], but won’t provide the information for us to know that,” Meier said. 

Meier noted that Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did tell CBS17 last week that one of the six that tested positive worked with inmates and that “a majority of the six employees worked on the first floor of the detention center where intake and booking occurs.” 

But official statements from the communications office have lacked those details. The release about Pettiway’s death offered condolences and, without drawing a direct connection, pointed out the steps the sheriff implemented more than a month ago to slow the spread of the virus. 

The jail took steps to fight the spread of coronavirus on March 16, including banning all in-person and video visitation, using video kiosks for client meetings and having all first appearance hearings via video conference. The medical staff has been conducting COVID-19 screenings and making masks available to inmates. 

Amid coronavirus outbreaks plaguing jails and prisons nationwide, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry has worked to reduce the jail population. The jail is well below capacity with only 259 inmates out of a possible 736. Deberry also has worked to cut the state prison population by green-lighting modified sentences for some prisoners. 

“The Durham DA’s Office extends its deepest condolences for the loss of Senior Detention Officer Pettiway, a dedicated public servant. Our thoughts are with his family and the entire Durham County Sheriff’s Office,” Deberry told The 9th Street Journal via a spokesperson. “We will continue to review cases individually and make recommendations regarding release conditions based on public health and public safety.”

Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has stopped serving eviction notices and padlocking rental properties in Durham County to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Evictions stopped in Durham days after North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued a series of emergency orders pausing nonessential court proceedings and giving sheriffs across the state the ability to postpone some enforcement actions.

A Monday evening statement from Birkhead confirmed that his office has decided to halt eviction service.

“I am suspending the service of these judgments until further notice,” Birkhead said. “Although Chief Justice Beasley’s order does not specifically address this process, it has been interpreted that under that order a suspension would be allowable.”

Beasley’s issued the first order halting nonessential court proceedings in North Carolina on March 13. In a memo two days later, she clarified that her first order included eviction proceedings.

That effectively shut off the flow of new writs of possession — the court orders to evict tenants that have lost to landlords in court. But while new writs stopped coming more than a week ago, dozens already existed. The sheriff’s office estimates around 180 evictions occur in Durham every week.

As of last Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said it was still legally required to serve those pending eviction writs. But on Thursday, Beasley issued another order that ended up freezing those writs, too. It pushed back the due dates for many filings and “other acts” of the North Carolina courts, including evictions. Under this order, actions due on March 16 or later would now be on time if done by April 17.

Normally, tenants who lose in court have 10 days to file for an appeal. Under Beasley’s order, motions to appeal an eviction ruling are still timely if filed by April 17. That means all eviction cases with original final appeal dates on or after March 16 are postponed.

Last Friday, the office of the Clerk of Durham County Superior Court said it had stopped issuing writs for such cases and recalled all of the writs it had sent throughout that week involving those cases.

Several of the state’s largest counties had determined by Saturday that Beasley’s order also gave them discretion to halt eviction service. Peter Gilbert, a Legal Aid lawyer who focuses on eviction defense, said those included Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland.

On Thursday evening, the Durham sheriff’s office indicated it was working to interpret Beasley’s order hours after it came out that day. The office continued to consult with legal teams and the judiciary on Friday.

By the time the sheriff decided to stop serving writs, there may have been none left to serve. Gilbert, who works in the Eviction Diversion program run by Legal Aid and Duke Law’s Civil Justice Clinic, said the pending writs were likely all recalled by the clerk.

“It’s essentially moot,” Gilbert said Monday, before the sheriff issued his statement. “It’s not his authority, because the clerk has started recalling any writ from March 3 or after. That should be and almost certainly is all of the pending writs of possession.”

Clerk of Durham County Superior Court Archie Smith could not be reached Monday evening to clarify whether all pending writs had been recalled. But on Thursday, Smith told The 9th Street Journal he intended to follow the spirit of Beasley’s order.

“The lens from which I will interpret things where I have the option to interpret things will be through public safety, with a focus on limiting social contact for the purpose of limiting the spread of contagion,” Smith said.

Birkhead’s Monday statement said that “no one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders.”

But some evictions may have already occurred amid confusion. According to Gilbert, at least one padlocking occurred on Thursday before Beasley’s order, but after sheriffs in other counties had stopped serving evictions.

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” said Gilbert. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

Durhamites struggling to pay rent will be able to stay in their homes for several weeks, but eviction still looms over them.

“These cases are delayed. They are not dismissed,” Gilbert said, adding that courts are still receiving new eviction filings.

“When this ends, there is going to be a tsunami of evictions,” Gilbert said. “That is going to be aggravated by the fact that so many people in Durham are cost burdened. They are already spending over half their income on rent, and with so many workers losing hours or being unable to work at all, I suspect that whenever this ends, we are going to have a real eviction crisis.”

At top: A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

‘You don’t know what’s behind the door’: Inside Durham’s evictions

Durham County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Wood has the job that no one wants – especially not today, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, in the freezing weather.

Today is “padlock Friday,” the end to yet another week of evictions.

Wood has a stack of papers sandwiched between the sun visor and the roof of his white sheriff’s cruiser. Each one is a court order to complete an eviction, or a padlock, as they call it in the sheriff’s office.

It’s just above freezing, so Wood will have on his embroidered “sheriff” beanie, which falls just inches above his glasses. With a puffy black jacket on and a laptop that’s next to his steering wheel, there’s not much room left on the driver’s side of the car.

He’ll spend the day meeting with landlords and property managers, searching houses and apartments, and making sure that the locks have been changed on those properties so the evicted tenants cannot return.

Sometimes he finds families with children, abandoned pets, or, in one case, a tenant inflicting injuries on herself. But there’s nothing the sheriff’s office can do to change the eviction, Deputy Wood says.

“They were going to lose the property or wherever they live long before I got there,” he says, “and if it hadn’t been me doing it it’d have been somebody else.”

Durham saw 9,335 evictions in 2018, or about 180 every week. 

They all start with the same letter, calling the tenant to small claims court to answer for their failure to pay rent.

The tenant isn’t obligated to come to court, but if they don’t show, the eviction process will continue without them, Wood says.

***

Eviction court starts at 9 a.m. sharp nearly every weekday. Get there late for your hearing, and you might miss it in the sea of dozens scheduled for that morning. 

On some mornings, the magistrates will hear well over 100 cases, especially at the start of the month, when landlords file more claims.

Once defendants find their names on the docket outside, they slip quietly into one of the hearing rooms. Unlike in District Court, defendants here are handled first-come, first-served.

There’s no bailiff or court reporter. The only record of each hearing will be the magistrate’s scribbles on the back of the case envelope.

There are two tables. One is for the landlord and an attorney; the other is for the tenant and their attorney. But tenants rarely have one.

Sometimes, the landlords won’t show up. They’ll contract the case out to a law firm that specializes in eviction cases; lawyers will come in about every month or so, outgunning dozens of tenants in just minutes each.

Is your agreed-upon rent $550 per month?

Did you fail to pay rent for the months of September and October?

Are you still in possession of the property?

Tenants will admit that yes, they did sign the lease. And yes, that is the amount of rent that they agreed to. Yes, they missed rent for a month or two, but they were in a bind. They just lost their job, or their spouse died. Or their car broke down. Or a relative was sick. 

And many tenants tell eye-opening stories about poor conditions. Tammie Gibson said her rental home turned from a family atmosphere into a nightmare, a toxic environment that led her to develop depression. She described a stove that routinely caught fire, persistent issues with rats, and domestic disputes with other residents.

“I didn’t want to be there a minute longer,” she said to the magistrate.

Sometimes, tenants purposely won’t pay their rent to try to force their landlord to address a nagging problem such as a rodent infestation or perpetually clogged plumbing.

But North Carolina doesn’t allow this retaliatory action. If you live there, you have to pay for it.

The court also has no responsibility to evaluate why tenants can’t or won’t pay. Despite Durham’s problem with skyrocketing rents, with average rent rising 15% in the past three years, the court cannot grant tenants reprieve. From the court’s perspective, it’s simple: the tenant hasn’t paid rent, and the landlord needs the property back. The magistrate then has to rule against the tenant. 

Unless the tenant appeals the judgment within 10 days, it becomes a permanent eviction record, influencing credit scores and job applications for years to come.

***

Once that judgment is processed by the court, it’s added to Deputy Wood’s docket of padlocks.

He crisscrosses Durham every day, from downtown luxury apartments to public housing to  new suburban townhomes. Every hour, on the hour, he has an appointment to meet with a landlord to enforce the court’s ruling.

Deputy Michael Wood  | Photo courtesy of the Durham Sheriff’s Office

“You’re there for a job. You’re not there to judge people,” he says.

When he arrives, he gives the landlords his standard spiel: the tenant has seven days to reach out to the landlord to retrieve their property. Whatever is left in the property, whether it’s an unplugged fridge with rotting food or hordes of roaches scurrying around the corners, is up to the landlord to deal with.

He avoids most of their questions, advising them to get legal advice from somewhere else.

He knocks and presses his ear against the door, listening for movement to assess what he’ll face inside.

“With a padlock,” he says, “you don’t know what’s behind the door. You don’t know what’s in there. You have no idea.”

He walks in and holds up a flashlight as he searches rooms, closets, and cabinets,, hoping to avoid a possible threat around the corner.

People hide, he says. They’ll hide in nooks and crannies around the house, hoping to stave off eviction for a few more days, clinging to the time they have left.

But there’s no wiggle room, he says. He can’t give a tenant a couple hours, regardless how dire the situation. He is required to complete the eviction.

“At some point they have to know if they haven’t been paying their rent or fulfilling their obligation to the landlord … they’re being evicted,” he says.

A rare and lucky few will successfully appeal their eviction in District Court and get to stay in  their home.

Many others will work it out with their landlords — last-ditch efforts to cover the overdue rent or hastily work out a payment plan. 

“We’re standing there, the locks are in hand, they’re about to get changed and (the landlord and tenant will) make a deal or they’ll work it out and they’ll stop,” Wood says.

More often than not, though, he’ll find an empty property. Maybe the tenant left to avoid embarrassment, or maybe they fled the country, fleeing their eviction record as well.

But there’s nothing he can do about it now. He posts the orange sign and leaves.

In photo at top: Deputy Wood posts this sign before a landlord changes the lock. Once a padlock is complete, the tenant has seven days to arrange a time to pick up their belongings. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda | The 9th Street Journal