City officials launched a pre-emptive public relations strike Thursday to blunt potential damage from a nationally televised documentary that featured the city's struggles with street gangs.
"Al Roker Investigates: Menace on Main Street" aired on the cable network Court TV at 10 p.m. Thursday. But the city held an invitation-only screening of the show four hours earlier for local dignitaries and media outlets to tell its side of the story.
Mayor Bill Bell criticized the investigative report as "out of balance." The city's public relations staff handed out a six-page summary of Durham's efforts to combat gang violence.
Durham has long struggled to live down its reputation for violent crime, and the one-hour show offered much to reinforce that negative image of the Bull City.
"Menace on Main Street" explored the rise of urban street gangs in what was termed small towns. Though other communities were featured, North Carolina's fourth-largest city was the primary locale. Video footage included jarring firsthand accounts of self-described gangbangers recounting retaliatory drive-by shootings and bragging about the face-to-face murder of rivals.
Roker -- better known as the morning weatherman on NBC's "Today" show -- rode along with officers of the Durham Police Department's gang unit as they patrolled some of the city's roughest public housing communities and low-income neighborhoods. Roker also interviewed Peggy Davis, a local woman whose only son, Anthony, was drawn into a gang and then fatally shot in 2000. He was 17.
But it was a segment about an anti-gang program in High Point, which Roker held up as a success story, that most rankled Durham's leaders. They pointed out that Durham has a similar program, along with many others, that were not mentioned in the show.
Roker did credit Durham with increasing its resources and the number of officers dedicated to fighting gangs.
After the screening, Police Chief Steve Chalmers cited statistics that violent crime was down 16 percent in Durham, thanks in part to gang prevention measures. However, he did not mention that homicides in the city are up.
City Manager Patrick Baker praised the planned renovation of East Durham's Holton School into a new recreation center and vocational school. He said such facilities in other cities were "going like gangbusters."
The progress recounted by city officials often didn't mesh with front-line accounts included in the Court TV program, however.
The show included a clip of Durham Police Cpl. Hope Allen describing the city as "infested with gangs." Another had gang unit Sgt. Howard Alexander saying, "City officials and even some in the Police Department didn't want to admit there was a problem. It always takes tragedies."
Roker cited a local report that said that there were as many as 3,000 gang members in Durham and that about 60 percent of the city's homicides are gang-related.
Mayor Bell said that the city has been proactive and that the true number of local gang members was more like 525.
"We acknowledge the fact that we have an issue. We also acknowledge that we are doing something about it," Bell said. "I'm convinced we are going to solve this problem."
Chalmers said he welcomed the national spotlight.
"Durham has been put on the spot," he said. "I want to demonstrate what a community can do to turn a negative into a positive."
Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.