Mayor Bill Bell directed city staff Friday to make crime-fighting the city's top spending priority for the next year.
"What's holding us back from being an excellent city is this issue of crime," Bell said at the municipal government's annual budget retreat. "Reducing crime is at the top of our list. We've got to get a handle on what is happening in our community."
The mayor's call came about two weeks after a highly touted speech in which he challenged the city to rededicate itself to fighting violent crime and its causes -- drugs, guns and a lack of economic opportunity for those clinging to the lowest rungs of society.
His words Friday were answered with enthusiastic applause from members of the City Council, the police chief and high-ranking city staffers. But members of the group then spent much of the rest of the daylong meeting scratching their heads about what exactly to do.
Durham had the highest per-capita homicide rate among North Carolina's large municipalities in 2004. The killings then jumped another 16 percent in 2005, giving Durham the grim title of the state's murder capital a second year running.
For much of the past year, Durham officials, including Bell, have sought to blunt criticism about the rising death toll by saying that the majority of the killings were "not random" and that violent crime is down in the city.
That claim is not borne out by a recent tally presented Friday, however. Overall, violent crime -- including homicides, rapes and robberies -- is up 6.7 percent over the past six months.
Police Chief Steve Chalmers rattled off the names of other Tar Heel cities that had seen larger percentage spikes in homicides over the past year.
"Numbers, in my opinion, do not indicate success or failure," the city's top lawman said. "It's the story behind the numbers."
That drew the ire of the mayor.
"We can't stick our heads in the sand and pretend like this is not an issue," Bell said tersely. "It's what people read about in the media and what they are talking about."
Recommendations made Friday included increasing the size of the city's summer jobs program for youths considered at-risk, leaning on local businesses to hire ex-felons seeking a fresh start, funding more police officers, paying city employees to mentor children four hours each month and expediting the new community centers and recreational facilities to be built with the $110 million in bonds approved by voters in November.
Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or email@example.com.