Durham is considering scholarly study of gangs

The city's police chief asks for a $60,000 analytical assessment by two researchers

Staff WriterJuly 22, 2006 

— For most residents, gang graffiti, crossfire on city buses and a recent quadruple shooting that killed a teenager are enough proof that Durham has a gang problem.

This week, Durham Police Chief Steve Chalmers asked City Council members to consider hiring two scholars to lead a yearlong, $60,000 study of gangs to determine just how bad the problem really is. The council will decide whether to approve the contract during its regular meeting Aug. 7.

"It's not simply how many gang members do we have," said Durham police Lt. Elton O'Neal, who helped develop the proposal. "That's pretty much established. They want to know what's causing the membership into the gangs."

The study would be paid for with state and federal asset forfeitures -- money and valuables seized from drug dealers -- already allocated to the Durham Police Department, according to Chalmers' proposal. The Durham County Sheriff's Office has agreed to pay for half of the cost, the proposal said.

Following a model

The two researchers slated to lead the study would follow a model created by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention specifically to evaluate the impact of gangs. At the end of the project, the experts -- James C. "Buddy" Howell of the National Youth Gang Center and Deborah Lamm Weisel, a crime analysis professor at N.C. State University -- would establish a long-term plan for Durham's governing agencies to tackle gang growth and continually evaluate the efficiency of their efforts, O'Neal said.

If the plan is approved, city and county officials would expect to have a detailed report on how much crime is committed by gangs, the potential growth of gangs and how effective community programs are at preventing membership and offering alternatives, O'Neal said.

The first step of the plan would include creating definitions of what makes a gang member that all parts of the government -- law enforcement, schools, housing officials and the courts system -- can agree on.

"We rate our numbers one way," O'Neal said. The Sheriff's Office gets its numbers from a different indicator, he said.

"If we're all thinking the same, it [would be] easier for us to work together."

A number of agencies in Durham also are offering programs to help, from recreational activities to mentoring. But a consensus among community leaders is that many of these efforts overlap, and some children most in need of intervention are overlooked.

There are some agencies doing similar work, O'Neal said. "It will, hopefully, bring these multiple agencies together in a more organized effort."

Ominous signs

The proposal comes at a time when gang membership seems to be growing, judging solely from law enforcement numbers, Durham police Capt. Ray Taylor said.

Throughout 2005, police and sheriff's deputies documented about 600 people they thought were bona fide gang members, Taylor said. In the past six months, that number has grown to 700, and officials have defined more than 30 gangs just in Durham County, he said.

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or skhanna@newsobserver.com.

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