DURHAM — Local residents are coming together after another attack last month on the American Tobacco Trail.
The July 31 attack, in which a man said he was struck while jogging between Enterprise and Fargo streets, is the latest in a string of incidents along the trail dating back nearly two years.
In response, the city’s District 3 Partners Against Crime group, which encompasses much of southern Durham, is spearheading a “Walk the Trails With a Friend Day” community event. PAC facilitator Patricia Burchett said the goal is to get neighborhoods along the trail to participate in a day of walking that will culminate in a gathering downtown.
The group aims to set a date and time in the coming days.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be positive,” Burchett said. “We are all committed to making our citizens feel safe and (like) a community.”
The trail was built on an old rail line that brought tobacco to the massive American Tobacco cigarette factory on the edge of downtown Durham. The Durham leg of the trail begins near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and curves 6.6 miles through the city’s southern neighborhoods to near Interstate 40.
Since January 2011, the Durham Police Department has recorded 23 incidents on the trail, including robberies, assaults and indecent exposures. Several incidents have involved groups of teenage attackers and have occurred in daylight.
The trail runs through several neighborhoods whose residents are asking the city to help secure the path.
In an email to Mayor Bill Bell, the City Council and Police Chief Jose Lopez, Norris Cotton, president of the Forest Hills neighborhood association, said the attacks were scaring local people off the trail.
“I urge you to take aggressive and immediate action to return and maintain the ATT to a safe recreational and commuter corridor for use by the citizens of Durham,” he wrote.
Cotton joined more than a dozen other local residents in writing the city, many of whom said they had stopped using the walkway.
“Sadly I no longer use the ATT,” Chris McLaughlin wrote. “Last December I was one of four people mugged over two weeks, all of the attacks occurring in the middle of bright, sunny days.”
“These are not rare events,” he continued. “My son certainly will not be learning to ride his bike on the trail – how could I risk that knowing how dangerous the trail has become? These attacks do great harm not only to the victims, but to the many people dissuaded from using this wonderful greenway and to the reputation of the city itself.”
Lopez said the Police Department has assigned additional officers to patrol the path and identify high-risk sections.
For the most part, reports of trail insecurity have been overblown, he said.
“The trail isn’t as bad as it’s being portrayed; a lot of it is being magnified,” Lopez said. “Considering the amount of people that go on the trail, the incidents are minimal, the victimization is minimal.”
Police records show four attacks – two robberies and two simple assaults – occurred over 12 days in May.
A similar pattern – five attacks in eight days – took place in December.
Burchett, who praised the responsiveness of the police, said she’s noticed their presence.
“I walked Monday, and they were very visible,” she said. “I saw over three officers in less than a two-mile area.”
Lopez added that trail users should use common sense, never exercise alone or at night, and carry a cellphone in case of emergency.
“We’ve been working on the trail as long as it has been there, and we will continue to do so,” said Lopez. “You might not see the police all the time, but we will be there.”