Commentary

Saunders: Durham trail safe Tuesday night, but what about Wednesday morning?

bsaunders@newsobserver.comSeptember 11, 2012 

ATTSCHEWEL1-DN-082812-HLL

Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel, left, runs with a pack of other Durham area joggers and cyclists about one half mile from the start of the American Tobacco Trail Tuesday evening, August 28, 2012. In response to recent attacks on the American Tobacco Trail in Durham, Schewel invites the public to jog or cycle with him on a five mile trail circuit Tuesday evenings for the next month, starting at 630PM at Mile 0. Tuesday was the first day of the month long event.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

— The good news is that nobody got jumped on the American Tobacco Trail last Tuesday, and there were no reports of flashings, robberies or assaults.

The bad news is that I was – S NAP! – this close to committing one.

See, the American Tobacco Trail, unlike in recent weeks and months, was probably the safest place to be in Durham on Tuesday evening.

That’s because cops in fluorescent green vests patrolled it on bikes, and scores of joggers, walkers and bikers did their things on it together. City Councilman Steve Schewel has designated a few Tuesdays as opportunities to take back the trail from the no-goodniks who have made using it a dicey proposition.

Schewel and company are scheduled to be out there Tuesday and next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. to once again reclaim the park and to show that it is safe.

Of course, jogging with a city councilman, cops and scores of others tends to lessen one’s likelihood of being victimized.

Now, about the crime that almost occurred: I had to tamp down the urge to pimp-slap a jogger who felt compelled to try to tell me how I should feel about the trail’s safety – or lack thereof – and what I should write even as I was interviewing others.

It was obvious from his questions and tone that he would have been satisfied with nothing less than seeing the stretch of trail that runs past Enterprise and Fayetteville streets portrayed in print as a veritable “heart of darkness” peopled by dark hearts.

“What’s basically the premise of your story – that everything’s fine? Everything’s safe?” he asked, eyebrow raised, tone loaded with suspicion, as I spoke with a woman who’d just completed the trail with her daughter.

The man, who identified himself only as “one of the victims” of trail violence, declined to speak for attribution. That, however, didn’t stop him from speaking.

“I’ve already talked to a couple of people from the N&O, by the way. ... I told the last guy I was so frustrated with the N&O’s failure to report the basic facts of what’s happened on this trail the last year. ... There hasn’t been a lot of eagerness to get the basic facts into the record.”

The basic facts are, police records show, that since January 2011, 23 instances of assault, robbery and indecent exposure have been reported on the trail.

No doubt to the consternation of the dude who seemed to want the trail portrayed as a lawless frontier, most people with whom I spoke had never experienced anything unseemly and had been assaulted by nothing more, one said, than mosquitoes.

“I’ve never had a problem out there,” Trena Griffith-Hawkins said, “although we did see a copperhead on the trail.”

A sweaty Keith Lane, finishing up his run, said, “Shoot man, I walk it or run it almost every day and I’ve never had a problem out here. It’s too nice not to run it, walk it or bike it, especially if you work downtown. It really is a jewel of the city” – an oft-repeated description – “and I hope a few attacks don’t alter how we look at it.”

Too late, at least for one victim. I talked Monday to a News & Observer co-worker as he was exercising at a gym in Durham. An avid jogger, he was inside on one of those made-for-being-outside days because his last jog on the trail ended with him almost being killed: Two juveniles attacked him from behind with two malt liquor bottles and split his head. They were arrested.

Mischief? It’s beyond that

Police Chief Jose Lopez said he has increased the police presence on the trail and encouraged people to turn in culprits. He also said in previous interviews that most of the assaults are not robberies, but the result of “mischievousness.”

Sorry, chief. “Mischief” doesn’t leave you laid out in the dirt with a concussion and blood flowing from your head while two thugs-in-training flee with your iPod.

Chief Lopez offered this advice to trail users: “When it’s starting to get dark, it’s not a time to be on any trail in the United States.”

Indisputably sound advice, but it sounds as though we’re resigned to letting the bad guys win after dark. What citizens of Durham and anyplace else really want to hear from their top cop is that the #$*%&@ park belongs to the good guys and gals and will be so safe that an 89-year-old grandmother who’s just cashed her Social Security check can walk it at midnight without fear.

That’s not to say that some fitness buffs can’t be dangerously oblivious to the harm in whose way they put themselves. A couple of years ago during a typical July heat wave, I decided to jog – OK, walk and jog – around the track at the Durham School of the Arts. It was 2:30 a.m., and the temperature had dropped to around 90. As I trod the track and pondered whether to reward myself for working out with a honey bun or a Yoo-Hoo, a young woman drove up, got out of her car and began stretching.

I did what any brother with a brain would do: I got the hell out of there, because if anything bad had happened to her, guess who would’ve found himself standing in front of a magistrate going “Uh ...”?

“You don’t have to leave,” she said cheerily as I gathered my stuff to leave.

“Oh, yes I do.” And did.

Late-morning assault

My co-worker who was robbed and assaulted on the American Tobacco Trail in January isn’t a pretty young woman who was on a track at 2:30 a.m. He is an athletic, 37-year-old man who was running on the city’s main attraction, and one of the reasons he moved to Durham, at 11:30 a.m.

That’s in the morning, yo.

Lopez can’t be expected to post police officers everywhere on the trail, but if city officials want to prevent a crown jewel from irretrievably losing its luster, they’d better do something to keep that trail as safe as it is when several cops, a city councilman and 40 or 50 of his closest friends decide to go for a run.

You know the old saying about how a liberal is merely a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet?

I doubt that Durham, of all places, wants a city full of conservatives running around.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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