Durham cyclists patrol American Tobacco Trail

Assaults on American Tobacco Trail inspire citizens to take action

jwise@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2012 


Volunteers from left, Debbie West, Joanne Fairhurst, Tim Hunter and Rob Maggard patrol the crime-troubled American Tobacco Trail Wednesday evening, September 26, 2012, in Durham. West, a Durham resident with the East Coast Greenway Alliance, recently organized the twice weekly patrol to help keep an eye out for crime on the trail.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

— When Durham resident Debbie West heard about the latest assault on the American Tobacco Trail on Sept. 19, she decided it was time to do something. So she did.

Last weekend, she organized a volunteer bicycle patrol, which set off on its second trip Wednesday evening.

“We make a big difference just by being present on the trail,” West said.

West and four other cyclists set out from the trailhead near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Wednesday evening. On the first patrol, on Monday, West and two companions rode several miles south from downtown, including four times through the section where one sex offense, two robberies and five assaults have occurred since May 14.

“Anything I can do to change perceptions,” said rider Tim Hunter, when asked why he came out on the patrol. “I saw some emails going around saying the Tobacco Trail is useless” because of danger from criminals,” he said. “That’s not true.”

Rob Walpole said he was “just trying to be involved” and was “a little bit tired of what’s been occurring.”

West said her intention is not to be police.

“A lot of it is just being present on the trail and saying ‘hello’ to everybody. Just being there makes the trail safer.”

This summer’s victims have been alone when attacked, and if the patrollers come upon someone riding or running alone they’ll offer to ride along for company, she said. In the unlikely event they do encounter something unfortunate, they’ll call police and try to help.

The Sept. 19 attacker ran away when a passing cyclist stopped to help the victim, who declined medical treatment afterward. For West, that was “one thing too many” and prompted her to go ahead with the idea she’d had after the earlier attacks.

West put out an online invitation to go patrolling, not knowing that others had the same idea.

Scott Carter, chairman of the city-county Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, said City Councilman Mike Woodard suggested a citizens’ patrol at the BPAC’s August meeting. Police Chief Jose L. Lopez had also mentioned the idea, among other options for improving security on the popular Greenway.

But, after the woman was attacked on Sept. 19, West forged ahead on her own.

“It was like one thing too many,” she said. “I just thought, OK ... I can go out there with a group of people a couple of times a week and ride my bike and make it safer.”

Woodard applauded West’s efforts.

“Too bad we had to have a private citizen take this up and coordinate without the input or support of the police department,” h e said.

Lopez said the bike patrol idea is still being discussed, and police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said, “We are happy to have groups of people walking and biking on the trail.”

Police have made three arrests in connection with trail attacks. In recent weeks, they have increased patrols, investigated putting video cameras on the trail and bought three utility terrain vehicles for trail duty and other uses.

“I’m glad to know they’re taking these attacks seriously,” Hunter said.

On Monday, West said, her group encountered eight police officers also riding the trail. “We cheered for them,” she said.

Carter said police discussed a citizens’ patrol with the Bicycle and Pedestrian committee last week, but it is “still a little fuzzy as to how it’s going to come together.”

“When they get that going, I’ll definitely participate,” West said. In the meantime, she and her companions plan to keep riding the trail around sundown every Monday and Wednesday “as long as I have at least one other person.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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