Incidents on Durham's American Tobacco Trail inspire community intervention

Durham responds reports of crime on American Tobacco Trail

jsmialek@nando.comNovember 3, 2012 

  • Interested in volunteering? Apply online here: www.bit.ly/Soa2Ft or call the Durham Police Department’s Community Services Bureau at 919-560-4438.

— As reports of assaults and robberies on Durham’s American Tobacco Trail attracted police and press attention this summer, resident Cynthia Cole began to worry it would prevent people from using the valuable local resource.

“It actually made me mad,” she said of at least nine incidents reported between mid-May and October, which ranged from simple assault and robbery to a sexual assault report. “The thought that a town with a great trail system would have it compromised by a small number of people and a small number of incidents…”

To try to fix the problem by improving trail safety, Cole and husband, Lyle Snider, have joined Durham’s new Trail Watch Program, a group of about 25 volunteers who met Saturday for a training session at the trail’s Morehead Avenue entrance.

After applying and passing an abbreviated criminal background check, trail-watch volunteers are taught to recognize suspicious activity along the trail. Then, on their own time, they can patrol the area and alert police if anything seems awry. The initiative is an outgrowth of existing Neighborhood Watch efforts, said Sgt. Hector Borges of the Durham Police Department, and should help tackle concerns about trail safety.

“This is part of a response; the community wanted to be an active participant in safety,” Borges said.

The group kicked off with an initial training on Oct. 10 in City Hall, he said. Capt. D.C. Allen of the Durham Police Department said the group is still accepting applications on a rolling basis and hopes to expand.

“There is no goal number,” he said, explaining that since police can’t monitor all parts of the trail constantly, it relies on community members to fill in the blanks. “This is our trail. We want it to be useful for our citizens day-in, day-out.”

A group of Durham residents already independently patrol the popular greenway on bike. Police stepped up their presence over the summer, with some officers biking the trail and others making rounds on three recently purchased utility terrain vehicles. But Borges said the “Our Trails, Our Town” campaign, which the watch is part of, partners police, residents and local businesses into a concerted effort.

One company, Performance Bicycle, got involved after small-parts coordinator and analyst Gene Carleton attended the initial community meeting.

“I wrote to the chief of police, and then Sgt. Borges contacted me the next day,” Carleton said as he and his wife handed out blue plastic safety whistles and water bottles at the trailhead on Saturday before the training. “I’m more concerned about it as a resident of Durham.”

Performance Bicycle, which also operated a handout station at the trail entrance near Southpoint Crossings, plans to hold additional events throughout the winter and next spring, Carleton said.

Borges said other businesses have shown interest in getting involved, too.

Mindy Solie, a resident of Durham’s Forest Hills neighborhood attending Saturday’s session as a volunteer, said she was impressed with the police’s willingness to think outside the box to respond to “outrage about the continuing assaults.”

Gesturing toward the community members circled around Borges – most of them sporting brilliant yellow safety vests with the words “Trail Watch Volunteer” printed across their backs in stark black – Solie said she believes the group’s presence on the trails will deter crime.

“The good guys will win, then,” she said. “It the citizens aren’t out there, the bad guys win.”

Smialek: 919-829-4954

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