Forty-two people have died at the hands of others in Durham in 2015 as of Wednesday, almost double the number killed last year and the most in any one year since the city began counting homicides in 1980.
This year is also notable because 198 people in Durham have been shot or suffered shooting-related injuries in 2015, more than double the 95 shooting victims in 2014. Guns were the weapons used in nearly 70 percent of the city’s homicides this year.
In comparison, Raleigh has had 17 homicides this year, the same number as in 2014.
Durham has been startled by the violence this year, which may be a record year for homicides, especially since killings fell in 2014 to 22, from 30 in 2013.
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Durham’s second-highest homicide total was 41 in 1996, according to the Durham Police Department.
This year’s steep rise from the prior year is “very concerning,” City Manager Tom Bonfield said.
The challenge, Bonfield and outgoing police Chief Jose Lopez said, is that the 42 homicides are killings that occurred under a variety of circumstances.
Ten of the homicides were described as domestic cases in which the victims and perpetrators were related, including four in which the victims were 3 years old or younger, according to Durham police.
In four cases, the homicides were ruled justifiable self-defense. One victim died this year from complications of a 2011 gunshot wound, and another death was an officer-involved shooting.
Lopez said earlier this year that at least six homicides were gang-related. Bonfield said there were actually more gang-related homicides in 2014. The police department has 16 open cases in which no arrests have been made, according to spokesman Wil Glenn.
Lopez said multiple factors have contributed to the increase in violent crime across the United States, including what he claimed is a backlash against law enforcement that he said has emboldened criminals and kept the public from sharing information with police.
“I think that they feel they can pretty much do what they want and not really have to worry about consequences,” Lopez said.
Overall, reported violent crime in Durham increased in the first nine months of 2015 by 16 percent, compared with the same period last year. To address that and concerns about police-community relations, the city is exploring reallocating Police Department resources and learning from other cities that have faced similar issues. In addition, Bonfield forced Lopez to retire by the end of 2015; the city is searching for a new chief.
‘Like live wires’
“It is only going to get worse,” said Rodney Williams, co-founder of Walk for Life, an advocacy group that tries to get residents of high-crime neighborhoods engaged in crime-fighting efforts.
Williams, who also tries to help gang members find alternatives to gang life, said a number of factors have contributed to the increase in violent crime.
In the last few months, a number of high-ranking gang members have been arrested, he said.
“Right now, there is no structure in the Bloods and the Crips,” Williams said. “So these young men are like live wires. Nobody has any control.”
Lopez said the Police Department has been looking at that issue.
Williams also said people with felony records need places where they can learn job skills that would encourage potential employers to give them a second chance.
Durham’s churches need to focus on helping these challenged communities, Williams said, and the city needs to invest in recreational opportunities. In addition, police substations need to return to troubled public housing complexes, Williams said. Police officers need to get out of their cars and build relationships, he said.
Marcia Owen, director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, described the violence in Durham and in other communities as a “public health epidemic.”
The community, she said, needs to look beyond the numbers and explore who the victims are, whether crimes are being solved, how long the sentences are for and whether those arrested are repeat offenders.
“I am outraged, and I hope others are, too, at the numbers of homicides,” said Clarence Birkhead, a former Hillsborough and Duke University police chief. Birkhead is currently chairman of the the public safety committee for the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
Birkhead called for more community policing and residents getting more involved with the police, in addition to long-term strategies that center on education and more youth programming.
The Durham Committee has held one forum and plans to hold another to reach out to those most affected by violence.
“Someone knows why and who is committing the crime,” he said. “So we need to start there and get them to talk about these individuals.”
Staff writer Thomasi McDonald contributed to this report.