Our top stories to watch in the new year continue several of the top stories of the previous year, with a return of a familiar face to local headlines.
Here are five stories to keep an eye on.
Police Department changes
A new leader. Body-worn cameras. A potential restructuring.
Those are just some of the changes coming in 2016 to the Durham Police Department, which has faced increased scrutiny in recent years following a surge in violent crime, officer-involved shootings, the death of a teenager in the back of a patrol car and questions about whether traffic stop and search statistics reflect racial bias or high-crime in areas where proportionally more black residents live.
Some specific developments to watch include:
▪ The search for the new police chief. City Manager Tom Bonfield’s timeline includes interviews with selected candidates in March and two to three finalists meeting with the Police Department staff and the public in late March. Bonfield said his goal is to offer the position to someone by early April, with the selected candidate starting in May.
▪ Last month the Police Department released its draft body camera policy, which it is taking public comments on through Jan. 14. The steps leading up to the use of body cameras sometime in 2016 include the finalization of the policy, selecting the actual cameras and then initially outfitting about 250 uniform patrol and other officers with cameras they will fasten to their clothing at the start of a shift.
▪ In November the City Council approved a $91,323 consultant contract for “a full operational study” of the Police Department. The review, expected to take about four months, is evaluating 19 core functions ranging from policing style, resources utilization and staffing, to use of warnings, citations and arrests during traffic stops and citizen complaint processes.
Staff reporter Virginia Bridges
Light rail decisions
The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail wouldn’t run its first train from UNC Hospitals to Alston Avenue in Durham until 2026 – but 2016 will bring key decisions on whether the $1.8 billion project stays on track.
The North Carolina legislature threw a wrench in light rail plans, when lawmakers capped all state spending on light-rail projects at $500,000 – even though the state Department of Transportation had already allocated $138 million for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project. The House later voted to remove that cap, but the Senate kicked the decision into the rules committee. The committee will meet in 2016, but isn’t even obligated to vote on removing the cap.
Seeking federal funding for up to half of the project’s cost, GoTriangle will submit a Draft Environmental Impact Statement to the Federal Transportation Administration in February. Yet as GoTriangle gathered community input for the impact statement, many residents questioned the expense and neighborhood disruption for a project whose goals, they said, might be better achieved through a stronger bus system.
Supporters still describe light rail as essential for smooth, environmentally sound growth. But the light rail line’s future hinges on state and federal funding decisions.
Correspondent Julia Sendor
New Peterson trial
After being released from prison two years ago, Michael Peterson, now 72, is scheduled to be retried this year for the mysterious death of his wife, Kathleen, in 2001.
Peterson – novelist, veteran and 1999 candidate for Durham mayor – was convicted in 2003 of murdering his wife and sentenced to life without parole. However, in 2011, his conviction was overturned on appeal because of misleading testimony by a witness for the prosecution.
Peterson’s attorneys have long argued that Kathleen Peterson died after being attacked by an owl, which caused her to lose her balance and fall down the stairs of the couple’s Forest Hills mansion. Whether the owl theory will prevail in this judicial do-over will be up to a jury.
The initial trial was one of the most-discussed proceedings in modern Durham history. The retrial promises to be equally riveting.
Correspondent Lisa Sorg
That Craftsman bungalow in Cleveland-Holloway you were eyeing in 2009? You can’t afford it now. Housing prices have risen 400 percent in that downtown neighborhood, and real estate in other areas near the central city is becoming more expensive as well.
2016 will be a pivotal year for affordable housing, with several projects in the pipeline, including the former Whitted School, which is being renovated with private and public funds, and Rose Walk, a “pocket neighborhood” built by Bob Chapman that will include market-rate homes and affordable apartments near Duke Street and Club Boulevard.
Meanwhile community organizers Durham CAN and other housing advocates are scrutinizing property records for any acreage near a transit route – bus or future light rail – where lower-cost units could be built.
And with the retirement of Durham Housing Authority Dallas Parks in June, the city’s largest provider of affordable housing, will begin a new era.
Correspondent Lisa Sorg
After five years in New York City and another five in Asheville, the electronic music, art and technology festival relocates to Durham, May 19-22.
While music fans are thrilled, the festival marks a risky move for the organizers, who lost $1.5 million last year – and have to find enough Durham venues with sufficient total capacity to hold thousands of psychedelicized fans.
If Moogfest succeeds, then Durham will have yet another attraction to fill the downtown hotels. If it fails, well, let’s not go there yet. It will also be interesting to see how the Art of Cool Festival, slated for May 6-8, will fare. While Art of Cool focuses on jazz, rap and hip-hop, there are plenty of genre-jumpers who will have to choose between Moog and Cool.
Correspondent Lisa Sorg