On the seventh day of 2016, Durham leaders declared that violent crime would not be tolerated in their city, and minutes later, Durham had its seventh victim of gunfire, a man injured in yet another drive-by shooting.
Durham police were already investigating two homicides during the first week of the new year, after seeing 42 homicides – the most since at least 1980 – in 2015.
The numbers brought Mayor Bill Bell, interim Police Chief Larry Smith and Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews to a Thursday noon news conference to condemn the violence.
“I have been with the Police Department now almost 28 years,” Smith said. “And I haven’t seen quite the level of shootings we’ve been having in the city as I have seen” within the last eight months.
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The men said they have seen enough. Durham is already searching for a new police chief and trying to learn from other cities’ strategies, but “this is too important to wait,” Bell said.
“We know that right now the city needs one mission, and that’s dealing with the violent crime,” Smith said.
Police have put special enforcement teams from across the city under a special operations division commander.
They have targeted 19 people, some of them affiliated with gangs, who have “a high probability” of being involved in the recent violence, Smith said.
“And we are going to do everything we can, within legal means, to deal with those individuals,” he said, “to put them in jail if they are the ones that are going to take up guns and shoot up our communities.”
The list will be “ever changing,” he added.
Some of the 19 are out of jail on bail, some are on probation, and others aren’t under any court supervision, Smith said. Two are in custody, he said.
A deadly year
Last year’s 42 homicides were nearly twice the 22 recorded in 2014.
In addition to the homicides, 198 people in Durham were shot or suffered shooting-related injuries last year, more than double the 95 shooting victims in 2014.
Police and others have said violent crime has sparked in cities across the nation. The 62 people killed in Charlotte in 2015 marked a six-year high in homicides and a nearly 50 percent increase over the Queen City’s 42 killings in 2014.
In comparison, Raleigh had 17 homicides last year, the same as in 2014.
While Smith expects the new efforts to make a difference in Durham, he said, they would be more successful if residents, especially in high-crime areas, shared information with police.
“Call us. Call CrimeStoppers. 683-1200,” he said. “You can be completely anonymous.”
Of the seven shootings this year, two occurred Wednesday night and one on Thursday afternoon.
A 17-year-old male was shot in the leg about 8:52 p.m. Wednesday while playing basketball with two others on the 1100 block of South Hoover Road.
A 27-year-old resident on the 4500 block of Laymans Chapel Road was shot after two males forced their way into a home occupied by four people. The resident was shot as he struggled with the suspects, police said.
In both shootings, the injuries don’t appear to be life-threatening, police said.
Then around 1 p.m. Thursday, minutes after the news conference at police headquarters ended, a man was driving south on Roxboro Street when a car pulled up beside him and one of the occupants fired several shots at the man’s vehicle, police said. The victim was taken to the hospital with a gunshot wound to his finger.
On Sunday, Nicholas Bell, 20, of Durham was found dead from a gunshot wound on Ashe Street, the first of two homicides this year. On Monday, police say, Latonya Denise Morris, 37, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting near the intersection of East Main and Elm streets. She died in the hospital.
Gang link questioned
Thursday’s news conference got a mixed reaction from those visiting a makeshift memorial for Morris, including Cheryl Smith, who said she was related to Morris.
Police say the recent violence is not necessarily indicative of gang turf wars. But Cheryl Smith said she thinks in East Durham, where 14 people have been killed since last year, gangs are fueling the violence.
“It’s drugs, gang banging and turf wars,” she said.
She did agree with the mayor and law enforcement leaders that the entire community will have to address the issue to change it.
“When someone who lives here, that people really care about gets shot … that’s when the people will want change,” she said.
But many people aren’t willing to talk.
People who live in the neighborhood say Monday’s shooting happened differently from how police described it.
They say Morris, who was known as “Shorty,” was robbed and fatally shot while she stood near a fence that separates apartments from a small eatery on East Main Street.
A barber who works across the street from the shooting said he saw what happened. He wouldn’t give his name and said he wouldn’t tell police what he saw even if they asked – which he said they didn’t.
Tears and a teddy bear
Jacqueline Webb, a certified nursing assistant who works with the Durham Housing Authority, had tears in her eyes Thursday as she hopped out of the minivan she was driving and placed a small brown teddy bear at the memorial for Morris.
Webb, like Cheryl Smith, thinks that guns and drugs are behind the shootings.
Last month, she said someone shot into the apartment next to the one where Morris was killed. The gunfire, she said, tore through the sheetrock of the apartment where she cared for an elderly woman.
The woman was unharmed. But the housing authority, concerned for the older resident’s safety, moved her out of the apartment, Webb said.
Webb nodded when she learned that the city’s law enforcement leaders announced that their departments were going to target 19 people in the city who had a propensity toward violence.
She said she would share information if she had it.
“I ain’t ashamed, and I ain’t scared,” she said. “They need to get them.”