Durham News

4 in 5 Durham residents say city has gang problem

According to the city’s latest resident survey, 78 percent of citizens think Durham has a gang problem.

Durham authorities want to find out if they’re right; and if so, how to tell if what they’re doing about it is doing any good.

An update of the 2007 “gang assessment” report is under way for Durham’s Gang Reduction Strategy Steering Committee, a group from law-enforcement, courts, social services and local government. They hope to have it done by the end of June, with recommendations on anti-gang actions.

And unlike the 2007 report, the new one will include ways to tell whether those actions are working.

The 2007 report had about 45 goals and recommendations, said Jim Stuit, gang-reduction manager at Durham County’s Criminal Justice Resource Center, but very few measures to gauge whether they were effective.

“(The goals) sounded good, but when you’d ask a year later, ‘Did we make progress toward this?’, nobody knew. It wasn’t tied to a data point,” said Stuit, who began his job in August 2011.

Authorities have good data on Durham gangs, said Stuit and City Manager Tom Bonfield, but don’t know what the numbers say about anti-gang efforts. Last week, the steering committee spent two hours talking over measuring ideas. One, from the police department, was tracking the number of aggravated assaults with multiple victims.

“Most of the time, it’s going to be gang-related,” said Deputy Chief Larry Smith. In police records, each victim counts as an incident of aggravated assault; breaking out those incidents with three or more victims would be an indicator of common gang crimes such as drive-by shootings into vehicles and buildings.

Over time, said police statistician Jason Schiess, the rate of single-victim assaults is fairly steady. “Peaks and valleys” in the baseline indicate varying levels of violent gang crime.

Some other police suggestions were comparing the numbers of juvenile violent-crime complaints and weapons seized from known gang members with baseline rates for each; and tracking identified gang members returning to Durham after serving prison terms.

Durham Public Schools suggested using changes in dropout, suspension and truancy rates as measures, though the latter raised a question of what “truancy” means. For clarity, Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey suggested using “chronic truancy,” meaning more than 10 unexcused absences – the point at which a truant’s parents can be hauled into court.

As the conversation went along, it came up that measures weren’t just lacking from the previous gang assessment – many of the private nonprofit agencies that claim to be working against youth gang involvement – and ask for public money – don’t keep numbers on how well they’re doing, either.

Some “really resist documenting and quantifying what they’re doing,” said Duke University Vice President Phail Wynn.

“Make that a requirement if they want the money,” said Mayor Bill Bell.

A suggestion that results of gun buy-back programs would mean something got a quick dismissal from Police Chief Jose L. Lopez, who said most guns brought in are from dealers unloading stock they couldn’t sell otherwise.

“Bloods and Crips don’t sell,” he said.

Another suggestion quickly dismissed was a public-relations campaign to put out “accurate information to the community on gang issues” – in response to the resident-survey finding that 66 percent of those who thought Durham has a gang problem based that impression on “media reports.”

The survey also showed that word of mouth informed 55 percent of them, and 31 percent had a basis in personal experience. Smith, the deputy police chief, said that actually about 4 percent of Durham crime is gang-related.

He also said, though, that the number of multi-victim assaults involving firearms is disturbing – 103 in the first quarter of this year alone. That number is one reason police suggested using it as a measure.

“We feel like this has reached that point,” Smith said, at which “the message has to get (out) it’s not OK to go out and shoot a place up 20 times because you've got a beef with someone. ... It's a message that needs to be filtered through all aspects of the criminal justice system, because it’s such a key indicator.”