Does Durham need more police? Progressive leaders split on how to fight the violence

Mark-Anthony Middleton says the Durham City Council’s recent vote against hiring more police officers revealed the “dark secret of the progressive movement.”

There is a pecking order, he said, and poor people who live in neighborhoods seeing more homicides and shootings are at the bottom.

“Certain groups, when they ask for things, they get results,” Middleton said. “And other groups, when they ask for things, get lectures.”

City Council member Jillian Johnson, the mayor pro tem, said the council made the right decision.

“I just want to take issue with the idea that this system of policing and incarceration is working for the black community,” she said at a recent Partners Against Crime candidate forum

“We have a serious problem in the country and in this community with mass incarceration,” she said.

Durham’s violent crime rate is more than twice that of the state: 867 crimes per 100,000 people compared to the state rate of 384.

More than 23 people have been killed in Durham since Jan. 1, compared to 17 last year at this time. Multiple children have been shot.

While the council is united in trying to address root causes of crime by supporting affordable housing, programs that help people transition from incarceration and job training, its members disagree on how to address the increase in violence in the interim.

The discussion will continue at a public safety forum from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Philips Episcopal Church’s fellowship hall, 403 E. Main St. City Council member DeDreana Freeman will moderate the forum organized by Episcopalians United Against Racism and Communities in Partnership.

Crime and the election

Opponents of more officers — Johnson, and council members Vernetta Alston, Javiera Caballero and Charlie Reece — pointed to 2019 first-quarter crimes statistics that showed Durham had fewer calls for police service, shorter response times, and clearance rates that beat national averages.

“It is difficult to make the argument that the Police Department is not doing everything that we are asking in terms of responding to violent crime,” said Reece.

He, Johnson and Caballero are running on a joint platform and competing with seven others for the council’s three at-large seats.

The incumbents said they have concerns about overpolicing and believe supporting other community efforts would be more effective.

“We have spent far too much time, energy and money using policing as the tool to address the problem,” Reece said. “Policing is a fantastic tool to respond to violent crimes, but it is not clear to me that more police equals less violent crime.”

Reece said he isn’t “philosophically opposed to hiring more police officers.” He cited investments the council has made over the last three years: hiring 36 more officers, building a new police headquarters and approving incentives to attract and encourage officers to live in the city.

If violence flares in a community, police will increase patrols there, he said.

“That is exactly the right strategy,” he said, “but that is a Band-aid solution.”

‘Who wants to be the next victim?’

Freeman and Middleton said the cost of violent crime in Durham goes beyond statistics.

‘Who wants to be the next victim?” Freeman asked. “Who wants their child to be the next victim?”

She and Middleton, who has lobbied unsuccessfully for gunshot surveillance technology, said overpolicing isn’t just about numbers but also about a department’s culture, leadership, accountability and hiring decisions.

The increase in officers, they said, would have let the department schedule shorter shifts and would have resulted in better policing.

Middleton expects “an awakening” to the need.

“This is based upon the grumblings I hear on the streets and folks realizing, we can all link arms and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ but when it comes time to spend the money, where is the money really going?” he said.

Residents say the police have to strike the right balance between having a more visible presence in communities experiencing violence but not harassing those they are protecting.

Joe Murdock said his 9-year-old son was outside his apartment playing football last weekend when he heard “Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!” followed by a pause and more gunshots.

Jerome Edward Fogg, 32, lay on the ground, fatally shot in the complex parking lot off Lynn Road.

Seeing more police officers would make him and others feel safer, as long as they are the right kind of officers, Murdock told The News & Observer.

“It’s a point of individual morality,” he said of those who would shoot with other people, especially children, around. “You see kids out here playing, and you still let off. Like you don’t even care.”

More homicides, violent crime

Overall violent crime — aggravated assault, robbery, rape and homicide — is up about 7 percent this year, as of July 27, compared to the same time last year, according to city statistics.

But criminologists discourage looking too closely at short-term trends, which can fluctuate.

From 2000 to 2013, Durham’s violent crime rate dropped 25 percent, before rising again in 2014 through 2017. The changes mirrored national trends.

Last year, around this time, City Council members were congratulating Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis on what by year’s end would be a 13 percent decline in violent crime, the first decrease in four years.

Davis, who started as chief in 2016, has taken steps to address violent crime that include increasing tracking and communication and establishing task forces to address specific crimes, such as armed robbery.

Even with last year’s decline, however, violent crime in Durham increased 21 percent from 2013 to 2018.

Policing and politics

Jon Shane, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said studies between the 1970s and the early 1990s show that more police doesn’t mean less crime.

It’s what cities do with the officers they have that makes the difference, strategies like focusing on hot-spots, and stopping and frisking people believed to be involved in a crime.

“The more those enforcement activities increase, the more likely crime is to decrease,” he said.

Effective staffing manages competing demands, Shane said: the time officers spend responding to calls, the time they spend doing proactive policing and building relationships in the community, and the time spent filling our reports and other administrative duties.

“How much time you want to allocate to things other than responding to calls for service is a value judgment that is often politically driven but informed by science,” he said.

There isn’t a standard that indicates how many officers a city should have based on its population, Shane said. It’s up to each community to decide what it need, he said.

“That is not really empirically driven,” he said. “That is politically driven.”

And he is skeptical that funding the war on poverty will have an appreciable impact on crime.

“We have been doing it for 70 years, and we haven’t seen a lot of people lifted out of poverty,” Shane said. “The amount of money it would take to do that probably far exceeds our ability to fund it.”

It is better to block opportunities for people to commit crimes through “problem-oriented” policing, which means analyzing and addressing specific crimes and situations, he said.

“That is where your real gains are,” he said.

The budget vote

Initially, Davis proposed hiring 72 officers over the next three years, saying she wanted to reduce overtime and reduce shifts from 12 to 10 hours.

That would have provided more police presence when 911 and other calls are high and allowed more officers to remain on their beats rather than to respond to needs elsewhere in the city, City Manager Tom Bonfield said.

Facing opposition, Bonfield reduced the request to 18 in his recommended budget as part of pilot program in one police district. Then Mayor Steve Schewel proposed a compromise of nine officers.

Still, the City Council rejected the request, 4-3.

As Schewel pointed out during the June 17 budget discussion, the council disagreed on spending about $1 million of a $477.8 million budget that included raising the minimum hourly wage for part-time city workers to $15.

In an interview this week, Bonfield said Davis will move forward using the resources she has and continue to explore community partnerships.

“The reality is police (alone) can only do so much because they are busy responding to calls,” he said.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.