‘Children are dying.’ Durham councilman says city has a gun emergency

The shooting death of one boy and the wounding of another has reopened a rift on the Durham City Council.

During Monday’s meeting, Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton said Durham is facing a gun emergency after 9-year-old Z’yon Person died and his 8-year-old cousin were shot Sunday night, as their aunt drove them to get snow cones.

Last month, at least two other children were wounded by gunfire, and Monday night police said they were investigating a teen’s fatal shooting earlier that evening.

Durham police are still investigating the latest deaths.

“I want to challenge my colleagues,” Middleton said. “My challenge is that we come up with a concrete plan and be able to tell the people of our city what our plan for gun violence is just like we did with bike paths.”

Middleton and Councilwoman DeDreana Freeman backed a plan to hire more police officers last spring when the city budget was being drafted. Mayor Steve Schewel also supported additional officers.

Police Chief C.J. Davis had asked for 18 more officers, and City Manager Tom Bonfield had included them in his proposed budget.

But in two 4-3 votes, a council majority rejected both the plan and a compromise that Schewel offered to hire nine more officers.

Instead members Vernetta Alston, Javiera Caballero and Charlie Reece and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson voted to divert money to increase city workers’ pay to a minimum $15 per hour.

In addition to more officers, Middleton wants to bring ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system, to Durham. It uses acoustic and optical sensors to alert police to the location of gunfire. The council has not acted on his request.

Safety task force proposed

Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of 10 grassroots groups, presented the council with an alternative policing plan that called for a community safety task force, among other proposals.

Caballero repeated that call Monday night.

“We had a recommendation that was brought before us last May,” she said. “I am envisioning something from that recommendation along with working with our Police Department. I anticipate a long process because they won’t get what they want without working with the police.”

Caballero said the extra officers would not have made a difference in preventing Z’yon’s death.

“The officers that were asked for were for District 4,” Caballero said. “The shooting was in District 2. It wouldn’t have helped us.”

Middleton said he was not convinced.

“Children are dying,” Middleton said. “So what is our plan? If not ShotSpotter, then what? If it’s not hiring more police, that’s fine. If there is something in the Durham Beyond Policing plan that can address this type of stuff, we should pass it right now. We should declare an emergency and make appropriations mid-cycle. We’re the council. We can do that.”

Freeman said having more police could help deter crime.

“Even though more police does not prevent the crime, it can dissuade,” Freeman said.

Different solutions needed

Johnson, who supports the task force idea, said adding police officers won’t solve the problem.

“We spend millions and billions of dollars on policing every year and still have more gun violence than any other developed nation,” she said. “I think it’s clear that what we are doing now is not working. And it’s time to try some different solutions.

“I think that it’s important to get community input on the front end so that people feel like the solutions that we implement are tailored to fit their own.”

Johnson and Reece are running for re-election, while Caballero, who was appointed to fill Mayor Steve Schewel’s unexpired council term, is running for the first time. They’re among 10 candidates running for three at-large City Council seats in the fall.

At least two other candidates running for City Council — Jackie Wagstaff and Victoria Peterson — have called for more police officers. They frequently spoke at council meetings in May and June when the budget was being discussed.

(Z’yon Person’s name was misspelled in previous versions of this article.)

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.