On December 13, hours after a mass shooting in East Durham that killed two teens and wounded four other children, city and county leaders decried the tragic event during a solemn, funereal press conference at the downtown police headquarters.

The U.S. Congress in 2013 defined a mass shooting as the murder of three or more people in a single incident.

The Gun Violence Archive defines the act as the shooting and killing of four or more people in a single act.

But it’s certainly a mass shooting by any anecdotal definition: the slayings of 19-year-old Isaiah Carrington, and 15-year-old Hillside High student Ariuna Cotton, along with the wounding of three girls, ages 17, 13 and 12, and a 13-year-old boy. It was a little after 3 a.m. when police found the youngsters inside a sports utility vehicle that had crashed into a utility pole near the intersection of Mathison and Eugene streets.

“We are better than this,” the city’s newly hired and clearly shaken Police Chief Patrice Andrews said after offering condolences to the families of the victims, while describing the shooting aftermath as a “tragic day for the city and community,” and asking the person or persons responsible for the shootings to put the guns down.

“Durham is better than this,” intoned a distraught Mayor Elaine O’Neal, who was sworn in one week before. “The Bull City is better than this.”

Brenda Howerton, chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners echoed the two new leaders’ sentiments.

“Durham is better than that,” she said

“This is not the Durham that I grew to love and still love today,” Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said. “We are better than this.”

Durham may be better than this, but deadly gun violence has become a troublesome defining feature for the Bull City. The epidemic of gun violence that has shaken Durham is mirrored in big cities and small towns across the United States.

In June, Durham’s first African American woman to serve as police chief, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis ended her five-year tenure to become chief of the Memphis Police Department. On December 23, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Memphis police had investigated 333 homicides that passed a “grim record” of 332 set the year before.

With a few more days to go before the year ends, Durham police have investigated a record 48 homicides, easily surpassing the city’s deadliest year in 2016, when 42 people were victims of violence.

The deadly gun violence that has ravaged the Bull City along with other American cities and towns, has emerged as this generation’s crack cocaine epidemic that destroyed so many young lives in inner city communities a little over 30 years ago.

Earlier this month, Andrews told city council members that the “sheer number” of guns in the city is “staggering,” and she described a harrowing scenario where the city’s firearm assailants are shooting to kill. 

“I really think it boils down to accessibility and I also believe that many of the shooting incidents that we’re having involve multiple rounds being fired,” Andrews told the council members. “And so there’s almost a more violent element to the shootings that we’re having.”

“We are losing our children, and like I’ve said before, enough is enough,” Birkhead said at the press conference. “How many more of our young people are we going to lose to gun violence, to these streets, to gang activity before we mobilize?”

“Something is off”

As the INDY previously reported,  in recent years, more and more of Durham’s children—mostly African American—are getting caught in the line of deadly gunfire.

“We’ve got a problem,” Howerton said at the press conference. “Something is off.”

A review of  the homicide spike indicates a disproportionate number of young victims are being gunned down in East Durham, along the South Alston Avenue corridor. Police have not said what exactly is fueling the gunfire.

On December 17, days after the six teenagers were shot on Mathison Street, 28-year-old Sayquan Facyson was mortally wounded a little over two miles away, near the intersection of Holloway Street and N. Briggs Avenue, just off S. Alston.

Two days later, on December 19, someone fatally wounded Omar Ravon Perry, 23, in the 1200 block of Morning Glory Avenue.

It was just before 6 p.m. last Thursday, when Santiago Lopez Paz, 43, was shot to death and a 17-year-old boy was wounded during a drive-by shooting outside an apartment complex in the 1200 block of Naples Place, a short distance from Holloway Street. Durham police Lt. Randall Packard said two other people were robbed at gunpoint just before the shooting.

As the INDY reported, police in April said Ian Wells, 15, was fatally shot during a robbery that happened near the intersection of S. Alston Avenue and Highway 147, just a short walk from the mass shooting on December 13. Police charged two teens, ages 15 and 16, with Wells’s death. 

A 17-year-old whose name was not disclosed by police was gunned down in June on Holloway Street.

Another 17-year-old whose name was also not made public by police was fatally shot in the parking lot of an East Durham convenience store near the intersection of East Main and South Elm streets.

In late November, on East Durham’s Drew Street, a late night fusillade of what neighbors describe as 20 to 30 gunshots killed a teen and wounded two other people. The shooting happened hours before community activists observed a weekend cease-fire.

On September 18, six blocks from this month’s mass shooting, police found Shamori Brown, 21, and Tavis Rhodes, 20, both of Durham who were both mortally wounded inside of a  parking lot adjacent to the Latham Parking Deck in the 700 block of East Lawson Street at N.C. Central University campus. The victims were taken to the hospital, where they died a short time later.   

In June of last year, Esahaq Msbah Saleh Fadhal, 17, died in front of a convenience store on Holloway Street when he was struck by two passing cars firing at each other, police reported.

Meanwhile, police last week announced they have filed charges against a 20-year-old Greensboro man and 31-year-old Virginia man in connection with the November 26 shooting at The Streets at Southpoint Mall that wounded a 10-year-old girl and a 26-year-old man who has been accused of trying to rob a man selling jewelry at the mall.

Investigators last week also announced that Michael Samuel Sidney, 19, had been arrested in Clayton by a federal fugitive task force and charged with the late October shooting death of 18-year-old Alexa Centeno in South Durham.

Addressing the epidemic on several fronts

The city has been trying to address the gun violence epidemic on several fronts. Joanne Pierce, Durham County’s general manager of health and well-being, supervises Bull City United. The city and county funded initiative relies on “violence interrupters’’ and outreach workers who are trained to resolve outbreaks of violence on the streets before they happen. BCU started working in gun-plagued neighborhoods in 2016 with the goal of approaching violence as a public health issue not unlike cholera or influenza outbreaks.

Last year, Pierce sounded a cautionary note during a city council work session, telling elected leaders to pay attention to the systemic issues at the root of the gun violence, including racism and divestment in Black neighborhoods.

“[BCU] intervention cannot solve a crisis generations in the making,” Pierce said. “This is not about the moral failings of individuals. It’s about the moral failings of institutions that have allowed these issues to fester.”

During this month’s press conference 12 hours after the mass shooting on Mathison and Eugene streets, O’Neal said she would reach out to other elected officials and the community to develop a violence prevention plan to save young people’s lives.

She called for more officers on the streets, but she also mirrored Pierce’s concerns when she talked about the need to prioritize mental health services for young people in trouble. O’Neal also pointed to issues of joblessness and housing instability during a time when the median cost of a home is well beyond residents’ means, and the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment increased by 34 percent between 2019 and 2020 to $1,333.

But, she added, “Law enforcement and the government can’t tackle this issue alone.

“We need every member of the community to join us in this fight to save lives,” including parents talking with their children about the urgency of the moment, neighbors who are willing to volunteer as mentors, businesses that can offer young people internships and jobs, along with everyday citizens willing to volunteer in communities “outside of their normal circles” in order “to develop a safety net for our children.”

Howerton said middle class residents who think they will not be affected by the violence are mistaken.

“Keep doing nothing and it will walk in your door one day,” she cautioned. “We cannot sit by and say there’s nothing we can do. Our children are traumatized right now.”

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.