Brittany Dash was doing everything right. 

She worked a good job at a bank. She rented a house on an archetypal Durham street. And she took care of her family—not only her five-year-old daughter, Khloe Fennell, who was born with a heart condition that required multiple surgeries, but also her cousin Brian Luster, who was staying with her while he battled addiction.

On July 5, everything went wrong.

While Dash was at work, Luster called 911 to say he was overdosing. Then dispatchers heard him arguing with Dash’s 15-year-old niece, Destiny Sidberry, who was babysitting Fennell and a younger cousin.

By the time police arrived, Luster had retrieved the pistol Dash kept locked up in the house. Sidberry pushed the younger cousin into a closet to protect him, then dove between Luster and Fennell. 

Sidberry was shot seven times, but it wasn’t enough to save Fennell. The five-year-old died from her five gunshot wounds.

“Tell Brittany I tried,” Sidberry reportedly told the police. (Thankfully, the teenager survived.)

Fennell’s murder shook Durham, but not nearly as much as one might think, given the central role crime has played in local politics over the past four years. In the midst of the George Floyd uprisings and a nationwide spike in murders, it was the central issue of the 2019 and 2021 Durham City Council elections.

In part, the relative quiet is because the question of Durham’s crime prevention strategy appeared to be settled in 2021 when Durham voters decisively elected a moderate slate headed by Mayor Elaine O’Neal that called for both police-friendly tough-on-crime measures and investment in social programs. 

But while murder rates are declining across the country, violent crime increased in Durham: through August 5, shootings are up 22 percent compared to 2021 and 28 percent over 2022. 

What appears to be a détente in the debate over police reform might prove to be little more than a temporary cease-fire. A single shooting could still spark a political firestorm at a moment’s notice, and the legacy of marquee crime prevention strategies of recent years—including HEART and ShotSpotter—will depend on the next council’s budgets. 

From the root

Like the country’s as a whole, Durham’s violent crime rate is still far below the highs of the early 1990s, even with recent upticks. But even focusing only on the last five years, it’s simply not true that the city is suffering a violent crime wave: it’s that specific populations in specific parts of the city are.

Durham’s violent crime is localized to a handful of neighborhoods—including the East Durham blocks surrounding Dash’s home on North Guthrie Avenue. According to data from the 2021 Durham Gang Assessment Report, one census tract surrounding Alston Avenue and Lawson Street had 2,544.8 homicides and aggravated assaults per 100,000 people. The city average is 337.8. The 12 most violent tracts account for 15.4 percent of the city’s population, but 60.4 percent of its homicides.

Unsurprisingly, the trends mirror poverty, which means they also mirror race. The per capita income in the Alston tract, which is 10.3 percent white and 67.9 percent Black, is just $9,943. Safer areas of the city, like one tract in Watts Hillandale, is 77 percent white, 6.5 percent Black, and has a per capita income nearly 4 and a half times higher at $45,335.

“If that had been a white little child? Oh my gosh,” says Camryn Smith, cofounder and executive director of Old East Durham’s Communities in Partnership. “But because it was a Black little girl with a Black single mom living in a gentrifying but still majority-Black community, everybody was like, ‘Oh, so sad.’”

Fennell’s murder obviously stands out for her age, but Luster, at 42, is also an outlier. Within areas plagued by violence, it’s the young who are most involved—as perpetrators and victims both. Four of the 12 people arrested for murder so far in 2023 are juveniles, and the median age of all murder arrestees is just 25.5, according to an INDY analysis of Durham Police Department data. For all gun-related arrests, it’s 27. Nearly 40 percent of all shooting victims this year have been 20 years old or younger. Over 80 percent of this year’s 125 Durham shooting victims through August 5 were Black, and the same proportion were male. Just 2 percent were white.

“It was really helpful to come up with a pilot program for interventions with unarmed respondents. But that doesn’t address the very real issue of someone showing up with a gun and pulling the trigger.”

DeDreana Freeman

“Any guidance counselor or principal in [Durham Public Schools] can name the kids in their building that they’re really struggling with,” says city council member Javiera Caballero, who is running for reelection this fall.

Given those trends, every elected official in Durham is clear that violent crime won’t disappear unless the realities of poverty, inequality, unmet mental health needs, and other social ills are addressed. 

“Let’s get to the root of it and work on that part,” says city council member and mayoral candidate DeDreana Freeman, echoing a talking point virtually every candidate for public office shares.

In addition to violence interruption and youth internship programs, the heart of the effort is the Community Safety Department (CSD), created in 2021. 

With four unarmed crisis response teams collectively called HEART, CSD provides first responders with expertise in mental health care and a team that helps residents navigate care after the initial incident. The program is designed to support people like Luster long before they pick up a gun; Luster accrued more than 50 charges over the 20 years preceding Fennell’s murder. 

HEART has proven to be effective and popular, leading the city council to expand its budget for 2024. It had limited hours and geographic scope during its pilot year but will now respond to calls across the entirety of the city for 12 hours per day.

“It’s been successful because people’s needs have been met,” says Caballero.

Politics and paths

If that success has helped quiet the political debate over police reform, it hasn’t ended it. The persistence of violent crime means many in Durham are still leery of diverting funding away from traditional armed police officers, and the next city council will have to chart the path forward.

“It was really helpful to come up with a pilot program for interventions with unarmed respondents,” says Freeman. “But that doesn’t address the very real issue of someone showing up with a gun and pulling the trigger.”

The talking points have become well worn over the last four years.

“A lot of the debate—I’ve said this time and time again—is entrenched in ideological talking points. It’s almost reflexive. It doesn’t matter what the data says for some folk.”

Mark-Anthony Middleton

The defining question of both the municipal budget and the city council election in 2019 was whether the Durham Police Department needed more sworn officers. Then police chief CJ Davis requested 72 of them. After the grassroots abolitionist organization Durham Beyond Policing led a campaign to instead fund a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to explore alternatives to policing, the request was reduced to 18 officers. 

The progressive majority on city council, led by then mayor pro tem Jillian Johnson, rejected those positions, too, opting to increase wages for the city’s part-time workers instead. After Davis left Durham to lead the Memphis Police Department, many speculated the lack of financial support was a motivating factor. (Davis’s tenure in Tennessee has been defined by the murder of Tyre Nichols by a specialized unit she created.)

Two years later, with the task force’s work under way, Durham Beyond Policing joined with Durham for All—an organization born out of Johnson’s original campaign team—to spearhead the fight for HEART. The groups asked that the funding for 60 vacant police positions be moved to the new department instead. (Disclosure: I took part in the campaign as a volunteer member-leader with Durham for All.)

The effort fell flat. CSD and HEART were created, but only five police positions were transferred, resulting in a much smaller pilot program.

When Durham voters later that year elected O’Neal, and Leo Williams and reelected Freeman and Mark-Anthony Middleton, all of whom share a more moderate approach to crime that includes continuing to invest in policing, it seemed like the possibility of any major transformations to Durham’s public safety approach had ended. 

“To say that we’ve reached a point where we need more mental health responders and we can freeze police—to me it’s just unintelligible,” says Middleton. “I don’t know what that means in terms of practical policy making.”

As the city grows, it will have to expand the police force at the same time, Middleton says. He also championed the use of new policing technologies like the gunshot detection system ShotSpotter that he says could increase police efficacy.

“A lot of the debate—I’ve said this time and time again—is entrenched in ideological talking points,” Middleton says. “It’s almost reflexive. It doesn’t matter what the data says for some folk.”

Many more moderate voters represented by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (DCABP), which endorsed all four 2021 election victors, echoed Middleton’s views. They saw the progressive campaign as little more than rich, white liberals from safe neighborhoods imposing their political ideals on the Black Durhamites who were at risk. 

“People in my community tend to look at the situation as ‘We want to be safe,’” says Omar Beasley, a former DCABP chair. “And if we’re not, and if the alleged criminals aren’t being held accountable, then crime is going to continue to trend in the wrong direction in our community, like it has been the past few years.”

Many national polls have corroborated Beasley’s perception, showing that while Black Americans tend to be critical of police, they also tend to support increased police funding. One Pew poll even found that Black and Hispanic Democrats are more likely to prefer increased police spending than white Democrats.

“At this point, I think there is still plenty of space and imagination to espouse a desire to live in a Durham that is beyond policing,” says Jesse Huddleston, a member of the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. “And it’s really important to meet real people where they are.”

“From my vantage point,” they add, “it does not make sense to me to stand on a soapbox and say, ‘Get rid of a resource’ when the General Assembly is already making it hard for Durham to have resources.”

However, there are important divisions among the Black population.

How much confidence Black Americans have in the police differs starkly between age groups, and a Pew poll found differing levels of optimism about change depending on education level and income. In that light, it’s worth noting that both Durham Beyond Policing and Durham for All have Black leadership.

“I want less police,” says Muffin Hudson, director of the NC Community Bail Fund and a leader of All of Us or None of Us NC, a group advocating for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families. “The people that I know want less police.” 

The messy bonds of trust

Ironically, Hudson, an avowed prison abolitionist, is also an ally of Freeman’s, despite their disagreement on policing.

“Me and DeDreana don’t get along like that,” Hudson says. “Just because we’re both Black women and we’re both from New York does not mean we get along. We have some arguments.”

Her loyalty stems from trust.

Hudson says she knows that Freeman, an East Durham resident herself, is honest about her opinions and is committed to her community—especially in the emotionally raw times right after violence strikes.

“It’s always about the people,” Hudson says. “It’s never about her. It’s never her personally saying, ‘Well, this is what I want.’ It’s what the people are telling her they want.”

The fact that the priorities page on Freeman’s current campaign website doesn’t mention violence or policing at all could be a sign that her constituents are asking for a different focus this year. But for Freeman’s progressive council colleagues, it shows a political shift that she has been less than straightforward about.

“The political climate around policing was very intentionally shaped by certain political actors who thought that it would give them an edge over the folks who were holding power in the council at the moment,” Johnson says of the past two elections.

Now that the more pro-police council members are in the majority, it’s not a politically convenient issue. The fact is, progressives like Johnson say, the root causes of violent crime are too big and too complex for local government to solve. 

City governments in North Carolina don’t have the authority or resources to outlaw guns, pass jobs guarantees, increase the minimum wage, or anything else that would target the issues everyone agrees are central to the problem. But that doesn’t make for a good stump speech.

“The lethality of the actual by-product of having so many guns on the street—it’s impossible to really curtail the violence that we’re seeing,” says Caballero. “I understand why residents don’t want to hear that, because it means, ‘Oh, you don’t have a solution to my problem locally.’ 

“I’ll say this for everyone who’s an elected in Durham: We all care. We all feel it. I think some of us are willing to be a little more transparent about what we can actually do about it.”

Jennifer Carroll, a medical anthropologist and member of the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force, sees the issue in the same practical, data-focused way Middleton does—but reaches the opposite conclusion.

While Middleton sees the increase in police response as a sign that enforcement-focused approaches like ShotSpotter are working as promised, Carroll sees activity without effectiveness.

“When we had conversations with city council about ShotSpotter, there was a shocking disregard to available data,” she says, citing evidence from Chicago that the system increases police dispatches but seldom leads to arrests or case closures.

The funding fight

Given the constraints of local government and the size of that problem, the issue ultimately comes down, as it always has, to prioritizing money. Whether ShotSpotter is effective is not a question answered in isolation; it’s answered by comparing it to the impact of HEART or increases to the police staffing budget.

“If we funded more mental health services for folks, if we funded more affordable housing for folks, if we put more money into people’s hands and into their pockets, we would have less crime,” Hudson says of her support for defunding the police. “We would have less need for police officers because people have everything they need, and that’s when crime happens: when someone’s lacking something.”

There’s plenty that the city could spend money on. Caballero points to parks and rec programming that provides opportunities for young people, as well as improved partnerships with the county, which controls both the schools and social services and thus directs support for the young people who need it. Williams has championed an apprenticeship program to connect those who might commit violent crimes with jobs that offer a better path. Freeman’s focus on development is explicitly aimed at bringing resources to divested communities, and of course there was the tight budget vote that centered on raises for firefighters and police officers.

But there are two issues.

The first is that the conflicts dividing the city council have made it hard for such mundane and routine local government projects to find a foothold.

“It can be hard to know who we bring in or who we reach out to for support on a particular proposal if we don’t know if the other city council members are returning your call this week,” says Carroll. “Are we going to accidentally weaken a proposal we feel is very helpful for the community if we pick someone in the middle of an interpersonal conflict that we’re not able to be aware of?”

“It’s just disheartening when you see the posturing of public officials,” says DeWarren Langley, a longtime activist focused on mentoring Black boys. 

Langley cites a lack of communication among local officials for duplicative and ineffective spending. For example, Williams is pushing for a commission on Black youth, but the county already has a similar program in My Brother’s Keeper.

“I’ll say this for everyone who’s an elected in Durham: We all care. We all feel it. I think some of us are willing to be a little more transparent about what we can actually do about it.”

Javiera Caballero

“When it’s nearing time to run for office, you see a focus on a particular issue in order to have leverage for the next election cycle, when, as someone who’s always been engaged, [I have] emailed for two years about boys and young men of color and [gotten] no response,” Langley says.

On top of it all, a new state law has made it possible for HEART to expand even further. Senate Bill 77 allows cities to send unarmed, civilian personnel to respond to some traffic crashes. For a program that has already seen a massive public campaign for funding, it’s an opportunity sure to garner public backing. 

Which leads to the second issue: whether the city can afford to maintain or expand HEART, internships, commissions, job training, ShotSpotter, recreational programs, violence interrupters, and all the other pilots and programs aimed at addressing violent crime.

“The city’s money is public money, and we don’t have an infinite supply of it,” Johnson says. “Future councils are definitely going to have to make some hard choices with that, and whatever they do will be controversial.”

Caballero points to the major corporations moving into Durham as a potential solution. “What are you actually giving us?” she asks. “And if they’re not giving it, then let’s publicly shame them. Like, you’re this big employer, what are you providing for Durham? What are the actual dollars to do the things we need, because you elevated our cost of living.”

In other words, the question of how to fund the robust, holistic response to violent crime that everyone in Durham politics desires dovetails with the question of growth.

Middleton makes the connection even more explicit.

“This [year’s] budget is a $600 million budget, almost a $40 million increase from last year’s budget with no tax increase,” he says. “Why did that happen? Because Durham’s an it city. Because Durham’s hot. Because more people are moving here and helping us pay our taxes, enlarging our tax base.” 

“And why are they able to move here?” he asks. “Well, because of development.”

This is the second story in a four-part series covering Durham’s upcoming municipal election. 

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