Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry
Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry Credit: Courtesy of Satana Deberry

During a highly partisan hearing in the nation’s capital, Durham County district attorney Satana Deberry told U.S. lawmakers that the Bull City has endured “a perfect storm of challenges contributing to a devastating rise in violence.”

Speaking to a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee last week, Deberry said gun violence in Durham, like elsewhere in the country, has been exacerbated by “a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic [that] has disrupted support systems and strained institutions and organizations that respond to and try to prevent violence” and that commonsense, evidence-based reforms were needed.

Deberry said in addition to the pandemic’s disruptions, two prominent features in America have played a significant role in the nation’s violent crime wave: poverty and easy access to firearms.

“The year 2020 saw the largest single-year increase in poverty ever recorded in the United States,” she told the committee. “Study after study has shown that increases in poverty are closely linked to increases in crime because extreme poverty creates stress and seeds desperation, making people more likely to see crime as their best or only option.”

“At the same time, Americans purchased guns in record numbers,” she continued. “Nearly 23 million guns were purchased in 2020 and nearly 20 million were purchased in 2021, the highest and second-highest years on record.”

Credit: Courtesy of Satana Deberry

Deberry noted that data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that in 2020, newly purchased firearms were used in more crimes than usual, suggesting that the increase in gun purchases is connected to increases in some gun crimes. Yet, many states have embraced policies that ease access to and regulation of guns.

The topic of gun violence during the hearing in Washington has also been the subject of considerable discussion and debate in the Bull City.

Deberry was among a cadre of criminal justice experts who spoke at the hearing. Representatives from the National Urban League and the Council on Criminal Justice, as well as Dallas police chief Edgardo Garcia, also testified. DA spokesperson Sarah Willets told the INDY that Deberry agreed to join the panel after she heard about the hearing from Fair and Just Prosecution, a national nonprofit that works with prosecutors on criminal justice reform.

Subcommittee chair Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said that the purpose of the hearing—titled “Reimagining Public Safety in the COVID-19 Era”—was to investigate the rise in crime during the pandemic and the role of the federal government in enhancing safety.

Jackson Lee added that even though the overall crime rate has declined, Americans witnessed a spike in homicides and shootings in “historically underfunded communities,” both urban and rural, “for reasons not clear.”

She noted guns were pervasive across the anatomy of the American landscape before the pandemic and are the “weapons of choice” in two-thirds of the nation’s homicides over the past two years.

“More people are carrying guns, legally and illegally, brought on by anxieties from the pandemic,” she said. Fights in neighborhoods escalate, and “families shoot each other. Friends shoot each other.”

Jackson Lee’s opening statement was met with stiff, even harsh, resistance from her Republican colleagues.

In marked contrast to Democratic lawmakers’ pursuit of addressing the root causes of crime with evidence-based solutions in partnership with law enforcement, some GOP committee members appeared to only support the decades-old “tough on crime” approach, “wars” on crime and drugs, and mass incarceration that have served to only aggravate the issue in impoverished Black and brown communities across the United States.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said he was concerned “by the dangers posed by some on the left to defund the police and other progressive policies that correlate to the rise in crime” before offering a video of Black Lives Matter supporters protesting soon after George Floyd’s murder.

“I fear that this hearing is nothing more than an election-year attempt by my colleagues to deflect attention from those in the [Democratic] party who have vocally championed the defunding of the police movement, as well as other progressive policies, which will be discussed today,” Biggs said.

Biggs also offered up a list of cities where he claimed violent crime had risen exponentially, not as a result of the anxieties caused by the pandemic but as a consequence of defunding the police.

“Just what America needs—more imagination from the Democrats,” a scowling Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, said before veering off into an ugly, disinformation-filled soliloquy that blamed the Democrats’ “reimagining” for chaos at the Southern border, $4-per-gallon gas, inflation, and crime in every major city.

Deberry, however, urged lawmakers to see reform as a solution to crime, not the cause.

“Like many communities, Durham saw an increase in homicides last year, even as most other types of crime and overall violent crime were down,” she said. “There is no evidence that the rise in homicides and gun violence in communities across the nation is a result of criminal justice reforms. I do not say this to trivialize the recent increase in violence but rather to underscore how pervasive, tragic, and unacceptable it is, and how badly we need better solutions.”

Deberry noted that cities with high poverty and unemployment rates in 2020 “experienced greater increases in crime, suggesting much of the increase was due to economic stress and inequality, rather than reform.”

“Both cities that rejected and pursued reforms saw similar increases in homicides and violent crime. Some cities that have elected and reelected reform-minded prosecutors have seen no change or even a decrease in homicides [and] violent crime rates,” she explained. “Blaming reform-minded prosecutors for increases in violent crime is misguided and misinformed.”

Federal gun reform, even after mass shootings, has repeatedly stalled in Congress, and without fail at the hands of GOP lawmakers. Deberry told the House subcommittee that the country needs to “address the proliferation of guns through effective policies that impose waiting periods, increase required training, and limit access to guns for young people and individuals at significant risk of harming themselves or engaging in violence.”

“These measures,” she added, “coupled with a public health approach to preventing violence are key to confronting the proliferation of guns in our country.”

When Durham citizens in 2019 elected Deberry to serve as the county’s district attorney, she was often cited as part of a group of reformist DAs across the country, including Rachael Rollins in Boston and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia. Deberry cited Krasner as a model, someone who argued that a system born from reactionary zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime policies was intrinsically racist and counterproductive, producing a carceral state that had ripped apart communities of color.

“We’re looking at different ways we can protect children in Durham County,” Deberry said two years ago after announcing her office would no longer accept court referrals for school-based incidents (with rare exceptions for serious crimes) and would stop threatening criminal charges against parents of students who miss school.

“We want to focus on getting kids what they need instead of locking them up,” she explained at the time.

Last month, Deberry made public her office’s 2021 annual report that highlighted what she described as progressive policies that help to “ensure case outcomes are fair and equitable.”

The report highlighted law enforcement partnerships that strengthened homicide prosecutions, leading to more convictions in 2021 than 2020.

Deberry’s work has been bolstered and supported by like-minded residents who live in the state’s bluest city. Even before George Floyd’s death, a multiracial group of millennial activists in Durham was among the first in the country to demand defunding the police department and an end to the prison pipeline.

The year-old Durham Community Safety Department and a new community-based Durham Public Safety and Wellness Task Force are initiatives born out of the Black Lives Matter protests.

A record count of homicides last year, among them disproportionate numbers of young victims who were gunned down in East Durham along the South Alston Avenue corridor, bolstered a sense of urgency among local officials. Police have not said what exactly is fueling the gunfire, but gang violence is considered a leading cause, according to a report from a task force examining gang activity.

The report’s summary also makes clear that the effort to reduce youth gun violence has had little success so far in 12 troubled neighborhoods.

“Violence exposure in eight of those neighborhoods is exacerbated by extreme poverty and exposure to other social vulnerabilities that have remained mostly unchanged since 2014,” according to the report, which has been in the works for seven years.

The report, which has not yet been made public, mirrors Deberry’s and Democratic lawmakers’ concerns in Washington: on average, more than 64 percent of children are living in poverty in eight  Durham neighborhoods. Even more disturbing, more than 70 percent of children live in poverty in some East and South Durham neighborhoods, and nine of the neighborhoods “have high rates of underlying social conditions that contribute to children and youth becoming involved in the criminal justice system and gangs.”

Support for reimagining public safety following the deaths of Floyd and Black people at the hands of police has waned following recent high-profile shootings, including ones on the campus of North Carolina Central University and inside Southpoint Mall along with a stunning mass shooting in December, which killed two teenagers and wounded four others who were 17 years old or younger.

Politically, concerns about gun violence reached a triggering point during the lead-up to the city’s municipal elections last year, when the Friends of Durham political action committee distributed a mailer to Durham residents that read, “Murders up 54 percent, Rapes 14 percent. Don’t defund the police!!!!”

Moreover, the 2021 City of Durham Citizen Survey made public last month indicated residents wanted the city to emphasize police protection above all else over the next two years.

Mayor Elaine O’Neal and fellow council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, DeDreana Freeman, and Leonardo Williams recently voted to approve piloting ShotSpotter, gunshot-detection technology that relies on audio sensors mounted on buildings and light posts to identify the locations of gunshots and alert police within seconds of a gun firing.

But late last year, reports from two of the nation’s largest cities bedeviled by gun violence indicated ShotSpotter might be shooting blanks when it comes to getting firearms off the streets. An internal report by the Atlanta Police Department showed the system only led to five gun arrests during its one-year trial period. Similarly in Chicago, a police report indicated the gunshot detection system “rarely produced evidence of a gun-related crime.”

Also in response to rising crime, the city council in January voted unanimously to approve pay raises for police officers and firefighters of every rank in an effort to counter staff shortages.

Along with those measures, the Durham County Board of Commissioners this year unanimously approved the construction of a new $30 million secured youth home for court-sanctioned children. The building is part of a 2019 court settlement that required commissioners “to study, explore, and construct, if feasible, an expanded Durham County Youth Home, or develop some alternative plan for total sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults in Durham County” following the 2017 death of a teen who hanged herself while in custody at an adult detention center.

Commissioners have said they expect more teens will be sanctioned in juvenile courts after the “Raise the Age” law made North Carolina the last state in the United States not to automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

On both sides of the issue, policing is a nuanced understanding that goes beyond the performative politics displayed last week by the GOP members of the House Judiciary subcommittee. In Durham, elected officials and community residents alike recognize the need for law enforcement, but also support evidence-based initiatives that supersede polarizing partisan politics.

“We have to stop pretending reform is the real threat to public safety and recognize how overreliance on prosecution and incarceration may make us less safe,” Deberry told subcommittee members. “We do not need to ‘choose’ between reform and public safety; those two objectives are inherently linked.”

Deberry said the nation’s leaders must invest in communities and address the root causes of crime, including economic instability, housing insecurity, and mental illness.

“We must reduce financial stress on our communities,” she said in a written statement she submitted to lawmakers. “Research shows people experiencing negative income shocks are less inclined to behave violently when they receive timely financial assistance. We must reinvest in and expand promising anti-violence strategies, like violence interrupters and programs that add structure, mentorship, and opportunities for youth. Evidence shows that investing in neighborhoods themselves—by greening vacant lots, providing adequate lighting, and removing exposure to pollutants like lead—prevent crime while otherwise benefiting residents.” 

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