Mayor Steve Schewel held a Wednesday morning press conference in response to what he described as “a spate of shootings we have had over the past thirty-six hours” that killed two people, including a teenager, and wounded ten others.

The thirty-four homicides in Durham in 2019 are already more than the thirty-two in all of 2018 and on track to eclipse the forty-two in 2016. 

Even so, Schewel assured residents that “Durham continues to be a safe city.” While there have been more fatal shootings this year, he continued, the violent crime rate has steadily declined over the last quarter-century. 

Two years ago, he noted, 244 people were shot in Durham; last year, 204. 

“We still have a ways to go,” he said, “but we are tracking at this point [for the same number of shootings] this year,” Schewel said. “Of course, that’s no comfort to the family, friends, and neighbors of a person who is shot. Shootings rip holes not just in the body, [they rip] holes in the entire neighborhood, and we can’t have that.”

Schewel said the police department and sheriff’s office are working “to apprehend these persons committing these violent acts.”

“Sheriff [Clarence] Birkhead and Chief [CJ] Davis are very much focused on the events over the last thirty-six hours,” he said.

Since Monday night, the city has seen four drive-by shootings, two of which happened within seven minutes of each other in South Durham. The third happened took place along the eastern edge of the downtown district, while the fourth occurred near the Northgate Mall. 

Flanked by council members Jillian Johnson, Javiera Caballero, Charlie Reece—who, like Schewel, are up for reelection Tuesday—as well as Mark-Anthony Middleton and DeDreana Freeman, Schewel faced a battery of questions from reporters in front of City Hall: Are the shootings gang-related? Are they related at all? Does he regret the city council’s decision not to put more cops on the street? Will the city cancel Halloween festivities this year? 

To the last question, he answered with an emphatic no. On the others, he had no definitive answers. 

“I don’t know yet,” Schewel said, adding that Davis is working with the Durham Police Department’s gang unit to figure out to what extent gang activity factored into the violence.

The mayor echoed the police chief, who in September said law enforcement is focusing on “a limited number of individuals” who are responsible for much of the city’s violent crime. Schewel said a number of those people have been arrested in recent months. Still, the too-frequent shootings of mostly young African American men by other African American men continues.

Middleton, who first publicly asked the chief about an ongoing gang war last month, still thinks the city is besieged by violent gang activity.

“Government has to talk a certain way,” Middleton told the INDY after the press conference, “but the streets know what’s going on.”

Freeman was working in the East Durham on Tuesday, when seventeen-year-old Zaeveon Hershel Tucker was shot dead, and said the teen’s girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, father, and grandmother were in the neighborhood after the shooting.

“His grandmother cried every tear she possibly could,” Freeman told the INDY. “That howling is still with me. It’s time for African American women to get together and say something to stop these young men from killing one another.”

Freeman said even though police have not made an arrest in the shootings, she’s hopeful because investigators have obtained surveillance footage of the shooting.

Freeman said that one of the root causes of violence in the city is racism. African American children, who are doubly traumatized by systemic racism and violence, “grow up to be shooters, and grow up to be victims.”

Children at nearby schools that were on lockdown after the shooting “were traumatized, too,” she added. 

This summer, five council members—Schewel, Caballero, Reece, Johnson, and Vernetta Alston—voted against Davis’s request for eighteen additional officers. Those four also rejected Schewel’s proposed compromise that would have added nine officers to the force. 

Schewel was asked if he regretted the council’s decision.

“That’s an important question and debate we can all have,” Schewel answered, saying he was sure the issue would be addressed during the city’s next budgeting period. But he also said that “there was not going to be an officer parked on the corner of Driver Street when that shooting occurred.”

The police, he added, arrive after a shooting.

Schewel said the city is working to reduce gun violence by hiring officers who are paid well and trained in strategic, tactical policing; having excellent emergency response times; and addressing what he called “root causes.”

“What we know is a good job, good wages, good schools, health care, and a warm, decent, dry, affordable home” will reduce the city’s violent crime,” Schewel said. 

In response to a reporter’s question about what can be done immediately to stem the bloodshed, the mayor placed the onus on state legislators, who he says have to “stop kowtowing to the National Rifle Association.”

“You are not going to stop gun violence in Durham until you stop guns in Durham,” Schewel said. “Anyone that tells you different is not telling you the truth. The main cause of gun violence is guns. Our legislators need to take action.”


Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. 

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