In the lead-up to Durham’s municipal election this week, a mailer went out to Durham residents that read: “Murders up 54 percent, Rapes 14 percent. Don’t defund the police!!!!”
David Smith, secretary and a former president of Friends of Durham, one of the city’s top political action committees, was behind the mailer. Smith, a Durham native, says he is skeptical of the Bull City’s new Community Safety Department (CSD) that seeks to reimagine law enforcement.
“The idea might be a good one, I just don’t know how it will be implemented,” Smith says. “They were going to do traffic at first, but found out they had to have police present. They wanted to do domestic violence, but they are not going to do that either.”
(The city’s website notes that sending “trained civilian responders to minor traffic accidents or abandoned vehicles requires approval from the state of North Carolina.)
Smith added that with the rise in crime over the past year, support for law enforcement is realistic.
“I think the best way to handle crime is through the police,” he says.
Smith’s views are in line with trends of decreased support, both nationally and locally, for defunding the police and a marked increase in deadly gun violence.
Still, Durham continues in its quest to reimagine policing.
The CSD is currently seeking social workers, peer support specialists, licensed clinicians, counselors, health workers, mental health professionals, and paramedics.
The new department won’t become operational until next year, but its goal of dispatching first responders—at times without the police or firefighters—is already receiving some negative previews.
Even before George Floyd’s death, a multi-racial group of millennial activists in Durham were among the first in the country to demand defunding the police department and an end to the prison pipeline.
The CSD, along with the city’s Public Safety and Wellness Task Force, were borne out of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.
Durham’s decision to invest in evidenced-based public safety programs that would take money out of the police department’s coffers is happening during a tenuous time. Support for rethinking public safety following the deaths of Black people at the hands of police has waned with the increase in violent crime in cities and towns across the United States.
Despite calls for police reforms dating back to the Obama Administration, last week, the Pew Research Center reported that with the increase in violent crime, Blacks and Hispanics are much less likely to prefer decreased police budgets in their communities.
According to the poll, 47 percent of all adults say spending on policing in their communities should be increased. That’s up from 31 percent in June 2020. The poll also shows that 23 percent of African American adults and 16 percent of Hispanics are less likely to favor defunding the police. Last year 42 percent of Black adults and 24 percent of Hispanic adults wanted a decrease in law enforcement funding after Floyd’s death.
The Pew Poll mirrors a recent Washington Post report of mayoral candidates across the country voicing support to “restore law and order,” even in liberal cities.
Here in Durham, where Black men and boys account for well over 95 percent of the city’s gun violence victims and perpetrators, the past functions as prologue by those who are calling for more police officers in embattled communities like McDougald Terrace, Southside, Oxford Manor or Liberty and Elm streets, that are already prone to outbreaks of deadly violence.
Nearly 40 years ago the horrors of the crack cocaine epidemic destabilized entire neighborhoods and coarsened the soul of America. A great many Black people across the United States and here in Durham supported former President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that resulted in the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. That unintended consequence should serve as a cautionary tale amidst renewed calls for more officers on the streets and potential over-policing of poor neighborhoods.
Given the failure of a decades-long so-called War on Drugs, it seems highly unlikely that flooding more police into Durham’s most violent neighborhoods will dissuade people from shooting one another.
With the creation of evidence-based approaches like the CSD and the expansion of a Cure Violence “violence interrupters” model, the Bull City, in the words of City Manager Wanda Page, “has an opportunity to lead the way and find new, equitable and innovative approaches to keep our community safe.”
Page noted that the city’s concern with violent crime is balanced by the history of policing in America and its impact on people of color. She said the CSD “reflects our belief that responding to the safety and wellness needs of all residents requires more than police officers, firefighters, and paramedics.”
Page said Durham still needs policing, but “it’s unfair to expect [first responders] to address every single issue our residents experience.”
As the INDY previously reported, the formation of the Bull City’s CSD has its roots in the 2019 work of Durham Beyond Policing (BYP), a coalition of citywide nonprofits dedicated to divesting from policing and prisons. BYP lobbied for a Public Safety and Wellness Task Force partnered by the city, county, and Durham Public Schools.
At the crux of both the Task Force and CSD’s work is research conducted by the Research Triangle Institute in August of last year that did an in-depth analysis of 911 calls between 2017 and 2020. Researchers identified a number of 911 call types that could be responded to without an armed officer, including mental or behavioral health needs, traffic incidents, and quality-of-life issues.
CSD Director Ryan Smith last week told the INDY that the new agency has partnered with community groups and public officials to create a crisis call diversion and mobile crisis response pilots.
Smith, in email, said the crisis call diversion program “will embed mental health clinicians into the 911 call center to triage and respond remotely to non-emergent, non-life threatening calls for service.”
Meanwhile, he said the mobile crisis response unit “will dispatch a team of trained, unarmed responders to a subset of 911 calls involving behavioral and mental health needs and quality of life concerns.”
“It is premature to say how exactly these pilots will function,” Smith said about the programs that are on schedule to be launched next year.
Support for the CSD has been mixed, although the people who spoke with the INDY last week, including Friends of Durham’s David Smith, support the initiative in theory.
Earlier this month, Donald Hughes, another Bull City native, told city council members he was dismayed by the city’s plan to pay $6,000 to a poet laureate during a pandemic and a deadly gun violence epidemic that all too often targets young Black people.
Hughes tells the INDY that the community safety department is the direction the city should be headed in, but he worries that CSD’s response to “minor” crisis scenarios could get out of hand.
“I’ve been in a couple of traffic accidents that were minor, but tensions can flare. If [the CSD] is unarmed and can’t handle the situation, who do you call?” he asks. “I’ve seen mental health situations where someone grabs a weapon … it seems the plan is missing some important steps.”
Hughes added that it’s not about pitting the police against the CSD.
“It’s not ‘either, or’ but ‘both, and,’” he explains.
“I’ve worked in government,” he says. “When we start talking about reducing police budgets, there are the unintended consequences of having fewer officers. The folks who are left are overworked and that affects their level of response because they are tired.”
Hughes says he thinks the city should listen more to people who live in the communities most impacted by violent crime, and ask them, “If you could control the police budget, what would you do?”
The new program members have been listening. Isaac Villegas, Mennonite pastor and president of the governing board of the North Carolina Council of Churches is a task force member. Nearly 132 residents participated in a virtual town hall this month co-hosted by the task force and the CSD.
The overwhelming majority of participants want first responders who are compassionate, experienced with trauma, and trained in de-escalation.
Villegas said residents who want to live in safe communities free of police mistakes cut across all demographics.
Jennifer Carroll is an associate professor of anthropology at N.C. State University who formerly worked with the Atlanta/Carolinas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, where she helped guide the Centers for Disease Control’s overdose response strategy. In December, the city appointed Carroll to serve as the public policy expert for its Public Safety and Wellness Task Force.
The task force charge includes reliance on “community-based prevention, intervention, and re-entry services as alternatives to policing and the criminal legal system,” according to the city’s website.
Carroll says the public’s uncertainty about the CSD is normal, and “important because that worry [reflects] a community need,” adding that in marginalized communities, the police’s presence is evidence of the residents’ financial investment in the places where they reside and the perception that they have not been abandoned.
Carroll notes that people are taught at a very early age to call 911 for the police whenever they’re in trouble.
“Now we’re calling the police for everything we need,” she says. “The task force is asking, ‘What do we actually need?’”
Carroll says initiatives like the city’s task force and community safety departments aren’t meant to supplant the police department, but ease the officers’ responsibilities by supplementing and adding more appropriate responses to crisis events.
Carroll says most police officers joined law enforcement for two reasons—“to get the bad guys and to help people.
“We can support that,” she says.
Xavier Cason, who co-chairs the task force, says the “plurality of opinion” about public safety is largely based on one’s personal experiences with the police and research about the impact of law enforcement.
“The question for me,” he told the INDY this week, “is how do we make actionable what has been researched with what has been people’s lived experience?”
Cason counsels a wait-and-see attitude with the CSD and other initiatives that are starting on a small scale, and possibly “scaling up” if effective.
“The CSD is very new,” he added, “and still in the stage of just listening.”
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