Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews speaks during her swearing-in ceremony at N.C. Central University on December 10, 2021. 

Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews last week told city council members that the “sheer number” of guns in the city is “staggering.” She described a harrowing scenario where the city’s firearm assailants are shooting to kill.

During a city council work session on Thursday, Andrews presented a third quarter crime update that included the first nine months of 2021. The next day, at a ceremony at N.C. Central University, Andrews’s alma mater, she was sworn in to her new role. Last week’s first public appearance before the city council took place during a period when the city—as well as much of the country—has been plagued by COVID-19, along with an increase of ongoing, oftentimes deadly gun violence.

The new chief’s third quarter report reflected that reality, but she also offered pragmatic, clear-eyed, boots-on-the-ground optimism.

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton asked Andrews if the year’s record number of homicides is a consequence of more powerful, higher caliber firearms on the streets.

“I do know there are high powered weapons out there. That’s a fact,” Andrews said. “But I think now it’s just the magnitude that [is] out there [and] that are available to people who are carrying them, and they are using them to commit these crimes without a second thought. I don’t have the exact caliber or what types, but I do know there’s a lot of weapons out there.”

Council member Jillian Johnson asked the new police chief about the “sharp increase” in aggravated assaults last year that involved a gun, but fewer homicides, and how that compares to this year, where there has been a decrease in aggravated assaults, but more gun fatalities. Between January 1 and September 30 of this year, police investigated 43 homicides. During the same period last year, police reported 24 homicides.

“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 explained. “And so there’s almost a more violent element to the shootings that we’re having.”

Andrews said, at this point, she doesn’t know “how to curb the number of bullets being fired,” but said the department’s goal now is to focus on “how to keep folks from feeling like they have to pick up that gun” in the first place.

“But also, how do we address the violence once it occurs in forms of prosecution, and other avenues with our community,” Andrews continued. “So really, I think it’s the guns, but it’s also the number of bullets being fired. These shootings are already deadly, but when you’re shooting multiple rounds it’s hard to survive something like that.”

Despite the proliferation of guns on the streets, Andrews told city council members that Priority 1 crimes of homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault decreased by 11 percent during the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period last year. 

Along with a 58 percent increase in homicides, there has been an 18 percent increase in sexual assaults. Robberies declined by 15 percent, and aggravated assault decreased by 13 percent.

The police chief said the increase in sexual assaults was not “evidence of a serial event or a serial rapist.”

Instead, she attributed the increase to more survivors willing to come forward and report being assaulted.

Andrews also applauded the department’s U-Visa program that’s reserved for undocumented immigrants who are victims of certain types of crime and cooperate with law enforcement, enabling them to work in the U.S. and a path to a green card. Andrews said it’s “critically important to continue that program.”

As previously reported by the INDY, Andrews pointed to lagging officer response times to the city’s major crimes. The police department failed to meet its standard of responding to 57 percent of Priority 1 calls under five minutes, nor did it meet its goal of an average response time of 5.8-minutes.

The long response times are due, in part, to a department staffing shortage that began in January. The police department’s sworn officers’ positions are currently 87 percent staffed, with 469 officers employed of the authorized 537 positions. Similarly, the non-sworn positions are 88 percent staffed, with 110 out of the 125 positions filled. Andrews noted that last year during the same period between January 1 and September 30, the department’s sworn positions were 93 percent staffed, with non-sworn jobs at 91 percent.

Andrews said she and other high-ranking members of her administration will volunteer to work with the patrol division to bolster law enforcement’s presence during peak 911 call periods and at peak times when violent crimes are likely to take place.

Andrews said one of the first things she did when she took over at the helm of the department was initiate a series of weekend meetings with patrol officers to “gauge the temperature of the ones out there serving in these times.”

“One of the things that said to me was, ‘We need some relief, we need some help,’” the new chief added.

Andrews said she sat with her executive staff and issued a challenge for a temporary plan to relieve the pressure patrol officers are feeling on the street “and also help retain officers who are on the cusp of leaving the department.” 

The end result is a volunteer program where investigators, and higher echelon officers, “all the way up to the chief’s office,” can sign up for four days to patrol the city’s streets.

“I will be riding for four days as well,” Andrews told the council members.

Andrews’s first day of work as the Bull City’s top cop was November 1. She had led the Morrisville Police Department since 2016, and is the second African American woman to lead the Durham Police Department, replacing Durham’s first, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis whose five-year stint ended on June 1 when she left to become chief of police in Memphis, Tennessee.

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