“In Durham, for a quarter, somebody’s going to kill somebody,” Maimouna Barrett says.

Barrett came to Durham from France in 1997 and has been living for the past five months in the section of the city the police department refers to as Beat 223. When reporting instances of crime, Durham police divides the city into five divisions and these divisions into smaller sections called beats.

While gun violence has been on the rise across the city over the past three years, Beat 223 has seen the highest combined number of shooting incidents in the form of armed robberies, aggravated assaults, and homicides.

This area in northern Durham comprises less than four square miles but has experienced 129 of these crimes from October 2018 to the end of 2021.

Shooting-related deaths in Durham jumped by more than 36 percent from 2020 to 2021, sparking conversation among city officials in the past few weeks about the factors driving the increase and what’s being done to respond to them.

These factors include a growing number of vacancies in the police department, increasing levels of gang activity, and the pandemic’s exacerbation of financial stress in the community.

Mayor Elaine O’Neal said during the February 21 city council meeting that she won’t discuss her efforts with reporters but that she and others are working behind the scenes with the community to tackle the issues causing gun violence.

In Beat 223, however, residents are willing to share their thoughts.

Like Barrett, Christine Dewberry, Sodiq Oladiran, and Greg Hill weren’t surprised they live in the area with the city’s highest combined number of armed robberies, aggravated assaults, and homicides.

Dewberry has lived in her current apartment for the past three years. She says the amount of shootings she hears right around her apartment has gotten worse each year she’s been there.

Now, she says it’s happening every weekend.

While shooting-related deaths in the city remained at 33 for both 2019 and 2020, the number of people shot increased from 189 to 318. This number dropped to 280 in 2021, but the tally of those that were killed rose to 45.

One of those 45, Dewberry said, was a man in his early 20s who was killed over a drug dispute in her neighborhood.

“Over there in that next building across the street,” Dewberry said, gesturing to a row of units less than 75 yards away from where she sat outside her front door.

In addition to the increase in gun violence, Dewberry said she’s also noticed that police presence in her neighborhood has declined over the last few years.

In 2018, the year before Dewberry moved into her current apartment, Durham police had 96 percent of its allocated positions filled. This rate has declined each year since then. Now the department staffs just over 83 percent of its 537 positions.

“If we have limited people to fill these beats and fill these hours of the day, then we’re going to have a harder time getting into all the different spaces,” said Lt. Thomas McMaster, an assistant district commander for the Durham Police Department.

City council member Jillian Johnson said that Durham has the greatest number of unfilled positions in the public sector the city has ever seen. She believes that the citywide vacancies are reflective of national labor issues but that the vacancies in the police department are particularly bad due to higher pay rates being offered to officers in neighboring areas.

“Officers can pretty much go and have their pick of the litter right now and find a higher-paying police department to apply to,” said Cpl. Jesse Green, homicide investigator for Durham police. “I would say that’s the driving force.”

Durham City Council decided in January to raise the pay for recruits by 10.6 percent and the salaries of higher-ranking officers by an equal proportion.

Green said he thought the raise “would stop the bleeding, so to speak.”

The city has also pursued a series of different efforts aimed at lightening the workload of Durham’s officers.

The Community Safety Department, for example, is developing four different pilot programs for units that dispatch trained and unarmed individuals, such as mental health professionals, to certain situations normally handled by the police.

To attempt to head off crime before it occurs, the police department’s Community Engagement Unit assigns officers to public housing communities to increase neighborhood visibility and administer safety education and intervention programs.

“We need to continue to take a holistic approach and not put ourselves on an island at the police department but as a partner to the community and all these other groups,” McMaster said. “We certainly have an important role as being the enforcers when bad things happen, but we need to be part of the solution as well.”

Meanwhile, Durham’s Gang Reduction Strategy manager Jim Stuit says that the level of gang activity in the city seems to be growing.

Stuit said that while the larger gangs are staying around the same size, this rise in activity appears to be driven by an increase in “pop-up gangs.”

These pop-up gangs, Stuit said, are created when five or six people living in a neighborhood get together to sell drugs, steal money or property, or engage in any other sort of gang activity.

Eighteen-year-old Sodiq Oladiran said that he watched friends he knew in high school get caught up in gang violence. Some of these individuals, he said, saw family members killed as effects of their involvement.

“When we were in high school it didn’t seem like they were going towards that route, but as soon as they started hanging around certain people that’s the direction they took,” Oladiran said. “And I guess because their parents lived around that life and their grandparents lived around that life it sort of feels normal for them.”

Because of this, Oladiran believes that an increase in community outreach and conversation about the possible repercussions of this sort of lifestyle could go a long way to curb the issue.

Changing the social norms that tolerate violence in the community is one of the primary strategies of Bull City United, Durham’s team of trained violence interrupters and outreach workers. They attempt to mediate conflicts and engage with high-risk people to discuss the costs of violence and help them get needed services or support.

This desensitization to violence that the program is attempting to challenge can push people toward involvement with gangs, Stuit said.

“The more fighting you hear, the more gunshots you hear, the more people you know that have been harmed, the more exposure you have to that, and the more trauma there is, the more likely you are to wander down that path as well,” Stuit said.

Not only are gun violence and gang activity exacerbated by each other, they’re also influenced by the same set of socioeconomic factors.

“Everything is connected,” city council member Leonardo Williams said.

Rising housing costs, inflation, and a lack of equal access to education or opportunity for employment puts certain groups of people at higher risk of being forced into a state of financial need. And the greater an individual’s financial need becomes, the more their likelihood of getting involved with or being impacted by gun violence will rise.

“When people are desperate they do desperate things,” Williams said. “So if we want to solve the gun violence issue, we’re going to have to solve the housing crisis issue.”

Each of these various socioeconomic issues has been felt nationwide due to the pandemic, but Durham’s growth as a city over the last few years has helped particularly accelerate the effects of the housing crisis. This has forced many people out of their previous living situations and into lower-income communities or the public housing system.

Greg Hill, whose brother is serving 15 years for his involvement in an incident of gun violence, believes that the energy of the space someone lives in influences their potential to be impacted by gun violence.

“When you concentrate marginalized communities in one spot and when they’re around the same socioeconomic space, a lot of times there’s going to be violence and things of that nature that occur,” Hill said.

While Johnson is proud of the steps the city has taken to alleviate some of these different social issues, she said that substantial solutions to these types of problems are beyond the scope of local investment without federal intervention.

“The entire budget of the city of Durham is $500 million a year,” Johnson said. “We could put every penny of that into affordable housing and not provide enough affordable housing for everybody that needs it. The capacity doesn’t exist.”

She says in order to see solutions to these types of issues, there needs to be a concerted antipoverty initiative at the federal level that guarantees people things like an affordable place to live, a sufficient basic income, and access to a good education and health care.

“There isn’t a one-city solution to this problem and there isn’t a one-shot investment solution,” Johnson said. “It’s massive investment in a comprehensive social welfare state that actually takes care of people.” 

This story was originally published by UNC Media Hub.

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