Durham city council member and mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero on Monday called for new approaches to addressing the latest surge in gun violence that recently killed three men within a 48-hour period, including two victims found mortally wounded on the campus of N.C. Central University.

At the crux of these approaches are strategies from the Durham Community Safety Department created last spring to respond to crises and 911 calls without law enforcement officers, and, instead, with mental health professionals and social workers. 

The council member said the reallocation of services allows the police department to concentrate its resources on “a very small number of individuals inflicting violence not only on each other but on every other person living close to their contrived gun battles.”

Caballero, during a late morning press conference in front of City Hall, said the new approaches are informed by a 911 call analysis last year that found 97 percent of 911 calls from city residents were not about violent crimes.

“People often hear about alternatives to policing and they can sound abstract or radical,” Caballero said. “I am here to tell you that is not the case. What I want in Durham and what I know the vast majority of Durham residents want … is that if you ever have to call 911, the right response shows up.”

Caballero added that sometimes the first responder to a 911 call “will be a police officer and sometimes a mental health professional, or a city employee dedicated to minor traffic accidents.

“That’s not disrespectful to our police officers, that’s strategic laser focused decision-making. It’s good governance.”

Caballero pointed to the 33 homicides that have been reported so far this year—and young Black men as both the victims and perpetrators involved in gangs—as the reason for Monday’s press conference. She brushed aside the suggestion that the reason for the press conference was to respond to a mailer from the Friends of Durham PAC stating that candidates endorsed by their political action committee, including O’Neal, will not defund the police.

Friends of Durham chair Alice Sharpe told the INDY last week there were several instances when Caballero called for defunding the police last year, including during a June 15 city council meeting. The council meeting focused on the budget, and specifically, a concrete statement to commit at least $1 million in funding toward creating a community safety task force.

It was a tenuous period. The council meeting happened several weeks after the May 25 murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer and since-convicted murderer Derek Chauvin.

In addition to Floyd’s death igniting national protests about systemic police brutality against Black people during a global pandemic, Durham was enduring a spike in gun violence. 

“I wholeheartedly believe in defunding the police,” Caballero said during the meeting.

“I know what I want in the future of Durham, and I want less police,” Caballero later added, “and I want a radical response to how we respond to community safety.”

On Monday, Caballero said she’s not anti-police, but she thinks the city’s gun violence problem requires a holistic approach. She said funding a community safety department did not lead to a decrease in the police department’s budget. She also noted that the city subsequently hired additional officers to work with the department’s gang unit.

“We have an opportunity to retool,” she said. “Police must focus on violent crime, and we must take other roles off their plate in order to do so.” 

Caballero said her support for innovative strategies to increase community safety “is not ideological,” and she pointed to “incredibly successful” data-driven programs already underway in other cities across the country that rely on medical professionals instead of the police showing up at a crisis.

“It is rooted not only because of my experiences,” Caballero said, “but also because of my practical understanding of what works and what doesn’t.”

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