Crime & Courts

Feds analyze Durham violence, offer advice

In late 2013, Durham faced a spike in gun killings.

After repeated demonstrations, police used tear gas to disperse a crowd protesting a teenager’s death in police custody.

And a city advisory board started a review Mayor Bill Bell requested that would eventually lead to a finding of police bias and racial profiling.

About the same time, Bell quietly asked the U.S. Justice Department to analyze the city’s gun-related crime, as well as recommend ways to improve police relations with the community.

On Wednesday, two specialists with the Justice Department’s Diagnostic Center reported what they had found and what Durham should do about it.

In the past year, the nation has seen the Justice Department intervene in communities after a police-community crisis, such as the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and the recent unexplained death of a young black man in police custody in Baltimore. The Durham report represents another aspect of the federal agency’s relationship with local police departments and communities: offering analyses and advice to better address crime and community relations before problems boil over.

“We really wanted to speak to the community,” said Hildy Saizow, a Justice Department official who appeared with colleague Scott Decker in a meeting at City Hall.

Durham’s crime rate compares well with similar cities, Decker said, but violent crime disproportionately affects minority residents.

At the same time, residents of minority neighborhoods complain that they are targeted and “baited” by police, according to the report.

While Durham has plentiful resources and initiatives for reducing violent crime, their effectiveness is blunted by a lack of cooperation.

Saizow said she and Decker, at Bell’s request, spent nearly 10 months analyzing statistics on gun-related violence and interviewing officials and residents to prepare a diagnostic analysis and recommendations for addressing it.

An executive summary of the analysis is available at

“The crime story in Durham is one of gradually decreasing crime rates over time, that mirror what’s happening in the rest of the country,” Decker said.

But “the most important story in the data we looked at,” he said, is that “being black and Hispanic puts young men at an elevated risk” of becoming victims of gun violence.

In the period they examined, 2009-2012, Durham’s homicide rate for black males age 15 to 34 was 1.63 per 100,000, he said – about eight times the national rate. For Hispanics, it was 38 per 100,000 and for whites, 7.2.

Blacks and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics were also disproportionately victims of gun-involved aggravated assault, and gun violence was concentrated in eastern and southeastern Durham’s high-poverty neighborhoods with high minority populations.

“This clearly identifies that paying attention to young black men ... is going to go a long way to reducing the overall crime rate in Durham,” Decker said.

‘Very, very busy’

Durham police have some good community outreach initiatives and officer training programs, Saizow said, and there are “some very impressive resources” for addressing violent crime” such as the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

But the nonprofits, agencies and officials working to reduce crime are “very, very busy but working within their own silos” and Durham needs a coordinated response “to collectively impact this problem,” she said.

For one thing, there is a Violent Crime Reduction Roundtable, but its membership is limited to law-enforcement and criminal-justice personnel and few others even know it exists, Saizow said.

That group should include more of the community, adopt a specific mission and a policy of transparency, she said. The police department needs to do a better job of improving its image in minority communities where residents often report feeling that they are being targeted.

“I assure you, we will press forward to make some changes,” Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden said. “We’ve got to do some preventive work, mentoring our young people.”

Their report contains a number of other recommendations, based on measures that have helped in other cities, and Saizow and Decker said the Justice Department’s Diagnostic Center is available for technical assistance in implementing some of their suggestions.

“The Diagnostic Center has not completed its work,” Saizow said.

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Key findings and what to do

Here are some of the main findings and recommendations from the diagnostic analysis:

▪  In 2009-12, 73 percent of gun-homicide victims age 15-34 were black; 24 percent Hispanic, 3 percent white.

▪  In 2009-12, 83 percent of gun-involved aggravated assault victims age 15-34 were black; 9 percent Hispanic; 8 percent white.

▪  Gun homicides and aggravated assaults cluster in high-poverty areas with large minority populations.

▪  Effective responses to gun violence are hampered by lack of coordination and cooperation.

▪  Police should make community policing a priority and adopt long-term, proactive strategies for reducing gun violence.

The executive summary of the analysis is available at