Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts on violent crime in Durham in 2017.
Brandon Norwood was tucked in his bed when a car came down his street, “shooting everywhere”.
A bullet hit his apartment and went through the walls.
“I woke up, and I seen a bullet on the floor in my room,” said Brandon, 10, a fourth-grader at C.C. Spaulding Elementary. “And I got scared.”
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As of Tuesday, 28 people had been killed in Durham in 2017 – including four cases deemed self-defense – a 38 percent drop compared to 2017.
But those numbers don’t tell the entire story of violent crime here. The number of people shot far exceeds those killed and continues to climb.
As of Dec. 12, a total of 233 people had been shot in 207 incidents in the city, up from 193 people shot in 2016 and 198 by the same time in 2015.
Brandon’s family is one of many living with the gunfire. Across the Bull City, children wake up to bullets on the floor, mothers worry about letting them outside to play and relatives and friends memorialize those killed with T-shirts and gravestones.
“We’ve done lost so many,” said Brandon’s mother Shanicka Lewis, 40. “People don’t look at it that way until it hits home.”
On Sept. 22, her sister Tequila Smith was shot to death on Umstead Street. The family had gathered for a birthday, Lewis said, when three or four guys “walked down and just started shooting” into a crowd of mostly women and children.
She doesn’t know why they were shooting but says Smith, a 36-year old mother of five, could not have been the target.
“She’s loving. She’s caring. Her kids is her world,” Lewis said, still speaking of her sister in the present tense. “The only thing she wanted to do was raise her kids. She had a heart of gold, and her death has impacted so many, from babies on up.”
Video: Sidney Brodie sews on the 696th square onto his Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt on Wednesday June 14, 2017. Casey Tothctoth@heraldsun.com
‘No more killing’
On a Saturday morning earlier this month Lewis traveled from their Cornwallis Road public housing community to the corner of Enterprise and South streets for a children’s march against violence.
“I am a single mother of five black boys,” she said. “You are trying to raise your kids to stay away from gun violence, gang violence and street violence. It’s hard. You can’t keep your hands on your kids every day. The only thing I can do is pray for my kids. Tell my kids the right way.”
Kids and adults marched through the Southside streets, holding signs and shouting: “Take back the street. No more killing.”
Their path winded its way through a changing neighborhood.
Ten years ago people were manning corners on Enterprise to sell drugs. Vacant lots, aging and dilapidated houses lined streets that saw some of the most violence in the city.
Today pastel-colored two-story, arts-and-craft style houses selling for more than $400,000 line Enterprise Street, which sits on a hill providing one of the best views of downtown’s skyline.
Martha Platts-Anderson, 60, thought the new houses would slow down the shootings. They haven’t.
“I know five people that have been shot on Scout, on Umstead, Lodge on Enterprise,” she said. Four of them were in the last year or so.
Platts-Anderson lives on South Street. The 60-year-old uses a wheelchair after her right leg was amputated in the spring due to an infection. She stayed in the hospital through September.
Before Platts-Anderson left for the hospital, she said, she heard gunshots every other week. When she returned home, the gun shots were every other night.
“It’s not even just at night no more,” she said. “It was in the daytime. I was thinking about getting ready to move, but I like it over here. It is convenient.”
Also, it’s hard to find something affordable elsewhere. She pays $550 a month for her two-bedroom place.
“This is affordable for me,” she said.
Violent crimes in Durham – homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault incidents – rose 4 percent in the first nine months of the year, compared to the same period last year. The city numbers mirror a trend that saw violent crime rise 4 percent nationwide in 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“The issues we are dealing with are not new, and they are not exclusive to Durham,” wrote Durham Police Department spokesman Wil Glenn in response to submitted questions. “Violent behavior is a national epidemic and many cities with demographics similar to Durham are experiencing this behavior.”
Gang activity factors into a majority of the shootings, Glenn said, and selling drugs is how gangs make most of their money. Many of those involved in other crimes also have a gang background.
It (gunshots) is not even just at night no more. It was in the daytime. I was thinking about getting ready to move, but I like it over here. ... This is affordable for me.
Martha Platts-Anderson, 60
Platts-Anderson thinks the solution to the gun violence includes having more officers on the street. Most of the people causing trouble in the area, don’t live there, she said.
But others want to see a different approach.
Some activists have pushed the City Council to spend less on policing. They say officers have targeted black and Hispanic neighborhoods, resulting in more people being jailed or worse. Two people were fatally shot by law enforcement in 2017.
Various groups have criticized the city spending more than $70 million to build a new police headquarters on East Main Street, arguing that money should be spent on underlying, systemic problems such as poverty and affordable housing.
Nia Wilson, executive director of community building organization SpiritHouse, said she understands that people living with gun violence want an immediate solution and see police as the only option. SpiritHouse is pushing for investment in other programs that reduce violence by increasing jobs and opportunity.
“It doesn’t appear (to many) that people have an alternative to the lifestyle,” she said. Meanwhile, rising property values are pushing people out of their neighborhoods. “None of these things excuse any kind of violence,” she said, “but the root causes are beyond the fact that people are running around with guns.”
Ten of the people shot to death in 2016 and 2017 were 21 or younger. Of the 65 people charged in the total 2016 and 2017 killings, 26 were 21 years or younger.
New police chief
It is amid this tension that Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis arrived in June 2016.
Davis established a robbery task force in November 2016 to address an uptick in robberies. Investigators have arrested more than 100 people. The department has also enhanced a federal partnership with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Glenn said.
Citywide, Glenn said, residents will see greater police visibility with the distribution of more take-home patrol cars. The Police Department also created a supplemental patrol unit to help officers respond to calls.
Over the last year, the department also has issued 470 body cameras to its roughly 500 sworn officers, an initiative that began before Davis was hired.
Since then citizen complaints are down, the chief said last month, but it’s not clear how much the cameras have to do with that.
In first nine months of the year, there were 27 citizen complaints, according to an Internal Affairs quarterly report. In 2016, there were 48 total citizen complaints and 72 in 2015.
In addition to substations in each of the Police Department’s five districts, the city is setting up a sixth substation in the McDougald Terrace public housing community after residents asked them for help. The “community engagement unit” will focus on public housing communities, Glenn said.
Keisha Gray said the reduction in homicides is a step forward. Gray is a community outreach worker with the county-funded Bull City United, which seeks to slow shootings by negotiating peace and treating violence like an infectious disease.
Gray thinks Davis is doing “a wonderful job.”
“She is not from Durham, but she wanted to be a part, and when she wanted to be a part she became a part by walking the streets, by asking (what were) the community’s’ needs and goals,” Gray said.
Beyond the overall gun violence, many at the Southside neighborhood rally this month worry that young people are getting shot and often the ones doing the shooting.
Ten of the people who died from gunfire in 2016 and 2017 were 21 or younger.
Of the roughly 65 people charged in the 2016 and 2017 killings, about 26 were 21 years or younger.
And in the first nine months of 2017, 482 youth under the age of 17 were charged with crimes, including two homicides, 31 weapons violations and 25 robbery charges.
William Marrow, 15, is a Jordan High 10th-grader who lives in Southside. He said it’s scary to go outside at night. He worries he might be shot if someone mistakes him for someone else or he gets caught in crossfire. When he sees a group gathering, he heads to safety.
“It is like a nightmare hearing gunshots every day,” he said.