The DoJ has some things to say about Durham’s violent crime

I don’t think it’s news that some communities in Durham have been impacted severely by violent crime. What is news, at least to me, is that the DoJ has been looking into this.

This brings to mind Ferguson, MO, where the DoJ investigated and presented scathing reports criticizing the way that community’s police force operated. Mayor Bell had apparently requested the Durham investigation earlier than that, though, in the wake of the death of Jesus Huerta and the protests which followed thereafter.

I think the tldr version of the report is that policing is hard, especially in impoverished communities. There doesn’t appear to be a “smoking gun” pointing to any particular major problem in the department, and instead there are a bunch of small things that the DPD can improve upon to build its relationship with the community.

A summary of the analysis is provided by the city (PDF). Even that summary is pretty long, so I’ll rip out some bullet points I found for you:

  • The city went to the DoJ for help in analyzing patterns of violent crime, developing data driven solutions to reduce that crime, and improving relations between the DPD and the citizens of Durham
  • The DoJ Diagnostic Center conducted interviews with representatives from law enforcement, city government, the courts, and community organizations.
  • Basic demographics are included, with some things you may have already known (that are notable nontheless):
    • Durham has a larger percentage of black residents than most cities across NC and the US as a whole
    • Durham residents are overall far better educated than the state or country
    • Durham has a greater proportion of residents earning $100k or more than the state or country
    • … and yet, Durham still has a higher poverty rate than the state and nation overall
  • Durham’s violent crime rate is now somewhat worse than the rate in cities with similar populations in NC, despite being somewhat better than those cities 10 years ago. This seems to be largely due to more rapid improvements in other cities (while Durham’s rate has failed to improve to the same extent)
  • Disturbingly, over the past few years the incidence of gun crime (especially homicide and aggravated assault) increased even as the overall violent crime rate decreased.
  • Even more disturbingly, the conviction rate for these crimes dropped.
  • The victims of these crimes were disproportionally likely to be black males between 15 and 34; as the study says that demographic’s rate is “6.4 times higher than the rate for all Durham residents”
  • Homicides and assaults were much more common in District 1 and District 3, specifically around Cleveland-Holloway and areas surrounding NCCU
  • Poverty and lack of education are major problems in most of the high crime areas, and most such areas are in African American communities.
  • Blacks are disproportionately likely to be busted for misdemeanor marijuana offenses in Durham
  • The DPD’s own demographics show that blacks are underrepresented compared to the city as a whole, but not dramatically (29% of the DPD force is black compared to 40% of the city).
  • Police feel they’re focusing on high crime areas (which happen to be mostly in minority communities) out of necessity, while people in those communities perceive this as disproportionate police pressure on minority populations.

The DoJ notes five areas of improvement and has some recommendations:

  • Gun crime seems to be the highest priority and has a few recommendations:
    • Expand the Violent Crime Reduction Roundtable (VCRR) and include more stakeholders from the community
    • Use a neutral facilitator to help develop a community-based response, and utilize federal resources.
    • Use public health outreach programs and mentorships to reach out to youth, encouraging employment development opportunities
  • To increase confidence in the DPD, focus on media outreach, building community connections, and transparency
  • The DPD can improve its response to gun crime; specifically it should work on the homicide clearance rate (which is close to the national average), identifying illegal firearms proactively, and an increased focus on identifying gang violence.
  • The DPD needs to focus on “community policing” to improve relationships with citizens.
  • The city should work to improve infrastructure gaps in poor areas

The DoJ goes on to identify resources the city can utilize towards improving these ends.

Preservation Durham pushes to save structures on the new DPD HQ site

Plans for the DPD HQ are starting to take shape, and the city held a public “Community Visioning Session” to elicit comments last week (sorry I missed that one, busy week you guys…)

I’ve mentioned my own concerns with this site before, but as things move forward it’s important to make the best with what we have. Along those lines, Preservation Durham had a few suggestions:

“The question that we are putting out there is, is there value in keeping this building, and is there space to keep it as part of this new complex?” said Wendy Hillis, executive director of Preservation Durham. “There hasn’t been any emphasis on saving these buildings.”

Hillis said it would be a shame to lose the buildings, which she said have an “authentic” feel in their design.

Concerns about the impact of the DPD HQ on the streetscape are well known to the council, and probably the most vocal advocate for focusing on these elements is Don Moffitt, who always seems to be quoted by media outlets:

“It presents a very large façade to the street, and it’s not a great space to be a pedestrian,” he said. “My goal, my emphasis is to make sure we do (the police headquarters) in a way that contributes to the life on the street and the connector between” downtown and east Durham.

The buildings PD is focusing on incorporating into the site are the Carpenter Motor Company Building and the “GMC Truck Building” on the other end of the block.

Last week’s meeting is viewable via Durham’s web site, and you can still submit commentary via email or telephone through May 1.

Let’s go on a road diet

There are some roads in Durham which are just plain harrowing, for no good reason.

One such road is Duke Street, which recently killed a 14 year old boy who was trying to cross it. Erik Landfried wrote a guest column in the N&O about the tragedy, which I encourage you to read.

City roads should not be optimized for maximum vehicular speed at the expense of the safety of other users. This mentality leads to things like Duke St. and Gregson St., designed to function as high volume, one way roads that slice through city neighborhoods and practically invite motorists to race through them as quickly as possible. It also creates bizarre solutions like the downtown loop, which reworked city streets into a veritable moat of concrete.

It’s time to abandon this sort of thinking. Cities are places where people live, and city roads need to serve the people who live near them – not just people driving through them. It’s not worth periodically killing people on these roads to slightly increase traffic volume.

One of the most effective ways to fix overbuilt city roads is something called a “road diet” – that is, reducing the number of vehicular travel lanes and reallocating that space for other uses (often bike lanes, sidewalks, on street parking, and other streetscape improvements).

There’s a happy confluence of events that may make such a project possible sooner rather than later on business 15-501, as the DoT is planning to resurface the road next year. The current configuration of the road is especially nonsensical, with five vehicular travel lanes, no sidewalks, and no bike lanes.

Why is the road so large? Who knows? It has never needed to support that kind of volume. Residents of nearby areas have been frustrated by the lack of walkability, and the current configuration does no favors for businesses either (retail and restaurants typically see boosts in sales when roadways are made more friendly to pedestrians). Foster’s outdoor seating, for example, would be a lot nicer without vehicles barrelling by just a few feet away from the dining area.

There’s a meeting about the potential business 15-501 reconfiguration project tonight at 6:30. You might want to check it out.

Also: there’s currently a bill in the Senate which would require the direct approval of the Board of Transportation for any such projects on state roads. It’s unclear why the Senator who proposed the change feels it is needed, but it would make “road diets” more difficult to implement should it become law.

Duke is playing a basketball game tonight

In case you somehow missed it, Duke is in the men’s basketball championship tonight. The game starts at 9:18 p.m., at which time access to West Campus will be restricted to persons affiliated with the university. Students can watch the game in Cameron, if they so desire.

If you’re looking for a place to watch the game, I see that The Cookery is doing a special thing. If you plan to stay home and avoid the crowds, I’m guessing this will be a pretty big day for Heavenly Buffaloes, so if you also intend to order wings you might want to order early.

Also: people around here sometimes like to set things on fire after basketball games. Plan accordingly.

The city has completed the purchase of the new DPD HQ site

This isn’t really much of a surprise, but it’s notable since the transaction had been delayed previously.

I’ve already mentioned that I’m disappointed in this plan, which will result in the demolition of several buildings that were prime candidates for creative re-use in a district that seemed poised to take off.

At least one of the tenants being displaced has a bit of good news, though: the Bull City Ciderworks Kickstarter was successful.

What’s going to happen to the downtown loop?

Durham’s most infamous traffic feature is probably the bizarre “downtown loop,” a series of distinct roads which were fused into a large one way route encircling the city center.

The loop was was originally constructed to keep factory workers out of a busy downtown as they commuted to and from their jobs. Unfortunately, the loop didn’t help for long, since people started fleeing for the suburbs and the tobacco industry started winding down shortly after it was completed.

Ultimately, the city was left with a huge moat of asphalt diverting drivers around a ghost town.

Downtown has obviously taken off again despite the loop, and there has been a lot of talk about how best to correct the traffic pattern in recent years. Now, it seems like there’s some progress, and the Herald has an op-ed in support of the project.

Although the benefit of making downtown more accessible (via foot or vehicle) is clear, there are other benefits; a redesigned streetscape would allow for additional development opportunities. A rendering of how reworking the loop could impact downtown was created by Cleveland and Church Partners and posted to the BPAC mailing list:

The biggest challenge with reworking the loop is, unsurprisingly, funding. According to the Herald, a streetscape improvement project would require $30M in funding, and it’s difficult to imagine the loop bumping off several other higher priority projects. According to the DDOT, simply converting the roads back to two-way and not doing other improvements could be accomplished for a more reasonable $12M.

The loop is a tricky problem. Downtown is a prominent success story now, and making it more appealing holds a lot of value to the city’s image. But how much money is the city ready to spend here, when downtown is clearly getting by well enough with things as they are? Are we better off working to improve less visible infrastructure in under-served parts of the city first?

I’ve always hated that damn loop. I definitely want it gone. But I can also see why it might not be perceived as the best bang for the buck right now.

NC legislation threatens Durham’s budget

The legislature is in session, and the biggest potential issue for Durham so far is SB369, which was introduced yesterday under the delightfully euphemistic “Sales Tax Fairness Act” title.

Currently, a portion of the state sales tax ($.02 per dollar) is earmarked for “local” spending. Of that, 75% ($.015 per dollar) is allocated directly to the county where the tax was collected, while 25% ($.005) is distributed across the state to counties based on their population.

SB369 aims to change this by treating all $.02 per dollar the same, and allocating it purely per capita with no funds earmarked for the location in which they were raised. This would effectively redistribute money from the cities (who raise much more sales tax revenue per capita) to rural counties. According to WRAL, this will result in a 9% hit to Durham County’s annual revenue.

From what I’ve read so far, this bill has a tough road to hoe due to some potential opposition from the house. Even though the primary goal is to take money away from big cities, it also nails rural tourist destinations like Dare County, so expect some interesting allies on this one.

This potential change follows a hit already poised to take effect in July: last year’s law which removed the ability of cities to collect “privilege license” taxes. According to the Herald, the city is already poised to lose $5.7M due to that legislation.

How will cities make up for the lost revenue? There aren’t many tools at their disposal, so you can probably expect property tax increases to help compensate for these gaps in the future.