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Bell calls for more aggressive crime measures after murders

Three recent murders in Durham became what Mayor Bill Bell called "the straw that broke the camel's back," prompting him to call a press conference Thursday about violent crime in Durham.

Bell pinpointed causes of violent crimes and called for the Durham Police Department, the judicial system, the media and the rest of the community to take a more aggressive approach to stop it.

"We need to make the statement that if you're dealing drugs in Durham, we're going to deal with you," Bell said. "If you're a criminal element in Durham, we're going to deal with you."

Bell labeled drugs, low job skills and lack of education as some of the root causes of the problem. City Manager Marcia Conner, who also spoke at the press conference, added gangs and domestic violence to the list.

Interim Police Chief Steve Chalmers presented statistics on the decrease in crime over the past few years. From January 1998 to June 2002, crime fell 18 percent overall, and the number of homicides and rapes also decreased, he said.

Chalmers attributed this change to the creation of task forces on sexual violence and gangs. Other programs he mentioned, such as "Operation Star-Spangled Slammer" and "Operation Safe Streets," targeted drugs and prostitution on Durham streets, arresting 68 people on more than 100 charges.

Bell, however, pointed to an increase in violent crimes, saying there are several problems with law enforcement that cannot be attributed to community problems such as gangs, drugs and poverty alone.

"We cannot just wait for the root causes of crime to be eradicated," Bell said. "We need more police officers on the streets and we need to appoint a police chief."

Chalmers, who has been interim police chief for the past eight months, reported that the overall police staff shrank 6 percent since last year. Fifty people have applied for the position, and the city has narrowed the search to around six, Conner said. She will conduct interviews and decide who will take over as police chief in a few weeks.

Earlier this summer, a similar process to select a police chief ran into trouble when accusations of past domestic violence against the city's top choice were unearthed, and the runner-up declined the post.

Conner attributed the crime statistics to the way repeat offenders are dealt with. "These offenders get out on bond and commit the same crimes over and over. They just need to be locked up for longer," she said.

Chalmers agreed that repeat offenders who are released contribute to the problem. "Bond decisions are made on an individual basis by the complete discretion of the magistrates right now," Chalmers said. "We need to make the guidelines more clear so the standard for these decisions [is] applied the same way."

All three speakers called for the cooperation of the media, the community, the judicial system and the police department to keep this issue in check.

"Crime is not a police problem--it's a community problem," Chalmers added.

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