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City debates approaches to crime

Is Durham a dangerous city infested by muggers and murderers, or is it unfairly labeled so by wealthy residents of safer cities?

No matter how one answers the question, crime in Durham is an issue that never suffers from a shortage of attention.

"We do have challenges around crime in Durham," said former City Council member Thomas Stith, who made crime the central focus of his failed campaign against Mayor Bill Bell last November. "I get passionate when people say it is just perception, because people are losing their lives.... Unless we see significant changes in strategy, it is just going to stay the same."

Measuring the problem

Some City Council members said crime in the city is less of a problem than is perceived.

"For whatever reason, [Durham's crime] has been overstated in the media," City Council member Mike Woodard said. "We compare ourselves to about 10 cities in the Southeast that are about our size, and we are compared very favorably."

Morgan Quitno Press ranks Durham the fifth most dangerous city in North Carolina, behind less-populated cities like Fayetteville and Wilmington. In 2006, there were more homicides in Winston-Salem than in Durham, according to the FBI. The Durham city Web site also compares the city's crime statistics with other urban areas.

Stith said statistical comparison is not enough and called for city leaders to take responsibility for crime in Durham.

"You can look at the numbers for crime and say they are similar to other cities, but there is a person behind those numbers," he said.

Council member Diane Catotti said the fact that Durham has two newspapers, The (Raleigh) News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, competing for coverage of the city tends to exaggerate the crime issue.

"Frankly, The News & Observer does it even more so because it is a measure of reassuring their [Raleigh] readers that they are safer [living] in Raleigh," she said.

Wealthier Triangle cities like Raleigh, Cary and Chapel Hill have very low crime rates, causing the problem of crime in Durham to be exaggerated, said Philip Cook, Terry Sanford professor of public policy with appointments in economics and sociology.

The search for solutions

Regardless of scale-real or perceived-officials are looking for the best methods to cut down crime in the Bull City.

One of the most famous examples of crime-prevention strategy was the innovative policing tactics employed by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York City during the 1990s.

"The best systems, like the one in New York City, use a lot of analysis to determine where crime is occurring and where to allocate resources," said Joel Rosch, a senior research scholar at Duke's Center for Child Family and Policy who previously worked for the state police in North Carolina.

Giuliani and the New York City Police Department developed CompStat, a strategy of tracking where crime is occurring and using software to manage data. They also relied on community policing and the "broken windows" theory, which emphasizes cracking down on minor offenses to deter more serious crimes.

Bell said he believes the city has effective strategies in place to reduce its crime problem. He added that the Durham Police Department is using Crime Mapper, a software system to track where crime is occurring.

DPD has used the technology to pinpoint the "Durham Bullseye," at the intersection of Driver Street and Andrew Avenue in northeast-central Durham, as the spot where the highest concentration of crime occurs.

But Bell said DPD and its software are only part of the equation.

"It is not strictly something you are going to solve with law enforcement-there has got to be community buy-in, and that is why we talk about it so much," he said.

Another school of thought on crime prevention is that innovative policing strategies have very little impact.

Durham will never be able to invest as much money in crime prevention as New York City, Cook said.

"Sure, [New York's approaches] were quite innovative, but the sheer size of the police force in New York City is impressive," Cook said. "It helps to be a wealthy city, and it would help Durham to have more resources."

Woodard added that Police Chief Jose Lopez could always use more police officers. He noted, however, that crime-prevention strategies can help to identify demographic and geographic information about criminals.

"You will have spikes [in crime] for different reasons, but good data and good police work led us to find that all those [recent] crimes were caused by a handful of people," Woodard said. "We arrested them, got them off the street and we are back to a normal level."

For example, most murderers in Durham fit a very specific socioeconomic, gender and racial profile, Rosch said.

"All these murders are taking place in some neighborhood that is pretty isolated from the Duke campus," he added.


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