Some residents are raising questions about the leadership and limitations of Bull City United, Durham’s gun violence prevention group, as the city’s homicide toll climbs.
A day after six people were shot, two fatally, in one of the areas the group works in, a county official updated Mayor Elaine O’Neal, three City Council members and all five county commissioners on how the group works.
The county’s public health department started the violence interrupters program in 2016. It focused on the Southside and McDougald Terrace areas because they had high rates of violent crime, said Joanne Pierce, the county’s general manager of health and well-being.
“We have since expanded our census tract areas,” she told the elected leaders Tuesday. “We often get questions about shootings outside of our census tracts, but our model is based on the areas in which we serve.”
With city funding, the program has added four areas: Oxford Manor and the Braggtown community in northern Durham, an area including Cornwallis Road, another public housing complex, and the Golden Belt district east of downtown and an area just south of downtown.
Still, some residents question the group’s impact.
“What have they done?” asked community activist Sheryl Smith, a long-time Franklin Village resident. “I went over to the Mac [McDougald Terrace] after those babies got shot the other morning and heard that there was a big fight on Saturday.”
Smith has been fighting gun violence since her 18-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting while walking home from a store in 2005.
In 2010, she helped start the Franklin Village resident council, which installed captains on each block for residents to communicate with and began holding crime meetings along with District 1 Durham police.
Their work slowed the violence in the neighborhood, Smith said. But now she feels the job she and others have been doing for years has been put in the hands of others who are not having the same impact.
“From my understanding, they are supposed to de-escalate situations. But some of them [McDougald Terrace residents] called, told them what was going on, asked them to come out and no one ever came on Saturday,” Smith said.
A group of Bull City United members, all dressed alike, did go to McDougald Terrace to engage with residents on Monday, after the shooting earlier that morning, she said.
No BCU members spoke during Tuesday’s meeting with elected officials, and Pierce was unavailable for a follow-up interview for this story.
‘Before bad things happen’
Lisa Jones is a former correctional administrator working on a new initiative for Durham youth under the Hayti Reborn revitalization effort that focuses on the Fayetteville Street area. As she sees it, BCU engages with the community from more of a reactive position than a preventive one.
“One of the main differences between what we’re starting and what they are doing is that they go in after issues have already happened, and we want to insert ourselves in a way where we are already there before bad things happen,” Jones said. “There’s an opportunity for us to even work together in the future.
The program that Jones and other community leaders are starting will offer mentoring, therapy and after-school programming. Organizers also hope to expunge offenders’ criminal records and set them up with jobs that pay at least $15 per hour.
Former Durham Police Chief Steve Chalmers, who will serve as executive director, supported Jones’ statement.
“We are not replicating the same work because in order for programs like Bull City United to work, you have to have resources in place to replace what is being interrupted and that’s where we come in,” he said.
How Bull City United works
Durham County has invested nearly $1.1 million and the city of Durham has invested about $935,000 in Bull City United. The program uses the Cure Violence model that treats gun violence like a disease and tries to prevent shootings and retaliation after they occur.
BCU, which started with seven violence interrupters and outreach workers, is expanding to 24 in order to respond to every shooting in the six census tracts it now operates in.
Pierce said the county plans to post a gun violence dashboard in March with metrics on the BCU census tracts. The website will post quarterly updates to city and county officials, along with information about community events and activities.
According to Pierce, BCU monitors shootings, homicide and other data to interrupt potentially violent conflicts.
BCU will now be housed in a new Community Intervention and Support Services department. The department also will include Project Build, a gang-prevention program, and My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative that responds to a call to action made by former President Barack Obama intended to face opportunity gaps for young men of color.
How effective has the group been?
From July through September, Bull City United averaged 23 mediations per month across its four newly added target areas.
And in 2020 the group reported a 1.78% decrease since 2013 in gun crimes in its first two census tracts, according to data presented on Tuesday.
But as the group expands, some team members are worried about the program’s leadership, elected officials heard last week.
Marcia Owen is a member of Durham’s new Safety and Wellness Task Force, an appointed group that advises the city, county and Durham Public Schools on alternatives to policing. She told elected leaders that BCU staff members are concerned about not having a director as they increase their coverage area.
“Every eight days someone is shot and killed in Durham. And not to have management ... we would like to understand that better,” Owen said. She also could not be reached after the meeting for a follow-up interview.
City Council member DeDreana Freeman, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, told The N&O that Durham residents have mixed feelings about BCU. Some now see it as another government agency, rather than the community-based organization it was intended to be.
“I think that the limitation of the census tract has made it hard to see what they are doing because the gun violence isn’t limited to just their census tracts,” Freeman said.
“I also feel like there’s a lot more communication from those neighborhoods because of Bull City United, but it’s a very narrow piece that will [help] solve the gun violence problem,” she added.
In 2019, Freeman was part of a council minority that supported then Police Chief C.J. Davis’s request for 18 more officers. The council rejected the request by a 4-3 vote.
Today, Freeman still believes more officers could help combat the gun violence that Durham is facing.
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