Local Politics

New Durham mayor says rising crime a 'symptom of many social ills'

Posted December 8, 2021 10:02 a.m. EST
Updated December 8, 2021 6:02 p.m. EST

— Durham's new mayor assumes leadership at a time when violent crime is rising, the cost of living is getting more expensive and persistent income inequality has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 200 people have been shot in Durham this year and at least 48 of those shootings turned deadly, city data shows.

"We know that crime is a symptom of many social ills," Elaine O'Neal said on Wednesday. "We must imagine public safety without law enforcement alone."

She believes that many of the city's issues stem from the fact that people who are struggling have a lack of trust in public officials and the government.

O'Neal also said she would support an increase in pay for Durham police officers. According to Indeed, Durham police officers make an average $41,000 a year, which is slightly below the state average of a little more than $43,000.

She wasn't able to answer questions on Wednesday about the details of exactly how she would increase officer pay.

City officials are also planning on making sure that all police officer vacancies are filled, she said.

"You have to have healthy police officers," she said, "They can't work two or three shifts at a time. They have to have health. "

In addition to the lack of officers, the city is also struggling with a shortage in 911 operators, and emergency response times are getting longer.

According to the police department's latest quarterly report, the average response time for "Priority 1" calls – those that include a crime in progress or a life-threatening emergency – has been 6 minutes 12 seconds this year to date. That's 24 seconds slower than the target average of 5 minutes, 48 seconds.

An employee who talked with WRAL Investigates back in June said Durham continues to be overloaded and isn't prepared to take all 911 calls.

"Everybody’s so exhausted. There’s just nothing left," the 911 worker said. "We are all hands on deck, 24/7. Nobody gets a break."

911 academy at Durham Tech

To address shortages at the 911 call center, O'Neal said that the city is partnering with Durham Technical Community College to help recruit and train more people to work as 911 operators at a "911 academy."

J.B. Buxton, president of the college, said that the goal of the new academy is to create more jobs and offer Durham qualified and trained professionals.

"We want to create a pipeline so that students can come to us," Buxton said.

He said the 911 call center in Durham carries the burden of recruiting and training new staff. The new academy at Durham Tech could help "take that burden off of them so they can focus on their work."

At this time, Buxton could not say how much the courses would cost, but he did say the college is reviewing scholarship assistance to make sure everyone who wants to train can.

"We want to be part of the solution," he said. "We are this community's college, and we are really built to do this."

Durham needs data to address affordable housing

The average cost of living in Durham is around 4% higher than the national average, with the largest contributor being rising housing prices, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Around 16% of residents live in poverty, federal data shows.

"When we talk about affordable housing — that is a nebulous and hazy term," O'Neal said on Wednesday. She said that local officials need to "quantify" exactly what the city's housing needs are to best address them.

Data from Durham Neighborhood Compass shows that there were 4,169 people evicted from their homes in the county last year. That's 14 evictions per square mile.

O'Neal said there are people in Durham who "never have had a stable home." For example, she said people who sleep on a friend's couch or move from place to place may not be the typical picture of someone who is housing insecure. O'Neal wants to be able to create policy that will address these types of people, who may be teachers or students, she said.

She said the city is partnering with experts at Duke University and North Carolina Central University to issue a survey to better understand what residents are struggling with.

"You can offer all the jobs you want, and you can offer all other types of things, but if a person doesn't have a safe place to lay their head, everything else is pretty much off," O'Neal said on Monday during her swearing in.

She encouraged Durham residents to donate their time to serving in their community and to listen to their neighbors' needs.

"This is a two-way street. We must begin to work together," she said. "I am a collaborative leader."

O'Neal is a retired judge of 17 years who grew up in the West End community of Durham. She attended college in Durham at North Carolina Central University and went on to obtain her law degree there.

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