Durham city workers unclogging a sewer line were robbed at gunpoint on Feb. 19, 2018, and the city’s response was insufficient in multiple ways, according to an internal report.
Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield, in an email to City Council members, said that the city acknowledges some shortcomings on the city’s part and gaps that need attention.
“The events that evening were certainly traumatic and dangerous for the employees involved and we are all thankful that the employees were not seriously hurt although we recognize the nature of the event and experience will likely stay with them for some time,” Bonfield said.
Three water management employees were working at a seeping sewer manhole on Feb. 19 on Bedford Street in the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood behind Foster’s Market, which is on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard. A fourth employee had gone to scout out further along the sewer line. Around 7:15 p.m., three men approached the three workers on site, pointed guns at them and robbed them of cell phones, credit cards. and about $240 in cash.
The workers’ first call was to their on-call supervisor, who then called 911. One of the workers also called 911. Durham police arrived, interviewed the employees, and left. One of the workers who was robbed talked to the on-call supervisor and said that the workers were OK and would stay to finish clearing the blockage and spill response, according to the report. But another worker who was robbed called the on-call supervisor around 8:30 p.m. and said he was shaken up and asked for assistance at the job site. A crew chief was sent to the work site but was not told three workers there had just been robbed.
Once the crew chief arrived and found out about the robbery from the workers, he called 911 to request an officer stay at the scene while they finished work on the sewer line. Two workers left to get equipment and two workers stayed on the scene. Around 9 p.m., an on-scene worker told the on-call supervisor everything was going OK. At that time a police officer also arrived and stayed. Just before midnight, workers heard a gunshot nearby.
“The employees were further unnerved by the gunshot, and having sufficiently addressed the spill, agreed it was time to demobilize and go home,” according to the report from Durham Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson.
The next morning, one employee stayed home and is still on leave. Another employee expressed anger and frustration about how the incident was handled the previous night, primarily that a supervisor never came to the scene.
After the robbery, the Durham City Workers Union, UE Local 150, said that the city “failed to act to protect these workers, and the response since the incident has been completely inadequate, leaving many workers with raw emotions from a traumatic event.”
One of the workers who was robbed, crew leader Ben Lang, said at the time that they were “traumatized, and the city has done little to nothing to help us. I was very unhinged and management did not help.”
Ferguson’s report shows that the workers’ and union complaints about the city’s response to the incident were justified.
▪ Poor or inadequate communication contributed to worker stress, anxiety and frustration the night of the incident.
▪ A supervisor should have reported to the scene.
▪ Relying on the affected employees to asses their ability and willingness to continue working was inadequate.
▪ Water Management personnel had not contemplated an incident such as this, and therefore were not well-prepared to respond.
▪ An apparent gap exists in the legal protections and benefits provided through the Workers Compensation system for employees who suffer mental health impacts from a traumatic workplace event.
▪ [Human Resources manual item] does not adequately address the needs of employees and management in unusual situations.
The report also outlines recommendations for each finding.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan