Community reacts to Daily Tar Heel article linking Durham, Chapel Hill crime

Mar. 06, 2013 @ 08:11 PM

Police Chief Jose Lopez and others on Wednesday criticized a story in UNC’s student-run newspaper suggesting that Durham residents commit a disproportionate number of crimes in Chapel Hill.

The story, which appeared Tuesday in The Daily Tar Heel on the fifth anniversary of the death of UNC student body president Eve Carson, has created a storm of controversy.

It noted that the two men charged with killing Carson – Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr. and Demario James Atwater – were from Durham, and quoted others, including Chapel Hill’s former police chief, as saying he often noticed Durham offenders in Chapel Hill’s arrest reports.

The story, written by a UNC student, said that Durham offenders make up a larger percentage of Chapel Hill’s overall violent crime than any other group of outside residents, and noted that there are no checkpoints between the two municipalities.

“I don’t fault [the reporter] as much as I fault the editor who allowed it to run,” Lopez said in an interview Wednesday. “I mean, how do you honor somebody’s death by putting together facts and numbers that really make no sense?”

“We’ve arrested many Chapel Hill residents up to and including charges of murder,” he said. “I mean, what is [the reporter’s] point? When you have neighboring communities, you’re going to have neighboring crimes.”

Lopez said he and police chiefs from Chapel Hill, UNC and Raleigh routinely meet to discuss issues that involve criminals who cross city limits to commit crimes, but “not one more than the other.”

“I think that this young reporter got lost in the thought that what happened to Eve Carson, which was horrendous, really exemplifies the city of Durham and the issue that Chapel Hill has being next to Durham – and that is so untrue,” Lopez said.

But Chris Roush, senior associate dean at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, defended the paper in an email.

“What a lot of people seem to be forgetting is that The Daily Tar Heel is a student-run newspaper,” he said. “Students are learning the craft of journalism, and sometimes they make mistakes. The newspaper is a learning lab, and I don’t think society should be attacking the student journalist, but examining the issue. That is what Eve Carson would have wanted.”

Andy Thomason, editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, declined to comment on the controversy Wednesday, but said in an email that a column on the subject will appear in Thursday’s paper.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said of the article that it was “a very inappropriate piece of work that created an issue where, in my opinion, there really is not an issue. It was an attempt, in my opinion, to portray Durham in a very, very negative light.”

Bell cited a police report released Monday to the Durham City Council showing that overall, crime in the city of Durham is at its lowest in 23 years.

“I attribute that not just to law enforcement, but the community support we’ve gotten,” Bell said. “Chapel Hill and Durham are entirely different communities. Chapel Hill is primarily a university community; Durham is a combination of a university community and many other things.”

Referring to a sentence in The Daily Tar Heel story citing the absence of fences separating Durham and Chapel Hill, Bell said: “To indicate you’re going to need fences to keep people out – that’s worse than Third World-type talking. I would have expected a lot more from a supposedly learned person from a learned town from a learned university to write something like that.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt called the article “horrible.”

“I was disappointed in that article for so many reasons,” he said. “We work really hard with our neighbors to the east, south, south and east, including Durham.”

Kleinschmidt said Durham “is a city I have a great deal of affection for. There’s a sense about the city that makes it a very unique and valuable part of our larger community. I think this is true of Chapel Hill, too.”

He said the article would lead people, especially students who live in the area only a few years, to conclude that Durham “is a frightening place they should never want to go to. That is not only a wrong assumption, but I think it’s stupid.”

Kleinschmidt said the article “should have been about how Durham has actually reduced its violent crime rate, how Durham is actually creating a stronger community.”

He said the story “threw out numbers irresponsibly and out of context.”

“It actually evoked images of border security,” he said. “It’s just outrageous.”

Shelly Green, president and chief executive officer of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Durham residents “felt disrespected and insulted by the tone” of the story.

“Am I upset?” Green asked. “A little, but my emotions are tempered by the fact that so many stepped up to Durham’s defense so swiftly.”