Durham County

McDougald Terrace residents, police bridge divide over lunch

For an afternoon, 12-year-old Jamaya Currie wasn’t scared of police.

Until recently, Jamaya said, she feared the officers who visited McDougald Terrace public housing complex, where she used to live and visits her grandmother often.

“I am scared,” said the seventh-grader. “Just (officers) shooting somebody or shooting me in general, or just basically hurting someone. I felt that all time. Every time I come up in here.”

But on Tuesday, Jamaya saw Durham Police Department Capt. Daniel Edwards flip hotdogs on a charcoal grill wearing his blue uniform and a purple apron. She watched N.C. Central University Officer Andre Caldwell hand out those hotdogs and pass out chips to a more than 30 children and adults. She also helped supervise kids who decorated Easter eggs thanks to a donation from officers.

“It shows that they are nice and stuff,” Jamaya said. “And they are not here to hurt you.”

The cookout and activities grew out of weekly lunches between McDougald Terrace residents and law enforcement. Every Tuesday Edwards and a couple of other officers or so meet with residents who want to join them for a sandwich in Burton Park next to the complex.

The lunches are helping to build relationships, dispel perceptions like Jamaya’s, and allow the two groups to trade ideas about how to make the city’s largest public housing complex a safer place, police and residents said.

Edwards began the lunches after being appointed captain of District 4 on Nov. 1

On Nov. 22, a police officer fatally shot Frank Clark, 34, during a struggle after he resisted police efforts to pat him down, police said. Clark didn’t live at McDougald Terrace and had been barred from the property. After reviewing the evidence, District Attorney Roger Echols said last month he had found no evidence to charge the officers with a crime.

The shooting complicated Edwards getting to know the community outside of investigating possible crimes.

“So I figured, we should just start breaking bread,” he said.

Love Over Hate NC, an organization that seeks to foster community conversations with police, provides bagged lunches.

John Rooks Jr., co-founder of the organization, makes sandwiches and packs the lunches along with his wife and 9-year-old daughter.

If officers and people have personal relationships, maybe situations won’t escalate, said Rooks, 47.

“It’s clear that relationships are being built, but this is going to take a long time,” Rooks said. “You are talking about decades or centuries of distrust.”

In the first week, one or two residents came for the lunch. Attendance has grown to about 10, Edwards said. On Tuesday, officers pitched in money to upgrade the lunch to a cookout and Easter egg decorating since public schools are on spring break. Residents went door to door to gather eggs the night before.

Ashley Canady, president of McDougald Terrace’s resident council, said she hasn’t seen so many children in the park since the National Night Out celebration last August. Families often steer away from the park because people fleeing crime or gunshots often run through it, she said.

In the lunch conversations, the Clark shooting hasn’t come up, Edwards said. But they have talked about crime, Facebook, rumors, ideas to make the complex safer and how to incorporate more activities for children.

Officers also said they learned about unreported armed robberies and kids riding bikes up and down the street without helmets.

Edwards learned residents’ faces, names and that they ultimately want peace in their community.

“They want to know they are respected. That they are trusted,” he said. “All I can do it follow up with action.”

Oramae Smith said before the lunches, police were like “ghosts,” who were often there but she didn’t see them.

Smith, 59, said she was scared of a couple of officers after one of them made a disparaging remark to her about a year ago. But her perspective has changed since she’s been attending the Tuesday lunches. The officers are listening, learning and trying, she said.

“They talk to you,” she said. “They ask you about different things, what you want in this area, how can we serve you better.”

Now when she sees an officer riding down the street, she gives an enthusiastic wave.

“I be like, Heeeey” she said. “What they are doing for us. This is history for us over here.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges