Durham city and county leaders say 9-year-old’s killing will spur community to action

City, county, law enforcement leaders gather to address recent violence

Durham leaders gathered together for a press conference to address the increase in violent crime in the recent weeks, including the death of 9-year-old Z-yon Person four days prior, at the Durham Police Headquarters on Thursday, Aug. 22.
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Durham leaders gathered together for a press conference to address the increase in violent crime in the recent weeks, including the death of 9-year-old Z-yon Person four days prior, at the Durham Police Headquarters on Thursday, Aug. 22.

Durham County leaders vowed Thursday to jointly fight gun violence and catch those killing and harming children on Bull City streets.

“We are committing to marshaling our resources, working together to end these senseless acts,” Sheriff Clarence Birkheard said at a press conference that included, Police Chief C.J. Davis and District Attorney Satana Deberry.

Officials, as they have done before, urged residents to report shootings, share information with police and come to court when people are prosecuted.

The press conference came after two fatal shootings this week, including the killing of 9-year-old Z’yon Person as his aunt drove a group of children to get snow cones Sunday night.

Mayor Steve Schewel said Z’yon’s death has galvanized the community.

“This is a tragedy beyond words, but it is not a tragedy beyond action,” Schewel said.

Davis said most of the shootings in Durham have been driven by personal disputes, domestic violence and gang violence.

“The proliferation of gun violence on the streets of Durham has been our greatest challenge,” she said.

In 2019, there have been 207 firearms reported stolen in the city and about 30 weapons seized by officers in the last 30 days.

FBI, DEA, ATF coming

Law enforcement, the DA’s Office, the courts, federal partners, state legislators and local residents must remain “laser focused” on repeat violent offenders, Davis said, adding the department has ”a new and reinforced relationship with our U.S. district attorney.”

Matt Martin, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said they will provide resources to stop people from bringing violence and drugs to the community.

“The FBI, the DEA, the ATF are coming,” he said.

Martin is working with local leaders to select key figures for federal prosecution, which has mandatory minimum sentences for people with violent records — “a whole different ballgame.”

Additional resources have been assigned to the homicide unit, Davis said. There is a commitment from Deberry’s office, and a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent embedded with the Police Department to help investigate gun crimes, she said.

Deberry said her office has created a homicide and violent crime team and is working through a backlog of nearly 100 pending homicide cases “to bring some closure for those families who have been waiting years.”

So far this year, her office has closed 24 homicide cases, she said.

Police, sheriff coordination

In an interview Wednesday, Davis said there have been “50 something shootings in the last three weeks alone.”

“Fifty something!” she repeated.

But police don’t believe those shootings are connected to to Z’yon’s death, Davis said.

“We just feel ... that vehicle (he was riding in) was targeted for some reason,” she said.

At least 20 children and teens have been killed in shootings in Durham County since 2014, The News & Observer has previously reported.

In addition, 30 children and teens were injured by gunfire in Durham in 2018, according to police.

In two 4-3 votes last spring the Durham City Council rejected proposals to hire 18, and then nine additional police officers.

The Police Department is reallocating resources to address the recent shootings, which also include an 18-year-old man found fatally shot Monday night.

Davis said she also has been working with Birkhead to coordinate personnel. “Because, just visibility alone, is a good deterrent,” she said.

Gang infighting

Many of the roughly 50 recent shootings reflect tensions among three or so gangs in the city, Davis said.

The Police Department is putting an emphasis on gang intelligence and having homicide investigators work with that unit to help connect crimes in different locations.

“We are trying to peel the onion back and get these key players, and some of them end up getting injured in this battling back and forth, “ Davis said. “Unfortunately, because of their gang ties, they don’t want to cooperate. They are victim and a suspect all at the same time.”

The gang dynamic has changed over the last few years, Davis said.

Crips and Bloods used to wear certain colors, she said. Now there are hybrid gangs and they represent neighborhoods., she said.

“Sometimes there is infighting inside of the gangs,” she said.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.