Gangs ‘a very real threat’ to public safety in Durham, managers say

The City of Durham’s Impact Team spends each day cleaning up gang markings and other graffiti around the city.
The City of Durham’s Impact Team spends each day cleaning up gang markings and other graffiti around the city. Scott Lewis

As managers of our city and county, we are questioned occasionally about gang-reduction efforts in Durham, and we find that perceptions are not always accurate.

Responses to the common misconceptions listed below are intended to give the community accurate and up-to-date information.

Misconception 1: Durham does not have a significant gang issue. Most metropolitan communities that have extensive poverty coupled with challenges in educational systems and family structure will have criminal street gangs, and Durham is no exception. Gangs have been present in Durham for many years and they continue to draw some of our young people into a web of crime, incarceration, or even early death. Risk and needs assessments conducted by court counselors for juvenile delinquents indicate that 20 percent of court-involved juveniles in Durham are gang members or associates. This compares with an average of 7 percent statewide. Criminal street gangs present a very real threat to public safety in Durham.

Misconception 2: Local leaders are not involved in the effort to reduce the impact of gangs in Durham. Durham adopted the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention “Comprehensive Gang Model” in 2009 and from that implemented a Gang Reduction Strategy. A Gang Reduction Strategy Steering Committee (GRS) has convened for bi-monthly meetings since 2009 to implement provisions of that model. The Steering Committee has top leaders from throughout the community, including City/County government, Durham Public Schools, law enforcement, the court system, N.C. Central University, Duke University, the faith community, and others. Together, this group creates and reviews policy related to prevention, intervention, and suppression of gang activity. The city and county managers co-chair the GRS.

Misconception 3: Durham relies mostly on law enforcement to address gang issues. Extensive effort has been put toward prevention and intervention strategies. We have learned that addressing the problem at its earliest stages is most effective. Funding of Durham County’s Pre-K, Head Start and Durham Public Schools’ preschool programs are examples of providing opportunities for academic success. The Juvenile Crime Prevention Program (JCPC) utilizes a mix of state and local dollars to fund vetted programs that provide services to at-risk or court-involved youth. Durham Public Schools is working very hard on alternatives to suspension. The city and county both contribute funding to Project BUILD, a youth gang intervention program that utilizes the evidence-based Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Comprehensive Gang Model. Project BUILD serves individuals, ages 14-21, who are active and former gang members, or who are at high risk of joining a gang. Law enforcement and the courts continuously search for prevention/intervention/diversion opportunities, but have the responsibility to arrest and prosecute those who fail to utilize help.

Misconception 4: There is no effort to track the progress of Durham’s gang reduction strategy. Accurately tracking trends in gang crime is not an easy task. The Gang Reduction Strategy Steering Committee invests significant effort into collecting data, analyzing it, and reporting out the results. Durham conducted a Comprehensive Gang Assessment in 2007, and then brought this document up-to-date with an Updated Gang Assessment in 2014. Several other reports have been published since then, including the 2017 Gun Crime Report and the Gang Crime Report (2009-2017). These reports exist to keep the steering committee and Durham community apprised of efforts and progress, and are all available on Durham’s Gang Reduction Strategy website.

Misconception 5: There is not much I, as an individual, can do to help. Every resident in Durham can help with the effort. Often it begins in your neighborhood or faith community by getting to know the youth, especially those who have family, school or environmental risk factors. There are many opportunities for formal or informal mentoring. Volunteers are needed in our communities and in our schools for a host of pro-social activities. Nonprofits and government-sponsored committees need residents as active members. When it comes to working with Durham’s at-risk youth, there are a myriad of opportunities to get involved.

Tom Bonfield and Wendell Davis are the Durham city and county managers respectively.

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