DURHAM — Tammy Ferrell recalled how she and her grandchildren hit the ground after hearing a gunshot outside her home at Oxford Manor.
She's noticed more shootings this past year at the public housing complex and the surrounding Braggtown community. She says many of the young men behind the violence are in quicksand.
"These people feel like they're just stuck in the mud, in a situation they can't get out of," said Ferrell, who is Oxford Manor's resident council president.
After a year of heightened gun violence, residents in Braggtown and other areas jolted by shootings may soon see a new team of "violence interrupters" on the streets.
The Durham City Council agreed Thursday to partner with and expand Bull City United, the county's violence interruption and outreach program.
The program currently has three "violence interrupters," three "outreach workers" and one supervisor, who respond to and try to prevent violence in two areas: the Southside neighborhood and around the McDougald Terrace public housing community.
A total of 318 people were shot in Durham in 2020, a nearly 60% increase from 2019, according to Durham Police Department data. There were 33 fatal shootings last year, up from the previous year's total of 32.
But more people already have been shot in 2021, including a man found dead in the street near the intersection of Crowell Street and Wintergreen Place early Thursday morning.
Bull City United's two target areas have seen a 1.78% decrease in gun-related crimes since 2013. However, that rate has grown by 16.49% citywide within the same time period, according to data presented to the City Council on Thursday.
Council members watched a presentation by the city manager's office on the possibility of expanding Bull City United's reach.
The question was, how much bigger should the group get?
Expand to two or four more areas?
Durham County's public health department has run Bull City United since late 2016, The News & Observer has reported. The group started in the Southside and McDougald Terrace, as the county had determined those areas had high rates of violent crime.
If city leaders agree to fund it, the program could expand its footprint to four new areas, broken up by census tracts.
Those areas include:
• Oxford Manor and the Braggtown community in northern Durham.
• An area encompassing Cornwallis Road, another public housing complex.
• The Golden Belt district just east of downtown.
• An area just south of downtown.
City staff recommended funding two areas — Braggtown and Cornwallis Road — due to the time it takes to hire new Bull City United members, Joanne Pierce, the county's general county manager of health and well-being, told council members.
Funding two areas would cost the city $363,332, according to a memo from the city manager's office.
But a majority of the City Council expressed support for expanding to four, at the cost of $935,488.
"This is a tiny percentage of what we spend on policing, where we are spending $70 million a year," Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said. "I think that it's absolutely worth making a million dollar investment in this kind of alternative."
Mayor Steve Schewel, however, expressed caution about spending too much outside of the city's usual budget cycle. He suggested to start by funding two areas.
Council member Javiera Caballero also said she felt anxious about city finances, but would vote for two or four areas, whatever the majority decides later this month.
City leaders will vote on the proposal Jan. 19.
Support for Cure Violence model
Council members spoke highly of Bull City United and were enthusiastic about funding it in October.
The group follows the Cure Violence model, an approach used by cities across the world that treats violence like a disease and frames it as a public health issue. In North Carolina, Greensboro also is using the Cure Violence model.
The Bull City United staff try to resolve conflicts between people who may be at risk of retaliating with violence. Most members, such as current supervisor David Johnson, have been convicted of past crimes and now use their street credibility to spread a message of hope.
They also point people to jobs, education and social services.
Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who has unsuccessfully advocated for hiring more police officers and trying gunshot surveillance technology, is excited the city may take action on surging gun violence.
"If we don't get a handle on this problem, this problem will eclipse the prevailing narrative of Durham as an emergent city on the rise," he said.
Community members want more
If the city stations Bull City United at Oxford Manor, Ferrell would like a community member from the complex to be part of it, she said.
She also would want the group to help residents with their mental health. Some have disabilities, drug addictions, and need some kind of counseling or coaching, she said.
"Once you assess these people to see what they would really, truly need, that violence is going to calm down," she said.
However, she said she wouldn't support having a violence interruption team at Oxford Manor until she knows more about what they do.
"I would like for us to give some feedback," she said.
Regina Mays, an addiction recovery coach, lives just south of the Golden Belt district, within one of the areas that Bull City United may expand to if council members fund four new locations instead of two.
Back-to-back shootings last year shook her whole neighborhood, she said.
She appreciates Bull City United being a peer-based program, she said. She believes people with lived experience in gangs, or who have been on the street and since changed their ways, can relate more to the young people behind the increasing violence.
"Sometimes the streets know more, or the community knows more than our (police) officers do," Mays said.
But she thinks "violence interrupters" cannot be the city's only solution. She said funding must also go to housing and food security, as well.