Police Reform Finds Its Backlash
Durham was transforming the police long before ‘Defund’ became a national discussion. But after an electoral shift in the deep blue city, the future of an aggressive push on policing alternatives is uncertain—and shootings continue // Photos by Peyton Sickles
Two decades ago, when Danielle Purifoy was in high school, Durham had a well-earned reputation as a dangerous city. It’s since evolved into a culinary and cultural hotspot. But the violence never went away.
For a time, Purifoy lived in Watts-Hillandale, the historic neighborhood just outside of downtown that Steve Schewel, Durham’s outgoing mayor, calls home. She could walk her dog at 5 a.m. She was surrounded by well-kept, well-lit parks. She didn’t hear gunshots.
And she rarely saw a police officer.
“There is safety here, but the police are not here,” said Purifoy, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “The big difference is that the folks there had what they need, and that creates a safe place.”
The idea that resource stability, not police, makes communities safe, forms the foundation of the Durham Beyond Policing coalition, which Purifoy helped found in 2016.
Three years later, the organization persuaded the Durham City Council to reject the police chief’s request for 18 new officers, setting in motion what Schewel later called the city’s “movement to transform policing.” The centerpiece of that shift: a promise to transfer 60 vacant police positions to a newly created agency tasked with developing alternatives to policing, the Community Safety Department.
But as gun violence spiked this summer, that promise drew a fierce backlash.
“Don’t defund the police!” warned a mailer from the Friends of Durham political action committee. “Law enforcement is under assault.”
On Tuesday, a pro-police slate of candidates swept Durham’s municipal elections, jeopardizing the future of Durham’s public safety experiment.
Durham was as well-positioned as any city in the country to dramatically change the role of the police. It had a progressive government, an organized, savvy activist community, and a state law that bans police unions. But even in North Carolina’s bluest city, reformers appear to have pushed too far ahead of voters.
Danielle Purifoy helped found the Durham Beyond Policing coalition // Photo by Peyton Sickles
As advocates pick up the pieces, the story of Durham’s effort to reimagine public safety—and the setback it suffered last week—highlights the challenges awaiting such campaigns across the country.
Not least of all: how to convince residents of high-crime neighborhoods that they’ll be better off without more cops.
Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis was sworn in as Durham’s police chief the morning of June 6, 2016. That evening, a speaker at a city council meeting called her officers “a team of murderers.”
Davis, who is Black, inherited a troubled, distrusted police department with a record of racial disparities and controversial deaths, most famously a Hispanic teenager who police say shot himself in the face while handcuffed in the back of a police car. For weeks before Davis’ arrival, critics denounced the city’s plan to spend $71 million on a new police headquarters.
Durham Beyond Policing, a conglomeration of social justice groups that opposed what they saw as the city’s misplaced priorities, emerged from that fight. They didn’t stop the headquarters, but the pendulum soon swung in their direction.
Satana Deberry was elected district attorney in 2018, leading to an overhaul of the county’s bail system. The city initiated programs to forgive court debts and reintegrate returning prisoners. And under Chief Davis, the Durham Police Department (DPD) conducted fewer traffic stops, deprioritized marijuana arrests, halted random traffic checkpoints, boosted participation in a misdemeanor diversion program, and required written consent for vehicle searches.
City officials credited Davis for changing the DPD’s culture. But in early 2019, when Davis asked to hire 72 more cops, some council members balked.
After the city manager scaled back Davis’ request to 18 patrol officers, Durham Beyond Policing released a manifesto: a 50-page counterproposal that lobbied for a three-year moratorium on hiring new officers. Instead of paying $1.2 million for more cops, the coalition argued, the city should spend $650,000 to provide its part-time employees with a living wage and establish a Community and Safety Wellness Task Force to develop “viable alternatives to policing.”
The council agreed. A 4-3 majority rejected the 18 officers, and further rejected Mayor Schewel’s compromise offer of nine officers.
That hard line didn’t prove absolute. In March 2020, with gang violence escalating, the council unanimously agreed to hire six new cops. But the city’s police force still felt besieged.
Then a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd.
Nearly half of the country’s 50 largest cities cut their police budgets in the aftermath: 11% in Seattle, 15% in New York and Minneapolis, 33% in Austin. Though more than 4,000 people emailed Durham’s city council to demand they do the same, Durham didn’t.
“The movement to transform policing may be new to some communities, but it’s not new to Durham,” the council explained in a statement, promising to increase investments in community safety.
Protesters painted “DEFUND” in massive, bright-yellow letters outside of DPD headquarters. The city council let it stay for a year, and more than a few cops took offense.
In an interview, a spokesman for the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police blamed the “toxic political climate” for low morale and high turnover. Last fiscal year, about six officers left the DPD each month. At the end of June, the department—which is budgeted for 677 full-time positions—had more than 90 vacancies.
But morale problems aren’t unique to Durham. And the DPD’s biggest recruiting issue is starting pay, which is among the lowest in the area. The city says it plans to fix that soon.
This April, Chief Davis announced that she was decamping to Memphis, where she now heads a police department about three times the size of Durham’s. The Memphis Police Department did not respond to requests to interview Davis.
In the midst of the turnover, tension, and a divisive national dialogue, Durham had to decide its next move. Through it all, the violence increased.
On a Wednesday night in August, shooters opened fire in front of the McDougald Terrace public housing complex while residents sat on their front porches and children played in the street. Bullets slammed into doors and walls and railings. By the time it was over, one person was dead and three were injured.
McDougald Terrace public housing community in Durham // Photo by Peyton Sickles
“All you heard was screaming and yelling and seeing people falling,” a witness told The News & Observer. “It was like a scene from a movie.”
Antonio Jones chairs the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, which supported the pro-police candidates. He says he saw more than a hundred casings for .223-caliber armor-piercing bullets on the ground when he went to McDougald that night. Police used business cards to track them when they ran out of evidence markers.
“Imagine the close proximity of those buildings in McDougald, and 100 rounds are fired off. That sound echoing off the buildings. That’s a war zone,” Jones said. “There are kids that are ducking and hiding in bathtubs in the city of Durham.”
Within the next 20 hours, three more people were shot within a one-mile radius of McDougald.
Different views of McDougald Terrace, which was built in 1954 to house Black public housing tenants // Photos by Peyton Sickles
As of Oct. 9, Durham had logged 39 criminal homicides this year—34 from gunshots—up from 24 at the same point in 2020 and 33 in 2019, according to Durham Police Department (DPD) data. Another 185 shooting victims survived. The city averaged more than 2.2 shooting incidents per day.
Durham’s violent-crime problem isn’t unique, either. But to families whose lives have been shattered, that doesn’t make it any less real.
The city’s leaders agree that action is needed. What they don’t agree on is whether more police are the answer.
At a fraught budget meeting in May, tensions boiled over.
A few weeks earlier, the council’s majority promised Durham Beyond Policing and Durham for All, a progressive group co-founded by Jillian Johnson, that they would transfer 60 police vacancies to the fledgling Community Safety Department over three years.
The new city manager had recommended shifting five positions and revisiting the subject in December. But Johnson, Durham’s Mayor Pro Tempore, was adamant about transferring 60. She called it “a good start on what we want to do.”
City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton thought that number was pulled from thin air. “For them, it's not attached to metrics. It's not attached to good governance,” he told The Assembly. “It’s just that we’ve got to make this national honor roll.”
City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton at an election night party, on the balcony of the 21c hotel in downtown Durham // Photo by Peyton Sickles
Johnson said her imperative was to lock in as much as possible: “Progressives are always governing within windows of time and opportunity. You have a window, and you have to do as much as you possibly can within that window.”
Middleton argued that the council’s majority was prioritizing well-connected activists over communities that needed help—a mindset he refers to as “the dark side of the progressive movement.”
“Leadership is Latin for ‘sometimes you have to piss your friends off,’” he said during the budget meeting.
He pointed to his colleagues’ repeated rejection of ShotSpotter, a technology that alerts police to the sound of gunshots. Critics say the technology leads to false positives, and cities including Charlotte have tried and rejected the service. But Middleton accused the council’s progressives of “genuflecting at an altar outside of Durham” while ignoring the residents of high-crime neighborhoods.
Downtown Durham // Photo by Peyton Sickles
“Where’s the equal response to gun violence in our city?” he asked his colleagues. “In the circles I hang in, no one has ever said to me, ‘What we need are unarmed folk coming out here to deal with this gunfire.’”
The fight intensified when council member Pierce Freelon, a 37-year-old who supported transferring the vacancies, cast the divide as generational.
“It really harkens back to the way the elders must have been looking at the Greensboro Four,” Freelon said, referring to the four Black students who staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s in 1960. “It was out of the box. It was different. I think we need a different approach when we’re trying to change systems that are rooted in white supremacy.”
“I would be very careful in my arrogance about how the elders thought about the Greensboro Four,” council member DeDreana Freeman, 43, replied. “The repercussions and the backlash are real, and lives have been lost, and lives will continue to be lost if we continue down this path of arrogance about what people need.”
Eventually, the council voted 6-1—Johnson voted no—to freeze “up to” 15 additional police vacancies to transfer to Community Safety in January.
Then came the election.
Every elected official in Durham is a Democrat, but hegemony hasn’t promoted harmony. The city’s political set has splintered into messy coalitions: the Durham People’s Alliance (PA) and its allies on the left, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham on the not-quite-as-left.
In recent years, tensions simmered as the PA grew more powerful. They reached a boil last year when Durham County Manager Wendell Davis accused a PA-backed commissioner of racism, and again in May, when three PA-backed commissioners declined to renew the county manager’s contract.
So when this fall’s municipal elections began, the Durham Committee was determined to shift the equation. The PA’s machine never got into gear.
The Committee secured a 4-3 majority, with well-connected former superior court judge Elaine O’Neal elected mayor, beating her PA-backed opponent. Steve Schewel, the PA-supported incumbent mayor, didn’t run again.
Elaine O'Neal, Durham's newly elected Mayor, at a election night watch party on Tuesday, Nov. 2 // Photo by Peyton Sickles
Middleton says voters’ message was inescapable.
“That was solely a referendum about gun violence in this city,” he told The Assembly after the primary. “It wasn’t a referendum about the economy. The defining issue was the way we talk about and are dealing with gun violence and crime.”
Next month, the new council will decide how many—if any—of the 15 frozen police vacancies to transfer to the Community Safety Department.
“I worry that the new council majority won’t invest in these programs,” said Johnson. “Their ideology is to double down on decades of the strategy that has gotten us exactly where we are. But they’ve been successful at convincing people to be afraid, and that the solution to what they fear is expanding policing.”
In 2018, the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund reported that the eight census tracts containing Durham’s redlined neighborhoods—areas deemed undesirable in the 1930s because of their Black populations—have poverty rates that double or triple the rest of the city.
They’re also about 90% Black and Hispanic, have lower percentages of residents with high school diplomas, and poorer health outcomes than the rest of Durham, according to federal government data. And they’re home to some of Durham’s most violent neighborhoods.
The Assembly’s analysis of DPD incident reports between Jan. 1, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2021, shows that one-third of Durham’s violent crimes—homicides, sexual offenses, aggravated assaults, and robberies—took place within one of these eight census tracts, though they comprise only about 9% of the city’s population.
To advocates of public safety reform, throwing more cops at such a systemic problem is like treating a symptom while ignoring the disease—and making the disease worse in the process.
“The police are a reactionary force,” said Purifoy, the Durham Beyond Policing member. “We call them when something has already happened. They are there to punish, but they’re not there to actually get at any of the underlying causes.”
City officials and advocates agree that addressing those underlying causes would require massive, long-term investments in housing, jobs, health care, and education. But the city doesn’t have enough money to fix what needs fixing, Johnson says.
“The scale of the problem is far beyond the scale of what city government can do,” she said. “I think it’s incumbent on us to do what we can. But it is not possible for the city of Durham to solve a problem that is endemic in this nation. ”
Last year, the city’s Racial Equity Task Force—chaired by Elaine O’Neal, now the mayor-elect—offered a long list of recommendations, including improving infrastructure in Black communities, creating a racial equity fund to create wealth in communities of color, and establishing a municipal jobs guarantee.
In 2017, Yes! Magazine estimated that a municipal jobs guarantee—giving all of Durham’s unemployed workers a job—would cost about $352 million a year. The current price tag would be about $665 million. Some estimates put the number even higher. Regardless, it’s a huge sum compared with the city’s $525 million budget, of which the DPD receives about $70 million.
So like most cities that have embraced public safety reform, Durham looked to policing alternatives, which took the form of the Community Safety Department.
The DPD received 1 million 911 calls between 2017 and 2020. Significantly less than 1% of those calls led to an arrest. In many cases, officers were dispatched to deal with 911 hang-ups, false alarms, traffic accidents, noise complaints, and loitering situations.
Officers say that responding to problems like neighbor disputes and truancy “impede[s] them from their actual duty of deterring crime and protecting Durham citizens.” They also feel ill-equipped to handle the mental health issues that accounted for 90% of crisis calls.
These findings, from a report by RTI international, gave the city a blueprint. Early next year, the Community Safety Department plans to roll out two pilot programs in response.
The first, crisis call diversion, embeds a mental health clinician in a 911 call center to assess and remotely assist with behavioral health crises. The second, mobile crisis response, will dispatch teams of trained, unarmed responders—including social workers, licensed clinicians, and EMTs—to a subset of low-risk 911 calls.
What this program will ultimately look like—its geographic boundaries, hours of operation, and the kinds of calls it responds to—is still a work in progress. Before the election, advocates hoped these responders would eventually take over many DPD responsibilities, allowing the city to reduce its police footprint.
The council’s incoming majority doesn’t think it’s necessary to cut police to build the new department.
“We are a large enough city where we should be able to accommodate the innovative part,” O’Neal told The Assembly. “But at the same time, until we have a solution where everybody’s gonna commit to being crime-free and not committing any crimes at all, we’re gonna need a police force.”
The newly reopened Durham County Main Public Library building downtown // Photos by Peyton Sickles
Johnson thinks that’s a dodge. Like all North Carolina cities, Durham relies on property taxes, which hit lower-income residents the hardest. The city can’t raise enough revenue to indefinitely grow both the DPD and Community Safety, she says. At some point, it has to choose.
“Where it is now, [the Community Safety Department] can be a feather in our cap, but it can’t make the kind of transformative change that actually matters,” Johnson said. “What you would actually have to do to make a difference is triple, quadruple, quintuple the size of that department and the scope of their work. I don’t know that the new majority is going to be interested in doing that.”
Behind Durham’s debate looms a fundamental question: Do we need more police?
“When Durham Beyond Policing says that police don’t keep us safe, part of what we mean is that in addition to the fact that [police don’t] prevent the violence from happening and [don’t] get at the core causes of the violence, police often escalate violence,” Purifoy said.
Police show up after shootings occur, Purifoy points out. Their job is to catch the shooters—and there’s a good chance they won’t. In 2020, the DPD cleared just 32% of homicides; in the first six months of 2021, it cleared 39%. (The national clearance rate is 51.5%.)
And since 2013, Durham Police have killed seven men—five of whom were Black, another Latino. Three of those deaths appear to be suicides-by-cop.
To reform advocates, there’s no point in spending more money on something that doesn’t always work and might cause more death.
“Police budgets increased for years and did not explain the steady decline [in crime] since the ’90s any more than they can explain the recent rise in shootings but continued decline in other crimes,” Brandon Garrett, director of Duke’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice, wrote in an email.
The national homicide rate jumped nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020. A New York Times analysis suggests it climbed another 10% in 2021. Criminologists say homicides have risen regardless of whether a city cut police funding.
A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice analysis found that adding cops made a small contribution to the decline of property and violent crime rates between 1990 and 1999, but didn’t matter after that. And a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published in December showed that while police reduce the number of homicides, adding cops has unintended consequences.
According to the paper, each officer in a police department abates between 0.06 and 0.1 homicides—in other words, a city saves one life with every 10 to 15 cops it hires—and the saved lives are twice as likely to be Black as white.
But as police forces get larger, they make more low-level “quality of life” arrests that disproportionately target Black residents, while arrests for serious offenses fall. And in cities with large Black populations, Black residents see little benefit from the extra police manpower.
Still, in a large Gallup survey last year, 81% of Black respondents said they want officers to spend as much or more time in their neighborhood.
Ajenai Clemmons, now an assistant professor at the University of Denver, heard similar sentiments from 21 Black men she interviewed at length for her dissertation at Duke. They all came from a high-crime Durham neighborhood, 11 had been convicted of a crime, and eight had been shot at least once.
“They really wanted the ability to call the police and they respond immediately,” Clemmons said. “They wanted someone who was good and discerning, and critical thinkers who were competent and composed, who were courageous enough to be able to take on tough criminals, because there has to be someone that they can call if there’s an emergency happening so they're not resorting to vigilantism.”
They didn’t want fewer cops, she says. They wanted better ones. Clemmons’ thesis recommends having experienced officers work high-crime beats—officers tend to ditch tough beats when they have enough seniority, Clemmons says—and giving neighborhoods a veto over the cops who patrol them.
When she presented her findings to Durham’s Community and Safety Wellness Task Force in October, Tyler Whittenberg, a deputy director at the Advancement Project, responded: “I don’t want to think about how [police] can do better. I want to think about what we need to do to be in a space where we don’t need that.”
Asked what she thought of that reaction, Clemmons replied, “[Her interview subjects] are people who are most at risk telling you that they want police to protect and serve them. There's no way for me, in my policy recommendations, to make up this whole thing about how to get rid of police.”
Durham’s not the only place where public safety reform ran into electoral headwinds. Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot measure last week to abolish a charter requirement for a minimum number of police officers, and pro-police candidates won key elections in Atlanta, Buffalo, and Seattle.
Several cities that slashed police funding last year—including New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas—have since restored at least some of the money. Congressional police reform negotiations have collapsed, as well, as have dozens of state bills to end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits. Only one state, Colorado, banned it.
In September, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed three bills establishing a police misconduct database, requiring officers to intervene when they witness excessive force, and ordering psychological screenings for new police hires. But none touched qualified immunity, empowered civilian police review boards, or encouraged policing alternatives.
Reformers got better results from elections in Cleveland, Austin, and Pittsburgh. But public opinion has shifted against them. Shortly after Floyd’s killing, only 31% of adults said police funding should increase. Now, 47% do, and just 15% say police should receive less money, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.
That was inevitable, says Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It’s just a very fragile set of circumstances that would allow Defund to get political traction,” Weiler said. “And it would fall apart really quickly for any number of reasons, including a spike in the homicide rate. It’s people’s natural instinct to retreat to safety.”
But police abolition is a long game, Danielle Purifoy said. Setbacks are inevitable.
“No one thinks that the police are going to disappear overnight. No one thinks that our systems are going to be reborn immediately. But we do have to take steps that help us get there in the future,” Purifoy said.
“What the city did in creating the Community Safety Department is smart. Is it everything that we want? No. I don’t think that the full safety that we want and deserve in the city of Durham will come in the next two weeks, or the next year, or possibly in my lifetime.”
Jeffrey Billman, the former editor of INDY Week, publishes the newsletter PRIMER: North Carolina and reports on politics and criminal justice.
Additional data analysis by Jeremy Borden.