Digging deeper into Durham crime: How one police department brought down crime by disbanding their police force

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DURHAM, NC — From stray bullets flying into cars in passing, to families having to duck for cover at the sound of gunfire, it is happening almost every day in Durham where the number of people getting shot was up a staggering 40 percent in 2020.

Last year, Durham Police investigated 966 shooting incidents, 318 people were shot, and 37 people died.

“We had a really bad year in 2020,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “Even though its part of a national trend, we need to do everything we can locally to change it.”

While Durham Police have a centralized task force focused on the recent shootings and Durham City Council voted to put more mediators on the streets to prevent shootings, is this enough to stop the violence?

What are other cities doing to bring crime down?

CBS 17 traveled to Camden, New Jersey where they have been able to significantly reduce crime in the last eight years.

Just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, nine years ago the city of Camden held the title of murder capital of the country.

In 2020, the city of just over 70,000 people had 67 homicides.

“We had numbers 10 years ago that rivaled Honduras,” said Captain Kevin Lutz with the Camden County Police Department.

“We were crime ridden, plagued with poverty and drug violence. We were predominantly the number one most dangerous city per capita in the country.”

Unsure of where to turn, the department decided to hit the reset button and they disbanded the police department in 2013. All of the officers were fired and only half of those officers were offered the chance to apply for a position with the new department.

“The other half was all brand new hires,” Lutz said.

The brand new hires were trained with a new strategy.

“The approach that we had at that time was to change the culture,” Lutz said. “We were going to do that with a 100% commitment to community outreach and community engagement.”Lutz said they shifted more of their staff and resources from patrols to community engagement.”

They are literally going out into the neighborhoods in teams and knocking on doors,” Lutz said. “As opposed to only seeing us in crisis, they’re seeing us out there handing out books to children, knocking on doors, saying hello and just asking them if they need anything.”

Lieutenant Terrell Watkins oversees the Camden County Police Department’s community engagement division.

Watkins said this approach can help prevent problems before they start.

“We can make sure that we’re identifying issues and concerns before there gets to be any violent crime or anything of that nature,” Watkins said.

Lutz said most departments of their size commit 70 percent of their staff and resources to a patrol division.

But he said they only devote 20 percent of their staffing and resources to patrols and 45 percent to community engagement.

“We realized shortly after our transition that you can’t arrest your way out of a problem, you have to build those relationships,” Lutz said. 

But the decision to disband the department was not a popular one in the community at first.

“The city of Camden was pretty much in uproar,” Watkins said.

But they have been able to bring down crime as non-fatal shooting incidents have dropped 50 percent and shooting homicides have gone down 68 percent since 2012.

With closer community relationships, Lutz said more crimes are getting solved.”

I can’t say that you 100% take the way that we did it and that its going to work in Raleigh or that’s going to work in Texas,” Lutz said. “We still have far too much violence in our city, but it’s better than it once was. I think it starts with the chief of the department having a solid plan and commitment to not being afraid to make unpopular decisions.

“CBS 17 went to Mayor Schewel to find out if he thinks the Camden model would work in Durham.

“They, compared with us, still have a tremendous amount of violence,” Schewel said. “They are about a quarter of the size of Durham and their homicides are very near what ours are every year. I don’t know that they’re that good of an example.

“As of January 2021, Durham Police said that 89 percent of shooting incidents in Durham in 2020 had gone unsolved.

CBS 17 asked Schewel if the city and the police department should focus more on building relationships between police and the community to encourage people to come forward with information.

“People are scared to come forward, often because they fear retaliation,” Schewel said. “So yes, building trust is critical but it’s not always enough.” 

Mayor Schewel said COVID-19 is driving a lot of the violence in Durham and that getting a handle on that is the first step to bringing down the violence.

Durham City Council voted last month to expand the county’s Bull City United Violence Interrupter Program as they will soon be sending more mediators to these crime ridden neighborhoods to try to prevent future shootings.

CBS 17 reached out to the Durham Police Department to find out if they would consider disbanding their department like Camden did. The department sent the following statement:

“The Durham Police Department is constantly evaluating our operations to maximize results.  DPD continues to exhaust all our resources in finding innovative ways to protect our community from these violent incidents.  We created a Violent Crime Task Force to help identify and arrest the people involved in these cases. The DPD continues to advocate for additional officers to increase response times and allow for proactive initiatives aimed at reducing crime.  We strongly believe this can help develop stronger relationships between our officers and the residents they serve.” 

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