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Durham calls for American Tobacco Trail watchers

Citizens trail watch meeting Wednesday

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With recent attacks on the American Tobacco Trail, Durham officials are searching for solutions to the public safety problems on a seven-mile segment of the popular greenway.

In addition to stepped-up daily patrols, city spokesperson Beverly Thompson says officials have considered installing additional lighting along the path as well as monitoring cameras and police call boxes, which could be placed every quarter-mile along the trail.

Reached via email, Durham Police Lt. Patrice Andrews wrote that officers have conducted some 400 patrols along the trail since early August. That includes foot and bicycle patrols, along with officer patrols of trouble spots using three recently purchased all-terrain vehicles. Paid for with asset forfeiture money, the vehicles cost the department $33,278.

Overall, the city's response has been good, says Merry Raab, a member of the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission and a regular user of the trail. "But if there's frustration, it's because as this continues, people who don't live in Durham are getting the impression that the trail is an unsafe place to be," she says.

Built more than 30 years ago, the American Tobacco Trail stretches for 22 miles from Wake County to downtown Durham. There have been 13 reported incidents—attempted robberies, indecent exposures and simple assaults—along the trail since the first of the year. Most occurred in the section that winds from downtown Durham to near the Streets at Southpoint mall. The latest incident took place last Monday, when a jogger reported being attacked in an unsuccessful mugging near the intersection of Woodcroft Parkway and Fayetteville Road, which is in a suburban area.

Durham police could not provide data on the number of reported incidents in 2011 by press time.

As in many cities, overall crime in Durham has been decreasing. However, in recent years there have been slight increases in the number of reported robberies and aggravated assaults. From 2010 to 2011, tallies in each of those categories climbed 5 percent, according to the police department's 2011 annual report.

A search of the Durham police department's crime database reveals that so far this year, police have recorded 267 aggravated assaults and 145 individual robberies—those committed against people, not businesses or residences—citywide. At this time in 2011, police had recorded 234 aggravated assaults and 196 individual robberies.

Police officials say the department has yet to identify the circumstances that explain the incidents on the trail. Witnesses in attacks during the summer have identified the suspects as teenagers. To Andrews, however, crime along the trail is opportunistic. "We are hoping that with ongoing education and partnership with the public and other organizations within the City of Durham, that we can narrow the windows of opportunity," she writes.

Other trails in Durham feature call boxes, but they are owned by Duke University, including the circular walking path on East Campus. The rural Al Buehler Trail, maintained by the Office of Duke Forest, also has call boxes.

It's worth noting that five years ago, the Durham Police Department used a remote video monitoring system in East Durham, but it failed. As reported by the Indy in 2008, technical problems doomed a 13-camera wireless video surveillance system installed for police use in a high-crime area. The pilot program cost the city an estimated $123,000.

A call box system could run double that. Installing the call boxes would cost upward of $200,000. Thompson says the call box option has been all but ruled out. In addition to the installation fees, the system would require regular maintenance. "We just don't have the staff to do that," Thompson says.

While city administrators mull the more costly options, the police department has gone low-tech. In addition to officer patrols, the department is helping develop a "trail watch" group. As with a neighborhood watch program, bicyclists and other participants would coordinate with police to report suspicious activity on the trail.

The Raleigh Police Department created a similar program in August. Twenty-four residents have signed up to participate in the Capital Greenway Volunteer Program, says Raleigh police volunteer coordinator Bruce Embry.

Durham police are coordinating with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission and other local citizens' groups to recruit members for the volunteer monitoring program.

To Merry Rabb, the effort is a step in the right direction. "The trail is too important to the city," she says. "No one wants to see its reputation be tarnished."

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