For most, it's hard to fathom the malice it takes to kill another human being. What seems even more unimaginable is a death caused by celebration—a pistol fired in the air, perhaps, to mark the start of a new year.
No one in Durham has been killed by celebratory gunfire, but it has happened in New Orleans, Detroit and Atlanta. In 2010, a stray bullet killed a 4-year-old attending a New Year's Eve church service outside Atlanta. According to news reports, the bullet came through the roof of the sanctuary.
"You get haunted by these stories and you think, 'I don't want that happening in my community'," said Jennifer Snyder, coordinator for Project Safe Neighborhoods, an anti-gun violence program of the Durham Police Department. PSN will soon walk through Durham neighborhoods with volunteers to talk to residents and business owners about the dangers of shooting a weapon into the air.
When Snyder announced the campaign last month, a few people responded to discuss gunfire in their neighborhoods. Sharon Zeigler, who owns a home in East Durham, responded via email to Snyder and the Partners Against Crime group for her region of the city: "I have no way of knowing where it originated from, but I can attest to the end result. I'll be happy to show them the hole in my roof and in my ceiling (and the bullet) from New Year's Eve in Milan Woods," she wrote. "Luckily, there was no one in the bedroom at the time and so no one was injured."
While the total number of crimes reported in Durham last year shows a steady decline from years past—and a whopping 31 percent drop since 2001—residents across the city still call 911 an average of five times a day to report the sound of gunfire. A look at the past year shows peaks on the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve and the following mornings—both time periods Snyder wants to target with the PSN campaign.
To examine the frequency of gunshot reports, we looked at a year's worth of calls to 911 to report the "sound of shots." We stripped out false alarms and calls that were otherwise canceled before police could investigate, as well as calls officers made to 911 for backup. We left in about 400 "duplicate reports," such as reports from neighbors, to help show patterns on where the complaints are originating. In many cases, officers either didn't find the source of the issue or resolved the complaint without making a formal report through the police department.
In many cases, loud pops that sound like gunfire could have been from a construction site or fireworks from official and illegal celebrations around the city. (Known fireworks-related events, such as those held at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, are noted in our graphics.)
"I have to believe that it just doesn't occur to folks that if they fire a bullet into the air that you really might hit somebody," Snyder said.
Jennifer Snyder and Project Safe Neighborhoods can be reached at 919-560-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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