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First Person

Why can't Durham cops solve crimes?

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Every time I leave my Old North Durham apartment, I have no confidence that the computer I am now using will be here when I return. So far this year, there have been four break-ins. I have been fortunate so far, but the neighbors with whom I have shared this 100-year-old house have not been. To date, criminals have looted this house for three computers, two televisions, two VCRs, one DVD player, three home stereos, two car stereos, one microwave and dozens of CDs and DVDs. In short, my house is a bad joke, a gift to criminals that keeps on giving.

In the most recent break-in, I saw the culprits leaving the house and got a look at their car. I proffered this information to the police, and I suggested that they write down my name and phone number. Two weeks later, I still haven't heard a word from the cops. Sadly enough, this silence doesn't surprise me. I know lots of other people who've had the same experience. Based on everything I've seen and heard, the Durham Police Department is alarmingly devoid of the will to attack an epidemic of property crimes.

While it might be tempting to think that my pessimism about the Durham police is strictly anecdotal, The News & Observer recently published some disturbing statistics that bear out the poor perception of the Durham cops. The most pertinent stat: In 2001, Durham police solved only 14 percent of the reported property crimes, and only 10 percent of burglaries. Statewide, the property crime rate was 20 percent, and a few miles down the road, Raleigh's finest were cracking 42 percent of the reported property crimes. Last year's rate of solving burglaries marked a significant improvement from 1998, when the Durham gumshoes solved fewer than 1 percent of their burglary cases. Despite this improvement, the crimes that have occurred at my house so far this year have left me identifying with the helpless majority who don't get their cases solved. There seems to be little enthusiasm or willingness in the Durham police department for figuring out how to stop the epidemic of property crimes that are haunting my house and my neighborhood.

Durham is hiring a new police chief, and much of the discussion about the department's priorities seems to center around the city's murder rate, drugs and gangs. But here's what I'd like to ask the new police chief: Why don't the Durham police seem to care about solving the crimes that affect most people? Instead of a coherent strategy, we have a reactive police force, one that fills out incident reports and files them into oblivion while they wait for another good chase.

Beyond that, I'd like to know if detectives are trying to find out if there are larger patterns that can be identified. Are these break-ins the work of a criminal network, or are the thieves independent operators? Would increased foot and bicycle patrols help create an atmosphere of neighborliness and order? Is there anyone anywhere in the ranks of police department who is responsible of improving the success rate of its detectives?

In the absence of a credible police presence, thieves seem to attack with impunity, knowing that if they can make a clean getaway, the police can't or won't stay on the case. I have never lived in a place where I have had so little confidence in the police department's ability to catch and deter criminals.

My neighborhood

I live in an area that could be described as dynamic, a district of hundred-year-old homes that are slowly being bought up and repaired. It's the edgy sort of urban frontier that relies on intrepid homesteaders to put down stakes, sometimes at some social cost. My own stake in this gentrification is limited--I am a renter, not a homeowner. However, living here puts me in close proximity to the library, the Carolina Theatre, the places where I shop and my principal place of employment. It also puts me close to people who, by and large, do not resemble me.

This area is spectacularly diverse: Within a one block radius are beautifully renovated homes, condemned houses, a bed and breakfast, a large, mostly white Baptist church, and a small, black and Latino Baptist church, a halfway house, and a temporary labor agency. The people who live here are black, white and Mexican, well-off and poor, gay and straight. I happen to love this dynamism--I lived in New York for a long time, and I'm fundamentally disposed toward diverse, densely populated neighborhoods. But in the seven years that I lived in New York, including two and a half years in an unfashionable Brooklyn neighborhood, I never felt as unsafe as I do in Old North Durham.

This is a shame, because it is neighborhoods like this that can make Durham an exciting, vital and possibly hip place to live. People have suggested that I leave--that the neighborhood is the problem, and an intractable one at that. But I don't want to admit defeat and move out. I want to believe that a diverse community can exist, without being driven apart by crime and its attendant subtext of race. I think we do live together pretty well, but the Durham police are unable and unwilling to protect us.

The break-ins
A former neighbor of mine, Ellen, also shared this enthusiasm for city living. A poet and editor, she'd lived quietly in this house for about two years. In February, however, her apartment was looted while she was out of town for the weekend. (I was there, but sadly oblivious.) After calling the cops, Ellen knocked on my door and told me what had happened. Her face was pale and registered the shock of the newly violated. Her voice shaking, she said, "I really want to believe in Durham ..."

Ellen moved out the following month. She never recovered her belongings, and she has no hope that the case will be solved. At the time of the break-in, police promised her a phone call within a couple of days. Speaking with me by telephone recently, she described her futile efforts to keep tabs on her case. When she didn't receive the promised call, she telephoned the department and asked for the investigator responsible for her case. "He put me on hold for about five minutes [while he searched for the file]. It was clear that he was completely unfamiliar with the case." Not surprisingly, there was no progress to report. According to Ellen, the investigator explained that the department's basement had flooded, damaging the machine that matched up fingerprints. "The incompetence was astonishing," Ellen concludes. Fortunately for Ellen, however, she had renter's insurance. She collected her money, moved out, and another crime in Durham was safe to not solve.

After Ellen left, I moved into her apartment, since it was considerably more luxurious than my old one. Whatever nervousness I'd felt about moving into a recently burglarized unit was assuaged by the fact that the house next door, which had been standing derelict and vacant, was bought by an energetic, civic-minded young couple, Nick and Carrie. They're around a lot, and they installed a security system and outside lights. Their habit of taking frequent walks with their noisy and boisterous dog only enhanced my growing sense of security.

Before Nick and Carrie moved in, however, the house had been a source of suspicion to Ellen, and she'd shared her concerns with the police. A vagrant had been holed up there, and his steadily growing collection of supermarket shopping carts lay in an untidy pile in the backyard. However, he may have been more than a vagrant: When Nick and Carrie began inspecting the house to assess their renovation priorities, they found two different stashes of wallets. Obviously, a mugger had been living there. They turned the wallets, many of which contained identification, over to the police.

In early June, not long after Nick and Carrie moved in, my tenuous sense of security was ruptured again, when a criminal was apprehended underneath my house, after a neighborhood-wide manhunt. On one hand, it was good to see 20 or so brawny men swarming around this criminal. However, I couldn't help but wonder why the same energy and enthusiasm isn't being deployed on cases where there wasn't a red-handed criminal to pounce on. In the end, this big, showy arrest didn't make me feel much safer.

A couple of weeks later, my lingering unease seemed justified when my upstairs neighbors had their cars broken into.

One of them, Jenna, had recently moved in from Person County. She was 18 years old, living away from home for the first time, and she was very nervous about the neighborhood. I had done my best to provide reassurances as well as cautionary advice. But on this morning, with Jenna smoking a cigarette and trying to show a stiff upper lip, I felt that I had betrayed her. She and her roommate, Otis, had lost expensive stereos, and they also had broken windows to repair. She'd only been here for a month.

Otis and Jenna had barely gotten their cars repaired when, in mid-July, in the broad daylight of a stultifying Friday afternoon, criminals again attacked our house. This time, they entered Otis and Jenna's upstairs apartment, smashing in a window when they were unable to force the door. I was home at the time, and I heard some noise directly overhead, but I ignored it, absently assuming that Jenna was moving some furniture. Some time later, I was on the front porch, retrieving my mail, when I saw a car pull out of the driveway. It looked like Jenna's car, but just as I began to wave, I saw that it was a stranger, with another stranger next to him. They glanced at me, and sped down the street, but not before I'd noticed a couple of salient details about them and their car.

I still didn't realize that a break-in had occurred. Only an hour or two later, as I walked out of the house to go to work, did I suddenly realize that cops were on the premises. I went upstairs, where Jenna was in hysterics, accompanied by her grim-faced mother. Meanwhile, Otis ranted and raged as a patrol officer pointed a flashlight at all of the objects that were no longer there.

I approached the officer, told him what I had seen and heard, and offered him my name and phone number. I left for work, expecting to get a phone call from a detective. But I didn't get a call that day, nor the next day. I still haven't heard from the Durham police, nor do I expect to.

According to Otis, the police officers believe it to have been "something personal." In other words, they think it's his fault, and he needs to solve the crime himself. Otis hasn't caught the criminals yet, but now he's racing outside with a baseball bat when he hears noises. And what about Jenna? She moved out that very same day as the break-in, and I haven't seen her since.

My sour joke of a house, one that seems to bear unlimited fruit for the pickings of Durham's criminals, had one more gag in it that day. For, while the police officers were poking around with a great appearance of concentration, a new tenant arrived. He had just signed his lease and was dropping by to admire his new pad. In a show of surprising resolve, however, he declared his intention to remain. Conveniently enough, he works as a home security systems installer, and he already has wired his new apartment.

Self-defense seems to be the only defense right now. Those who have the means have installed security systems. Even more popular is the cheaper, time-tested canine option. For good or ill, our block is a community of dog lovers.

In the meantime, the unchecked crime here is turning us into paranoid homesteaders, driving away some, and sending the rest of us behind triple-locked doors, peering suspiciously through our windows.

We don't want it to be like this, but the criminals are here, and the cops are far away. EndBlock

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