'Our city is in crisis:' Durham mayor delivers State of the City as gun crime surges

Tuesday, April 19, 2022
Durham 'in crisis' mayor says at first State of the City address
Durham Mayor Elaine O'Neal began her State of the City address by declaring that the state of the city is good. Then, she spent the bulk of her time detailing what's making Durham so unwell.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Durham Mayor Elaine O'Neal began her State of the City address Monday evening by declaring that the state of the city is good. Then, she spent the bulk of her time detailing what's making Durham so unwell.

"Our city is in crisis," O'Neal said amid a surge in street violence resulting in 182 shootings so far this year. The city is on pace to set a new annual record for shootings. Deadly shootings so far in 2022 have nearly reached the combined total of the previous two years.

The majority of the mayor's very first State of the City address was dedicated to the residents' growing concerns.

"Gun violence is taking the lives of far too many of our residents and our young Black men," O'Neal said. "We are a city in pain, and we are struggling to make sense of the violence we continue to witness."

The mayor said the mounting gun crimes have triggered a citywide trauma among residents. She paused her speech twice for moments of silence for the dead and families left behind. Then, the address turned.

"Living in fear is not a Bull City value," O'Neal said before she acknowledged the scrutiny she's received for not being more public-facing in her first three months as mayor in talking about rising crime rates.

The mayor revealed where she's been devoting her time: closed-door meetings with activists, mentors, and young men - she says, in hopes of negotiating a cease-fire on the streets.

"I have invited some of the young men here tonight because everyone's been wanting to know. So I ask them to stand up," she said motioning to the small group of men sitting in the front rows.

"I call them the reformers. They're really shot callers though," O'Neal said about the group. "And they've been able to help us quell some of the violence. Now, not all violence is gang-related as y'all would like to say."

She said solutions have to be born not just from City Hall and Durham Police, but from community organizations; healthcare facilities; housing support; business owners; educators; faith communities and families.

"There is no one solution. But there is one path to prevention. Which means we work together," O'Neal said.

The mayor also announced she and Durham County Commission Chair Brenda Howerton have reconvened the Durham Crime Cabinet -- working to develop a comprehensive strategy to respond to crime and violence.

Additionally, O'Neal discussed the need to beef up human services support at the city and county level and the ongoing struggle to recruit and retain more Durham police officers.

The mayor's comments Friday ahead of her speech suggested that she may be prepared to focus more on community leaders as opposed to ramping up policing.

Durham Mayor Elaine O'Neal will give her first State of the City address Monday evening.

That's a strategy that McDougald Terrace activist Ashley Canady supports.

"They know more about what's going on in the streets than we do, and I think working with them, trying to nip it in the bud, I think that could be a start, too."

Last week, O'Neal told ABC11 that reducing gun violence was a top priority but that no definitive plan was in place to tackle the problem.

"I am not God -- I can't stop that. But what I can do as a mayor is to do what I am doing and that is do things differently because of my background. And also to make sure that we take a look at systemic causes in a different way, and we hope to be able to provide and help to provide a quality of life for folk so they can make some different decisions," O'Neal said last week.

WATCH: Durham mayor says she won't talk to reporters about gun violence

Her comments came as both Mayor Elaine O'Neal and Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews have been tasked with a challenge to fix Durham's violent crime problem.

She told us then that she was deeply concerned about the spike in gun violence, but she said she had not spoken with Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews about the topic.

O'Neal said a lack of affordable housing and good-paying jobs were playing a significant role in Durham's crime rate.

"The gun violence, that's the biggest thing. We need more solutions," Canady said.

Seeing the blue and white lights often accompanied by sirens is the norm for Canady and many other Durham residents.

Crime in the Bull City is an issue that former Mayor Bill Bell has wrestled with through the years. He is the longest sitting mayor in the city and served 16 years.

RELATED: Surveys in Durham found 66% of residents say gun violence is their greatest concern

" I would try to focus on those areas where housing is an issue, jobs are an issue, finances are an issue, education is an issue and try to work on those areas with people involved to try to make improvements," said Bell.

Bell told ABC11 that his reduction and poverty effort focused on north, east and central Durham. It was an initiative aimed at addressing the root causes of violent crime. He said that effort was removed when Mayor Steve Schewal's administration took over in 2017.

Community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of Durham and Orange Counties laid out their hopes. They are wanting the formation of a youth task force.

"Creating action items to take back to local government and say here's what we recommend, we need the resources to start addressing these problems," said Jerome Levisy, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Durham and Orange Counties.

It's a solution those who live in harm's way, like Canady, are also in favor of. She's open to working with the mayor to create a safer environment for families across the Bull City.

WATCH: Extended interview with Durham Mayor Elaine O'Neal