N.C. mayor clams up about crime-fighting strategy

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Ordinarily, most politicians love to talk to the press, especially when they can pat themselves on the back for accomplishments both real and imagined. As long as they can claim they’re “doing something” to address the issue du jour, they’re generally happy to preen for the camera with the hope and expectation of some positive press.

So it’s odd to see the mayor of Durham, North Carolina explicitly state that she won’t be speaking to local reporters about her strategy to take on the rising rate of violent crime in the city. What’s going on here?

At a city council meeting a week ago, Mayor Elaine O’Neal told city council members that reporters have reached out to her wanting her to comment on the recent gun violence and what’s being done to address it.

“You will probably hear some of them saying, she can’t be reached, or she won’t comment, and I won’t ever, because this relationship that we are building is too fragile to jeopardize,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal said she and other city council members are meeting with community members “behind the scenes” and that efforts are underway to address the problem with gun violence.

This is a weird and nonsensical statement from the mayor, even with some additional context to her remarks. The “fragile relationship” that O’Neal mentioned apparently refers to “some young men and young women who are trying to turn their lives around”; i.e. high-risk offenders.

Now, there’s nothing wrong about concentrating on those most likely to commit (and be the victim of) violent crimes, but honestly, there’s no reason to make it a state secret either. O’Neal doesn’t have to tell reporters the names or personal information of the subjects of the city’s outreach, but both the public and the press have every right to know the basic details of the mayor’s strategy, and O’Neal’s reticence about speaking with the press isn’t going over well in the Durham neighborhoods where crime is of greatest concern.

Teresa Washington said her 21-year-old step-grandson, Israel Njuguna, was shot on Sunday, Feb. 20 outside an apartment complex near the intersection of East Main Street and Angier Avenue.

“He just walked out of his mom‘s house, there was a car sitting on the side right there and they shot him,” Washington said. “He stayed in the hospital until that Wednesday and then he died.”

Washington said she wants the mayor and city officials to be more transparent about what’s being done to address the problem.

While O’Neal said she has been meeting with community members, Washington said she has not seen the mayor or other elected officials in her neighborhood.

“I haven’t seen that woman in this neighborhood since we’ve been over here, I haven’t seen her walking around here,” Washington said.

Charlitta Burruss lives at Edgemont Elms, a public housing community, just down the road from Washington.

Burruss said she continues to hear gunfire in her neighborhood late at night.

“I’m not saying you tell us about every little nook and cranny plan you’re trying to do, but at least keep the community abreast of what you’re trying to do,” Burruss said.

Yeah, this is just weird. My first thought is that O’Neal doesn’t want to talk to the media about her “behind the scenes” efforts because those efforts haven’t amounted to much; either because of a lack of effort on the part of Durham officials or a lack of interest on the part of the targets of the city’s outreach.

That’s probably the simplest explanation for the mayor’s silence, though it still doesn’t explain why she wouldn’t be willing to sketch out in broad terms the strategy and tactics that the city is using to address violent crime. Maybe O’Neal is just horrible at retail politics, but it could also be that there are details of the strategy that the mayor knows would be incredibly controversial if the public were to find out, like paying people not to commit crimes?

I don’t know if that’s the case in Durham, but my guess is that the mayor’s vow of silence has only made local media more interested in uncovering what’s really going on with the city’s plan to take on violent crime. I hope there are some reporters willing to take on City Hall, but in the meantime, if I lived in Durham I’d be more motivated than ever to have a firearm for my own protection. When the mayor won’t even tell the public about the city’s plan to fight crime, that’s a big neon sign warning you that your safety is ultimately your own responsibility.