Building stronger neighborhoods by decreasing gun crime

By Julian March

UNC Staff Writer

the Durham VOICE

Over the first nine days of October, Durham Police arrested 21 people for illegally possessing or carrying a handgun.

Jennifer Snyder sits in Parker and Otis on South Duke Street. She has been the coordinator for Project Safe Neighborhoods for 15 months.

Jennifer Snyder sits in Parker and Otis on South Duke Street. She has been the coordinator for Project Safe Neighborhoods for 15 months. (Photo by Julian March)

Those guns were confiscated, but more are still on the streets. Jennifer Snyder coordinates Durham’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, an initiative that operates under the Durham Police Department.

She says the organization’s tactics vary, but the mission is the same.

“It’s anything that we can do to decrease gun crime,” she said.

Within two or three days after someone is killed or injured by a gun, Snyder and volunteers team up with police and knock on doors around the crime scene.

“The reason citizens get involved is to show support from one area to another, or one block to another,” Snyder said.

During the visits, called a community response, the teams ask if they have any information and offer support to residents reeling from violence on their street. The person answering the knock is often upset. Several months ago, she joined three volunteers and the police to talk to residents on Hart Street after a young boy was shot.

“Among the residents, there was a lot of fear and outrage,” Snyder said.

Capt. P.T. Williams, who oversees the Community Services division of the Durham Police Department, says the community responses are an important part of the department’s work.

“It restores a sense of calm to the community,” Williams said.

He said people sometimes tell police officers helpful information, either at the door or anonymously by calling the number the officer gave them.

But not everyone is comfortable with a police officer standing at their door. Snyder says the presence of a volunteer in plain clothes sometimes helps people open up.

Maxine Bourjon, who works at Duke University’s Office of News and Communications, began volunteering with the program about a year ago. She says residents appreciate the presence of volunteers.

“They relax when they see that you’re not in a uniform,” she said. “I’m a neighbor too, just a different neighborhood.”

Once, Bourjon was with an officer who was trying to explain why he was there to a woman who could not speak English. She was trying to get her husband on the phone so he could translate. The woman was getting upset because she could not understand why the officer was there.

Then Bourjon saw a child in the background.

“I was waving to her little kid,” she said. “I could see her face visibly relax.”

“That was the first time it really hit me it does make a difference.”

Social workers from the N.C. Child Response Initiative volunteer for the community responses, especially to speak with children.

Snyder says the social workers are helpful “if kids were having a hard time sleeping because the boy down the street was shot.”

But Snyder says some people refuse to speak with the police at all. She says Project Safe Neighborhoods wants to encourage people to be open with police.

“By not ‘snitching,’ or reporting a crime, you’re letting the bad guys win,” she said.

Snyder has spoken to community groups, schools, neighborhood associations and mental health groups.

She says she gives information to “anybody who wants it.”

When she is speaking with parents, she tries to explain that times have changed.

She said parents used to give their children more privacy. When her children, who are now 23 and 30, were young, she stayed away from their personal space and did not look in their desks or closets.

“I think those days are over,” she said.

She says parents are so busy, sometimes working more than one job, that they may not have as many opportunities to keep tabs on their children. But even when children have gang paraphernalia such as a gang-affiliated bandana, Snyder says they are crossing into dangerous territory.

If teenagers even “entertain a notion of being a part of a lifestyle that’s criminal, it’s serious,” she said.

She said she urges parents to be vigilant, but she does not want to alarm them.

“You want to give the community information, but you don’t want to scare them,” she said.

Snyder says negative influences exist everywhere, and sometimes people portray Durham as a very dangerous place. She said a glass-half-full approach perpetuates a view that “Durham is bad.”

But she said Durham is a “safe city,” especially compared with other, similar-sized cities.

Project Safe Neighborhoods gives out free gun locks and distributes pamphlets with N.C. gun laws to pawns shops and other stores that sell firearms.

“It’s all about disseminating correct information, and then mobilizing the community,” Snyder said.

“I would like to empower Northeast Central Durham so that they will know they have control over their neighborhood.”

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