After killing by Memphis police, Durham activists seek expansion of HEART team

The day Tyre Nichols was buried in Memphis, organizers of a news conference 700 miles away called on Durham to change its policing priorities so that not another life is lost.

“We can actually do something different and not allow another one of our Black residents to be killed,” said A.J. Williams, a co-director of Durham Beyond Policing,” There are viable, proven methods to keep our folks safe in their moments of crisis in dire need. No more hashtags,”

Nichols was beaten to death by Memphis police in January, igniting protests across the country last week when video of his killing was released.

The killing hits particularly close to home in Durham, where C.J. Davis spent five years as police chief before leaving to take over the Memphis Police Department.

The group gathered outside Durham City Hall early Wednesday called on Durham leaders to fully fund the HEART program, which sends unarmed specialists instead of police to some 911 calls.

HEART, which stands for Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams, is an initiative of the Community Safety Department.

Its goal is twofold: to help reduce potentially dangerous conflicts with police and to link residents with resources that will help them recover from mental health emergencies.

“The HEART program is a healthier response,” said D’Atra Jackson, national director of BYP100 (Black Youth Project).

Starting in June, the city staffed the 911 center with mental health professionals who dispatch the HEART teams.

The latest data shared by the city shows out of 1,215 responses, the HEART teams felt safe 99% of the time.

But the program only operates in certain pockets of the city and during limited hours

“We’re calling for City Council members to allocate funding for the program to go citywide and operate 24/7,” Williams said.

Jillian Johnson
Jillian Johnson

City Council member Jillian Johnson was part of the crowd of about 30 people outside City Hall that formed a circle beneath the Durham flag.

“I’ve already submitted a budget request to the city as part of our budget process to expand the HEART team for 24/7 citywide coverage,” Johnson told The News & Observer.

Several other local officials streamed by on their way to a joint city-county planning meeting, most stopping at least momentarily to listen in. City Council member Javiera Caballero and County Commissioners Brenda Howerton and Wendy Jacobs briefly joined the group behind the podium.

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Darryl ‘Tyree’ Williams tased by Raleigh police

Each of the speakers Wednesday spoke about Darryl “Tyree” Williams, a 32-year-old Black man who died last month after being tased by Raleigh police. Memphis police also used a taser on Nichols.

One of Durham Beyond Policing’s demands is to end taser use. Another is to end usage of ShotSpotter, a gunshot surveillance technology currently being piloted in the Bull City.

The group, which has been around since 2016, advocates a reallocation of tax dollars: “that the people’s money be invested into life affirming resources and divested from increased policing,” Williams explained.

“Policing in this country is designed to intimidate and execute Black people,” said Joshua Vincent, executive director of the Southern Vision Alliance.

Lifelong Durham resident Danielle Purifoy, who teaches geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, said we as a society can do so much better.

“Policing is the illusion of public safety. It does not prevent violence. It frequently initiates or escalates violence,” Purifoy said. “Policing also has no connection to meeting our basic needs — to providing the things that keep us safe, like housing, food, quality education or living wages.”