Durham to remove big, yellow ‘Defund’ sign outside police headquarters downtown


The word ‘DEFUND’ is painted in yellow on East Main Street in front of the Durham Police Headquarters building.

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The Durham City Council and Mayor Steve Schewel unanimously agreed Thursday to remove the “Defund” sign painted in big yellow letters on the street outside the police department.

A coalition of activists painted the word “Defund” on East Main Street, with an arrow pointing toward the Durham Police Department headquarters, about three weeks after George Floyd’s murder last year, The N&O reported. They also painted the word “Fund” in front of the Durham County Health and Human Services building.

Schewel directed city staff to remove both signs within a month after June 25.

“A significant concern with continuing to leave ‘Defund’ on the street is that fairness would demand that the City leave any other paintings on the street if they appeared, even very offensive slogans,” Schewel said in a statement.

He also asked, on Thursday, for the public arts committee to commission a mural related to the events following Floyd’s murder, with Council member Pierce Freelon working as a liaison.

“These kinds of decisions are never easy, and they never make everyone happy. However, I believe this is a fair and reasonable way to proceed,” Schewel said.

Morale at police department

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton called on the city to act on the street paintings in May.

“This isn’t about the merit or substantive issue of whether or not you agree with funding or defunding the police,” he said, in May.

Some staff members at the police department had contacted him about the “Defund” sign.

“I’m talking about civilian employees that I’ve heard from,” he said. “Who work in the police department, who don’t wear a gun, who don’t wear a badge, who have literally asked me, ‘Do I need to be looking for a new job? Are y’all sending us a message?’”

Allowing the painting to remain is another example of how some on the City Council view law enforcement, Larry Smith, a spokesperson for the Durham Fraternal Order of Police, told the N&O in May.

On Friday, Schewel said it is city policy to remove all graffiti shortly after it is painted. Normally that would have applied to the “Defund” and “Fund” signs. But given the special circumstances surrounding the paintings, staff allowed them to stay on the street, he said.

“In the months following, many community members and City employees have asked for the removal of the “Defund” street art as a matter of staff morale,” he said.

The police department had 79 vacancies out of a total of 556 sworn office positions. There are also 13 vacancies out of a total of 126 non-officer positions, spokesperson Kammie Michael told The N&O in May.

Durham’s 911 call center is also experiencing staffing shortages. The emergency communications center has 26 vacant positions out of a total of 60, The N&O reported. The Durham County Sheriff’s Office also has 44 vacancies in the jail and 17 vacancies on its law enforcement side, ABC11, The News & Observer’s media partner reported this month.

The word “Defund” is painted on the street outside the Durham Police Headquarters in Durham, N.C. on Saturday, June 20, 2020. Ben McKeown

Painted for “a bigger purpose”

Kyla Hartsfield, a member of Durham Beyond Policing, is angry about the city’s decision, she told The N&O on Friday.

“We painted it a year ago on Juneteenth, in the wake of George Floyd as well as Breonna Taylor, and the multiple, multiple, multiple names of Black people getting shot by the police, all over the country,” she said.

Not much has changed since, she said.

“This year, 2021, a week away from the anniversary of painting that painting, we’re in the same times, of Black people still getting killed by the police all over the country,” she said.

North Carolina deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr., who is Black, in Elizabeth City in April.

The “Defund” sign was more than just street art, it was a demand, Hartsfield said.

She wants to see city and county leaders to approve a smaller police and sheriff’s budget, to re-imagine public safety, and to spend more on affordable housing, education, and raising municipal worker wages, she said.

“We made the painting for a statement, for a bigger purpose,” she said. “And we actually want to see that purpose pan out.”

Staff writer Anna Johnson contributed to this report.

The Durham Report

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Charlie Innis covers Durham government for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun through the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. He has been a New York-based freelance writer, covering housing and technology for Kings County Politics, with additional reporting for the Brooklyn Eagle, The Billfold, Brooklyn Reporter and Greenpoint Gazette.

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