Part 2: Dances With Death

August 23, 2023

Brittany Dash was doing everything right.

She worked a good job at a bank. She rented a house on an archetypal Durham street. And she took care of her family—not only her five-year-old daughter, Khloe Fennell, who was born with a heart condition that required multiple surgeries, but also her cousin Brian Luster, who was staying with her while he battled addiction.

On July 5, everything went wrong.

While Dash was at work, Luster called 911 to say he was overdosing. Then dispatchers heard him arguing with Dash’s 15-year-old niece, Destiny Sidberry, who was babysitting Fennell and a younger cousin.

By the time police arrived, Luster had retrieved the pistol Dash kept locked up in the house. Sidberry pushed the younger cousin into a closet to protect him, then dove between Luster and Fennell.

Sidberry was shot seven times, but it wasn’t enough to save Fennell. The five-year-old died from her five gunshot wounds. Support independent local journalism.

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“Tell Brittany I tried,” Sidberry reportedly told the police. (Thankfully, the teenager survived.)

Fennell’s murder shook Durham, but not nearly as much as one might think, given the central role crime has played in local politics over the past four years. In the midst of the George Floyd uprisings and a nationwide spike in murders, it was the central issue of the 2019 and 2021 Durham City Council elections.

In part, the relative quiet is because the question of Durham’s crime prevention strategy appeared to be settled in 2021 when Durham voters decisively elected a moderate slate headed by Mayor Elaine O’Neal that called for both police-friendly tough-on-crime measures and investment in social programs.

But while murder rates are declining across the country, violent crime increased in Durham: through August 5, shootings are up 22 percent compared to 2021 and 28 percent over 2022.

What appears to be a détente in the debate over police reform might prove to be little more than a temporary cease-fire. A single shooting could still spark a political firestorm at a moment’s notice, and the legacy of marquee crime prevention strategies of recent years—including HEART and ShotSpotter—will depend on the next council’s budgets.

Read the rest at Indy Week.