Bonfield favors tighter limits on some searches

Aug. 18, 2014 @ 06:49 PM

City Manager Tom Bonfield says that while he favors tightening the control of Durham Police Department’s use of “consent” searches, he wouldn’t require officers to obtain written permission for every one.

Reporting to the City Council, Bonfield said police commanders have already received “an oral directive” requiring the use of written permission for any search of homes and other real estate that isn’t actually backed by a warrant.

Should the target refuse to sign, “no search will be conducted,” said the report, issued late Monday.

But Bonfield’s report favors a looser set of rules for consent-based searches of vehicles, one that puts more limits on the department’s “high enforcement abatement teams” than on the average patrol officer.

The so-called “HEAT” units – which focus primarily on gang and drug cases – will have to use “audio or video recording” to document any requests they make to search a vehicle, Bonfield said, adding they’ll also have the option of using written permission forms.

Patrol officers, on the other hand, will be “directed to make every reasonable effort” to use their in-car recording systems to document any request to search, and the target’s answer.

They too will be “encouraged” to use the existing written consent form, but will retain discretion on whether to do so, the manager said.

Bonfield’s report said the Police Department is looking into the possibility of buying “wearable body cameras” for “all front-line patrol and HEAT” units, with an eye toward deciding next year whether to include them in the city’s fiscal 2015-16 budget.

Cameras offer the potential advantages of helping “allay public concern” about police conduct, “protect[ing] officers from frivolous complaints” and providing additional evidence for use in court, he said.

Bonfield’s report responded to recommendations from two city advisory panels, the Human Relations Commission and the Civilian Police Review Board.

The Human Relations Commission, responding to racial-profiling complaints voiced by groups like the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, favored requiring officers to obtain written permission for all consent searches.

Consent searches differ from warrant-based searches in that a warrant requires officers to show a magistrate or judge the target has a link to an alleged crime. But if an officer can search even without probable cause if the occupant of a house, business or car gives permission.

The Southern Coalition and groups aligned with it say the Police Department’s traffic stops and vehicle searches disproportionately target blacks.

On the profiling-complaint front, Bonfield’s report said police commanders concede that in light of the “unexplained disparities” in the data, there’s need to more closely monitor the stop-and-search statistics of individual officers.

He said the department’s staff inspector should review the data every six months and report any observed disparities to commanders “for immediate review.”

Disparities that remain “inexplicable” could trigger a formal investigation.

Bonfield’s report said he’ll direct the police chief to relay to him the findings of the six-month data reviews.