Council begins review of Bonfield report on police

Aug. 21, 2014 @ 06:04 PM

Two of Durham’s big-three political groups and at least one key City Council member feel City Manager Tom Bonfield report on the Durham Police Department didn’t go far enough in restricting so-called “consent” searches.

The issue specifically concerns whether the department should require patrol officers to obtain written permission from a motorist before searching a car or truck when there’s no probable cause to think it’s actually linked to a crime.

Bonfield on Monday recommended leaving it to an officer’s discretion whether to seek written permission or simply rely on a motorist’s verbal consent.

He cited objections from the department based on “officer safety or situational control of traffic stops” that would come into play if an officer had to return to his or her patrol car to retrieve a consent form.

That drew rebuttals Thursday from spokesmen for the People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, who addressed council members after Bonfield offered a short briefing on his report.

“Even if there is some incremental risk to officers in asking them to obtain written consent, you have to compare that to the very real harm being inflicted in Durham because of way vehicles are searched,” People’s Alliance spokesman Charlie Reece said. “That’s a cost we should be willing to pay.”

Similar views came from Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, a group better known as Durham CAN. Its spokesman, minister Mark-Anthony Middleton, said the civil rights of residents have to come first.

“Every Durham citizen’s constitutional rights ought to be protected, and we should not compromise or skimp on that,” Middleton said. “This is the United States of America. It’s supposed to be difficult to stop and search and to detain people. We designed it that way.”

Courts allow consent searches on the theory there’s nothing in the federal Bill of Rights to prevent an officer from asking someone for permission to look in a car, truck or building, or to actually look if the person in control of it gives permission.

A search based explicitly on suspicion of criminal involvement requires a warrant, with a magistrate or judge agreeing there’s probable cause for it.

Advocacy groups like the Southern Coalition for Social Justice say, with backing from state statistics, that the Durham Police Department’s vehicle stops and consent-search requests disproportionately target blacks.

They argue the use of written consent would make sure that people know they have the right to say no when an officer asks for a look. They are dubious of the “situational control” argument, given that officers engaged in traffic-law enforcement frequently return to their cars to write motorists a ticket.

Most council members didn’t say anything Thursday that revealed their own thinking on the subject.

The major exception to that was Councilman Steve Schewel, who voiced some skepticism of Bonfield’s suggestion that officers rely on video cameras to document their encounters and exchanges.

Schewel noted that in-car cameras can’t always capture audio from an officer’s conversation with a motorist.

“If we can’t fully document [consent] with the cameras, our other option is written consent. I would hope we would adopt that,” he told Bonfield. “I do understand it’s not free of cost for our police officers, but I would hope you’d go in that direction.”

Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden said the issue is also her “greatest concern” and hinted strongly that she agreed with Schewel.

Thursday’s discussion also touched heavily on the issue of marijuana-law enforcement.

Bonfield’s report said police need to explain why 86 percent of their misdemeanor marijuana arrests in 2013 and the first half of 2014 targeted blacks.

He also acknowledged calls from some groups for making marijuana-law enforcement a low priority, but said city officials would have to collaborate with other interests in the criminal-justice system to make that happen.

Council members appeared eager to take him up on that suggestion, with Schewel, Mayor Bill Bell and Councilwoman Diane Catotti all favoring immediate discussions with the district attorney, Durham’s senior judges and the county sheriff’s office.

Catotti said county commissioners also need to be in the loop. “I want interim briefings or a sense of what the likelihood of consensus is, if we need a political dialogue or community dialogue,” she told Bonfield.

Bell said he will write a letter to the relevant officials – including Durham’s state probation-enforcement unit – inviting them to table.

Schewel said “de-prioritization” is about all local governments in this state can do on the marijuana front, given North Carolina’s politics.

“I wish, personally, that we could decriminalize marijuana possession,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen in this state.”

Thursday’s work session was the full council’s first opportunity to discuss Bonfield’s report, compiled in response to city Human Relations Commission finding that there is racial bias and profiling evident in the Police Department’s practices.

Members will resume the discussion during a televised business meeting on Sept. 2, and may continue it at a subsequent work session.