Commission hears more complaints about Durham police tactics

Feb. 04, 2014 @ 10:19 PM

Human Relations Commission members fielded another round of complaints Tuesday about the Durham Police Department, some from well-known neighborhood activists who say the department’s approach is simply heavy-handed.

A succession of speakers told of confrontations with individual officers who were rude, had engaged in racial profiling or acted in other inappropriate ways. And much of the problem, they said, crops up in minority neighborhoods like North-East Central Durham.

One activist, Aidil Hill, said her own ride-alongs with Durham police suggested to her that officers adopt “a different tone” in their dealings with the public that varies with the patrol district they’re in.

Another, Camryn Smith, said the department’s frequent use of license checkpoints in east Durham makes residents there feel like they live in a police state. She said she questioned one officer about the practice, and was told if she didn’t like it, she should leave the neighborhood.

Smith’s husband, Ernest Smith, said he’s grown tired of officers asking him why he chooses to live in east Durham.

“That’s none of their business,” he said, adding that department leaders appear to have a blue-wall “mentality that says they can do no wrong.”

The comments from Camryn Smith were noteworthy for coming a day after Mayor Bill Bell singled her out for praise in his annual state of the city address, for launching a program to match low-income families with volunteers willing to help them work their way out of poverty.

Hill, meanwhile, has worked closely in past years with city leaders to pressure the N.C. Department of Transportation to modify plans for the widening of Alston Avenue, and to tighten restrictions on the placement of group homes in neighborhoods.

Tuesday’s hearing was the latest in a series the commission is conducting at the request of Bell and the City Council to offer recommendations about police-community affairs.

It was supposed to be the last before the commission begins working up its advice, but last week’s snow forced members to postpone a scheduled presentation by the local branch of that NAACP. That’s now scheduled for Feb. 13.

The hearing also saw a number of former and would-be elected officials voice complaints about racial profiling and police violence.

The commission heard from multiple-times-over candidate Victoria Peterson, former school board and City Councilwoman Jackie Wagstaff and former mayoral and County Commissioners candidate Stephen Hopkins.

Wagstaff questioned whether police are following proper procedure in their use of license checkpoints, getting away with it only because they target “neighborhoods that don’t have the power or resources” to fight back.

She and several other speakers also invoked the shooting by police in September of Derek Walker, who was killed after an armed standoff with officers at CCB Plaza. He was photographed pointing a pistol at himself, at officers and at bystanders. His Facebook profile indicated he was distraught over a child custody matter and expected to die.

One speaker, Dante Strobino, termed the shooting of Walker a “murder,” even though state law clearly authorizes police to use deadly force when they reasonably believe the target of it is an imminent threat to the life of another.

“The first question I asked was who gave that order, who gave that order to murder this young man and not allow him the mental-health treatment he needed,” Strobino said. “It exposed the real nature of the police.”