Bell wants panel to address police complaints

Sep. 19, 2013 @ 07:08 PM

Mayor Bill Bell on Thursday said he wants the city’s Human Relations Commission to wade into the complaints that officials are hearing about the Durham Police Department’s treatment of minorities.

Bell said he intends to take “an active role” in the process and wants to begin as soon as possible.

“Not next year or next month, but within the week, get it started and see where we go from there,” he told City Manager Tom Bonfield and other administrators.

The mayor’s comments – clearly meant as direction – served as the City Council’s answer Thursday to a group of people who attended its work session to voice unhappiness over a recent string of incidents involving the Police Department.

Bell and two other council members, Steve Schewel and Cora Cole-McFadden, began the meeting by voicing condolences to family and friends of Derek Walker, the man police shot and killed earlier in the week during an armed standoff at downtown’s CCB Plaza.

Walker, apparently distraught and suicidal over a child-custody issue, drove to the plaza Tuesday afternoon and brandished a pistol at police and bystanders. He earlier in the day had told friends via a Facebook posting that he hoped to die very soon.

“Our entire community recognizes this as a terribly, terribly sad tragedy,” Schewel said, directing his comments to, among others, Franklin Hanes, a City Council candidate who also was Walker’s employer. “Your grief is our community’s grief.”

Schewel said one of his wife’s employees had witnessed the confrontation and relayed word that a police negotiator showed “skill and compassion” as he tried to talk Walker into surrendering.

“The more of that we can do, the better,” Schewel said, adding that officials “need to be thinking about how we as a community can prevent these kind of tragedies in the future.”

He suggested continued training for police in mental-health needs and research into “best practices” for intervening in such situations.

Cole-McFadden said she knew Walker as “one of his mentors” and had hugged him the last time she saw him.

“I’m among the grieving community in every sense of the word because I knew Derek personally,” she said. “I am so sorry he had to depart from this world this way.”

Walker’s death by Thursday afternoon had sparked a vigil at the plaza and a news conference outside police headquarters by his friends and family.

The people who attended the council meeting, however, invoked an earlier set of issues. They were among those who’d staged a protest march on Monday, a day before the Walker incident.

Their complaints, among other things, involve racial profiling, the handling of a police-involved shooting that followed an altercation between an officer and a convicted drug dealer and the recent flap over comments Police Chief Jose Lopez allegedly made about a local defense lawyer.

The lawyer, David Hall, addressed council members Thursday and urged them to hire a Greensboro organization to train city officials to root out institutional racism.

He noted that most of Durham’s senior political leaders are black, but said disparities in treatment of minorities nonetheless “still exist and are growing.”

His wife, Tia Hall, followed him to the podium and issued a veiled rebuke to Councilman Eugene Brown, who had termed the flap over Lopez’s comment about her husband “much ado about nothing.”

A Police Department assistant chief, Winslow Forbes, alleges that Lopez joked that David Hall deserved to have been shot because he’s a defense lawyer. Hall, an innocent bystander, was wounded in an incident in July.

“The issues concerning us are not ‘much ado about nothing,’” Tia Hall said. “This is not a joking matter in a land where black bodies hung like strange fruit from trees. It is not a joking matter when those thoughts reside, even in jest, in those who must make quick decisions and make policies that greatly impact the lives of others.”

She added that one of her children has also been questioned without apparent cause by police, once stopped on the street and asked about neighborhood break-ins, and another times asked by a school resource officer about break-ins and gang activity.