Council receives report on Durham police practices

May. 22, 2014 @ 09:24 PM

As the City Council accepted a report Thursday that says “racial profiling and bias” are present in the Durham Police Department, two of the city’s big-three political groups stepped up to join the department’s critics.

Both the People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People participated in a news conference before Thursday’s work session, called to marshal support for changes to police practices.

The PA’s spokesman, Charlie Reece, minced no words in describing the impact of statistics that show officers are far more prone to asking permission to search the vehicles of black motorists than of whites.

“Tragically, the Durham Police Department has lost the trust and confidence of the people of Durham,” Reece said for an organization that in the 2011 and 2013 elections endorsed all seven of the City Council’s current members.

Another participant in the news conference, minister Mark-Anthony Middleton, made a point of casting the debate as the sort of public-relations problem the council has a history of responding to.

“This is a brand-management issue,” he said for Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, a group more popularly known as Durham CAN. “With all the great things going on in our city, we don’t want them eclipsed by unfair and unjust treatment of our citizens.”

The news conference, organized by the FADE Coalition, took place as Human Relations Commission Chairman Ricky Hart prepared to brief council members on his panel’s recommendations.

Its main points include an endorsement of the idea of requiring officers to obtain written consent from motorists before conducting any search that isn’t based on probable cause to believe the motorist was involved in a crime.

The advisory group also favors giving broader powers to a civilian panel to investigate complaints about officers, increased racial-sensitivity training for police and checks for disparities in stop-and-search incidents when officers receive their annual performance evaluations.

After hearing the report, Mayor Bill Bell said he wants City Manager Tom Bonfield to weigh in on what officials should do.

Bonfield indicated he will do so, taking the mid-summer months to sort through the possibilities. And he made it clear that he intends to exercise the authority state law gives him as the city government’s chief executive.

“This is not something I am going to turn over to other staff or turn over to the Police Department to come back to me with recommendations. I personally will oversee the review of these recommendations along with members of the city manager’s office,” Bonfield said. “The buck stops with me.”

He added that he purposely kept a low profile while the Human Relations Commission was holding hearings on the issue, believing it “critical that we let the process happen and not in any way try to direct or interject or try to steer outcomes.”

And he said the City Council also has respected the process, rather than trying to jump in to satisfy an urge to “react as situations occur” in the short term.

That patience “has served us well to get to this point,” Bonfield said. “For the Police Department, this [process] at times has been described as painful and unpleasant. But we’re all professionals. We believe in this community and we believe in this council.”

Bonfield’s words on the point implicitly acknowledged the possibility of a political crisis if police don’t cooperate.

A similar dispute over law enforcement’s use of consent searches sparked turmoil in Fayetteville in 2012, when that city’s police department openly revolted against an order from elected officials to stop them.

It enlisted aid from the N.C. Police Benevolent Association and the state attorney general’s office. By the time the dust settled, a judge had slapped an injunction on the Fayetteville council, the police chief had retired and the city manager had resigned.

Here in Durham, City Councilman Steve Schewel also noted the political sensitivities of the issue. He called on Police Department commanders – many of them in the audience – to help.

“What I want to say to you all is, we need your buy-in and your leadership if we’re going to succeed,” he said. “The solution to this has got to be from the heart.”

Schewel added, however, that he wants a solution “where racial profiling and disproportionate minority contact [with police] simply don’t exist.”

The council also made a point Thursday of quashing an incipient quarrel over the stated intentions of three Human Relations Commission members – Dick Ford, Misty Odell and Jeffrey Clark – to produce a minority report disagreeing with several of the panel’s recommendations.

All three dissented from the panel’s decision in late April to say it’d found profiling and bias in the Police Department’s practices.

On Thursday, an outgoing commission member who supported the finding, Joy Morgan, emailed officials to say the production of a minority report could amount to corruption or neglect of duty by the dissenters.

But the council was having none of that.

Councilman Eddie Davis said officials need “all the facts and opinions and ideas on the table” and that he wanted to hear from the dissenters. Bell and Councilman Eugene Brown agreed.

“It’s been acknowledged this was not a unanimous recommendation,” Bell said of the Human Relations Commission report. “At least three members differ. We owe it to them to hear their report.”