Critics: Strengthen citizen control of police
Critics of the Durham Police Department suggest giving a civilian oversight panel binding authority to discipline police officers who become the target of citizen complaints.
State and local law now assign that authority to the city manager. The city has a Civilian Police Review Board that hears appeals of departmental internal-affairs probes, but its role is merely advisory to the manager.
The manager’s subsequent decision is “final and binding on all parties,” the board’s procedure manual says.
Jesse Gibson, one of the people who raised questions about police during an Oct. 1 forum, wrote City Councilman Steve Schewel to say that needs to change.
“The city manager should not be authorized to veto the board’s final decision, Gibson said, adding that officials need to make sure the manager is not the “sole, final arbi[ter]” of such matters.
The scope of the review board’s power was one of two key issues Gibson and other unhappy with the department raised during the forum, which was held by a separate panel, the Durham Human Relations Commission.
The commission will draft recommendations for the City Council and is looking to meet later this month to begin its deliberations.
Many critics who spoke at the forum were part of a group put together by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a Durham-based nonprofit opposed to criminal-justice practices it says are creating a “new Jim Crow” for blacks and other minorities.
Other speakers called for checks on the department’s practice of using “consent searches” to seek evidence of criminal activity in vehicles without first obtaining a search warrant or having probable cause for a search.
The apparent discontent follows a number of police-involved shootings and also features complaints about racial profiling in officers’ choice of motorists to search.
The civilian review board is appointed by the city manager and in general lacks jurisdiction over complaints that were not first registered with the Police Department.
Its advisory role is consistent with a city charter – state law, changeable only by the N.C. General Assembly – that reserves for the manager the power to hire, fire, supervise and control all but a handful of city workers.
Other charter provisions forbid City Council members from giving orders publicly or privately to the manager’s subordinates. The council-approved city code, meanwhile, also says the manager “shall be responsible for all phases of personnel administration” save for the few workers not under his control.
The city attorney and city clerk are the only senior officials who answer directly to the council and not to the manager. The Police Department, by contrast, is squarely under the manager’s authority.
The latest of the shooting incidents to inspire complaints occurred last month, when Derek Walker, apparently distraught over a child-custody matter, died following an armed standoff with police in downtown Durham.
Meanwhile, the profiling issue has picked up steam as activists have scrutinized data on traffic stops the N.C. Department of Justice collects under a 2009 law originally introduced by state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.
The reports show that Durham Police Department officers in 2012 searched the drivers of 6.2 percent of the 23,647 vehicles they stopped. Of the drivers searched, 79.4 percent were black.
The percentage of blacks searched stood out among local law enforcement agencies.
By contrast, Durham County Sheriff’s Office deputies searched the drivers of 11.6 percent of the 4,628 vehicles they stopped. Of those searched, 55.6 percent were black.
In neighboring Chapel Hill, police in 2012 stopped 6,271 vehicles and searched 4.1 percent of their drivers. Of drivers searched, 43.7 percent were black.
Carrboro police stopped 2,676 vehicles and searched 2.6 percent of their drivers; 48.6 percent of its driver searches were of blacks.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office stopped 1,417 vehicles. Deputies searched 6.6 percent of their drivers, blacks accounting for 29.0 percent of the drivers they searched.
The reports indicate that Durham police are more likely than their counterparts at the Durham sheriff’s offices to undertake consent searches – asking the driver for permission to look, versus acting only on probable cause.
They also suggest that Durham police in 2010 began stopping more vehicles. They pulled over 27,558 vehicles that year, an 84 percent increase from the 14,977 stops they reported in 2009.