Panel nears end of work on police issues

Apr. 01, 2014 @ 10:04 PM

It appears Durham’s Human Relations Commission will ask city officials to make sure their police seek written consent to any searches they undertake that aren’t based on probable cause.

But the commission’s report isn’t yet ready for the City Council, and isn’t likely to reach elected officials until sometime in May.

Members conferred Tuesday and agreed the document still needs work. They voted to meet again April 29 to give it a final review.

However, the substance of their advice is in place and “we’re not going to change anything on that, if we can avoid it,” commission member Dick Ford said.

The panel’s likely support for the written-consent idea squares with the desires of some of the groups that have alleged that Durham Police Department officers engage in racial profiling in deciding when to ask a motorist for permission to look in a vehicle.

Organizations such as the Southern Coalition for Social Justice have argued that the process of securing written consent would ensure that people know their rights before allowing an officer a look-see.

The idea hasn’t gone down well at the Police Department, even though it already makes consent forms available to officers. Commanders concede that the forms are not widely used by officers on the street.

Neither the law nor the courts explicitly require written consent, as opposed to an oral go-ahead, when an officer asks to search without necessarily having enough to go on that a magistrate would consider issuing an actual warrant.

Given that, mandating the use of written consent risks demoralizing officers and “train[ing] criminals how to avoid detection,” police commanders told the Human Relations Commission in February.

The commission appears unlikely to take a position specifically on the profiling dispute, which turned heavily statistical as the Police Department and activist groups argued their cases.

The Police Department’s critics presented data, drawn from its reports to the state, that black motorists are disproportionately targeted for search requests.

But police countered that blacks in Durham are similarly overrepresented among those victimized by crime, among those described by victims as their attackers and among those police wind up arresting.

Commission members seem to agree that the City Council should engage an independent expert if it wants to sort out the competing claims.

“None of us are statisticians,” Ford observed.

The package of recommendations is still on track to include a request that the City Council beef up the role of Durham’s Civilian Police Review Board, giving it more power to investigate complaints about police officers.

The review board now only monitors the work of the department’s internal-affairs unit, watching that the detectives assigned to it properly investigate complaints.

But the Human Relations Commission last month agreed the review board itself should have the power to do the investigation.

The commission also is unlikely to support a request from the FADE Coalition – the acronym standing for Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement – that city officials tell police to make marijuana-law enforcement their lowest priority.

The panel instead favors the use of “diversion” programs for youthful offenders that would allow them to avoid a criminal record for minor offenses.

Commission members had hoped to present their recommendations to the council next week. But the panel’s report wasn’t ready by the submission deadline for the April 10 work session. And while it was theoretically possible to get it in on time for another work session on April 24, members agreed not to rush the drafting process.

That squared with advice from Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, one of their liaisons to the full council.

“I’d rather wait for you to get a quality report in place and then present it to us,” she said. “You’re volunteers. Don’t be concerned about the time – and I’m willing to tell the council you need more time.”