Marchers demand police openness, accountability
About 60 people marched through the heart of downtown Monday evening, calling for more police accountability and community oversight, and saying “there is a systemic sickness in the City of Medicine.”
The protesters accused Durham police of racial profiling, causing people of color to suffer more than others.
“Many black and brown people are targeted in search of small amounts of marijuana,” Nia Wilson, a member of Fostering Alternatives for Drug Enforcement (FADE), said. “We’re hoping to have a process of reclassifying marijuana from a misdemeanor to a ticket, so police are freed to do their job with much more serious crimes, and so we can shift drug enforcement from a punitive criminal justice issue to more of a public health issue.”
FADE, which organized the march, describes itself as “a local coalition of community members exploring the impact on the War on Drugs in Durham.”
The group’s flier said the march, which began in front of Durham Police Headquarters and ended outside City Hall, aimed to call attention “to a racist police culture that harms our black and brown neighbors.”
Wilson cited a 2001-2011 study by a UNC professor showing that “in some cases, Durham has the highest rate of racial disparity in any of North Carolina’s 100 counties when it comes to police stops and arrests.”
But in an interview earlier in the day, Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez denied that his officers practice racial profiling.
“There is no indication of racial profiling [in the department],” Lopez said. “We have not seen any at this point.”
Lopez said all officers are required to fill out a state form when they make a traffic stop detailing why the stop was made, the race of the person stopped and what action was taken.
He said his department looks carefully at the reports when there is an accusation of racial profiling, and he’s found none so far.
Lopez said problems and complaints are the standards his officers use in deciding where to conduct traffic stops, for example.
“We do a lot of speed enforcement on I-85,” Lopez said. “Why? Is it to target blacks and Hispanics? No. It’s because we’ve had a lot of fatalities there.”
“Some people ask why we do license checks at certain intersections,” he said. “It’s because we have a lot of car accidents there. Deciding where to conduct many of these operations is generated by data, not by a neighborhood’s composition. Are there burglaries in an area, and are people yelling at us about people speeding and running stop signs? That’s what we use to decide.”
Several speakers accused police of unfairly pulling over black and Latino drivers for traffic violations.
But Lopez denied that, saying police sometimes don’t know the person’s race from afar, especially if they’re driving a car with tinted windows.
“If somebody is running a red light, that’s why they are pulled over, not because of their race,” Lopez said.
One marcher, Duke University junior Destiny Hemphill, said she believes people of color are disproportionately targeted by police. She said marchers are seeking justice for the family of Jose Ocampo, a 33-year-old Durham Latino who was fatally shot in July by a Durham police officer answering a stabbing call.
Three witnesses told a private investigator that Ocampo was shot as he tried to hand a knife to another officer, but Lopez has disputed that, saying that Ocampo failed to follow the officer’s order to raise his hands, and instead advanced toward him with the knife.
The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the shooting, and has not yet released its findings.
Another speaker was Destiny Riley, the sister of Carlos Riley Jr., who is charged with shooting and wounding a Durham police officer during a December traffic stop.
Riley’s supporters say he was a victim of racial profiling.
“I’m hurt by the actions of the Durham police,” Destiny Riley said. “My brother did nothing wrong that day.”
Riley, a convicted drug dealer who is not allowed to have a handgun, claimed the officer shot himself in the leg. He signed a plea agreement in federal court in July admitting to having the Smith and Wesson .45-caliber gun that belonged to the officer.
He still faces charges in Durham County in connection with the case.
Also speaking outside City Hall was Durham attorney David Hall, who was hit by a stray bullet during a June 22 shooting on Gray Avenue. Lopez was accused in a complaint by one of his assistant police chiefs of saying Hall deserved to be shot because he defends people charged with crimes.
At a recent press conference, Lopez said he didn’t recall making that remark, but that if he did, he’s sorry.
“I’m not here today for me,” Hall said. “The movement and problems in Durham are bigger than me.”
Hall plans to speak at a Durham City Council work session at 1 p.m. Thursday to discuss the group’s “manifesto” calling for “reconciliation so that all of Durham’s residents can experience the benefits of our robust city.”