Panel begins drafting Durham police recommendations

Mar. 04, 2014 @ 10:30 PM

Human Relations Commission members agreed Tuesday to ask the City Council to revamp the system for handling complaints about police officers, to make it one more clearly under civilian control.

They said the City Council, not the city manager, should appoint the Civilian Police Review Board and give the board “independent investigatory” powers and the authority to recommend disciplinary action against officers.

That would depart from existing policy that allows the manager-appointed review board only to monitor the work of the Durham Police Department’s internal-affairs staff.

In practice, the current policy means review board appointees “have no oversight” powers, said Human Relations Commission member Misty Odell.

But in suggesting an advisory role on disciplinary action, the Human Relations Commission stopped short of embracing the calls of some department critics for giving the review board binding decision-making powers.

The final call on officer discipline would remain where state law assigns it now, with the city manager.

Tuesday’s decisions emerged as commission members began deciding what they will include in a written report to the City Council.

They are weighing in at the council’s behest, having been asked to consider complaints from critics of the Police Department about alleged racial profiling and the handling last year of a spate of officer-involves shootings.

The suggested revamp of the Civilian Police Review Board’s powers prompted split votes, but in general there were only a couple of dissenters from the key points.

Commission members were more sharply split on a different issue: Whether to embrace calls from a group called Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement for making the enforcement of marijuana-possession laws the Police Department’s lowest priority.

Ultimately, while they supported attempts by the courts to divert those charged with low-level pot crimes into treatment programs instead of convicting them, they wouldn’t go along with the FADE Coalition for fear both of encouraging the drug trade and making Durham “a drug haven.”

But that decision came about on the narrowest of margins, a 6-5 vote that occurred in the absence of four commission members.

Commission Chairman Ricky Hart was among the dissenters, saying later that officers should use their discretion to let simple possession charges go.

In effect, that means telling people “I’m not going to arrest you over one joint; that’s too much paperwork,” he said.

But that would amount to “encouraging and not discouraging the use of marijuana,” countered member Jake Kliatchko. “You’re opening the door to bigger problems.”

Other members said police need to be instructed to enforce the marijuana laws the same way everywhere in the city.

“Some neighborhoods, you catch a kid with marijuana, it’s on his record; other areas, it’s a pat on the head,” said Gerri Robinson, a former director of the county’s Department of Social Services. “We must not have a double standard.”

The discussion of the need for consistency, given its focus on the city Police Department, did not touch on the jurisdictional issues involved.

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office shares jurisdiction inside the city limits with city police, and both agencies share jurisdiction with campus law enforcement on the Duke University and N.C. Central University campuses.

City officials have no control over the sheriff’s office or campus police.