Panel agrees on research strategy for police inquiry

Oct. 17, 2013 @ 09:51 PM

Human Relations Commission members agreed Thursday they need to conduct in-depth research about the way the Durham Police Department operates before they can advise elected officials how to address recent complaints about it.

They also agreed they should delve into how another city advisory panel, the Civilian Police Review Board, handles appeals from residents dissatisfied with their treatment by police.

The bottom line is “we’re acknowledging there’s a rift in trust, a community feeling of discrimination, that’s antithetical to Durham’s goal as a welcoming city,” Human Relations Commission member Caren Maene told her colleagues.

She and the rest of the board met Thursday to lay out a strategy for addressing the complaints they fielded earlier this month at a public forum called at the behest of Mayor Bill Bell.

The Oct. 1 forum saw residents and activists fault the Police Department for its handling of recent officer-involved shootings and question whether it engages in racial profiling.

It also featured calls for the city to curb the department’s use of “consent” searches of motorists and for it to strengthen civilian oversight of the police.

Thursday’s follow-up meeting saw Human Relations Commission members quickly agree on priorities for inquiry.

They saw a need to look at the department’s training and policies, compile statistics on its search practices and internal demographics, and study the operations of the Civilian Police Review Board.

After organizing themselves into subcommittees around those topics, they began elaborating on what sorts of information they think they’ll need from city officials. Early signs are that it’ll end up being quite a long list.

On the policy front, members among other things will want to look at the department’s training manuals, look at whether it has any in-house procedure for identifying “racial disparities in enforcement,” and look at how it interacts with the city’s Partners Against Crime and neighborhood watch groups, Maene said.

Statistics-wise, the commission needs data not just on searches, but on officer-conduct complaints, disciplinary actions and the department’s internal demographics, commission Chairman Ricky Hart said.

“It would be interesting to see the race and gender breakdown of the police who are assigned to [the Police Department’s five operating] districts and is there a higher rate of complaints in certain districts and is any of that related,” added member Susan Austin.

As for the Civilian Police Review Board, there’s a need not just to figure out how it functions, but what limits state law may impose on it and how similar panels operate elsewhere, Austin said.

Commission members agreed they’ll spell out their information needs in writing for Hart to relay to city administrators. Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell, sitting in on Thursday’s meeting, promised to try to have the requested information ready for the panel three weeks after that.

Hart made it clear he doesn’t think the commission should set a deadline for completing its work.

“I don’t want to set a timeframe because the information we might need may take longer” to develop, he said. “I don’t care how long it takes; I’m saying let us get the information we need.”

He also said the commission needs to treat the matter as its top priority, putting other business aside.

But members also agreed they need to issue a progress report soon, to counter any perception on the part of those who attended the Oct. 1 forum that their complaints would not be heard.

Gerri Robinson, a former county social services director, was among the commission members who most strongly advocated that. She said the panel’s approach to those who complained needs to be, “We are here to do a job, and we are going to keep you in the loop.”