PA wants council to get moving on police changes

Jun. 15, 2014 @ 01:51 PM

One of Durham’s big-three political groups wants the City Council to order City Manager Tom Bonfield to begin implementing changes in Durham Police Department’s search practices, instead of waiting for the manager’s advice.

The request from the People’s Alliance came Friday via email to the council from one of the group’s spokesmen, lawyer Charlie Reece.

He urged council members to order Bonfield on Monday to “begin the mandatory use of written consent forms for all vehicle searches by the” Police Department, before he and the council “determine the appropriate way to implement” other policy changes demanded by a group called the FADE Coalition.

The request challenged the manager and council’s announced strategy for following up on an advisory board’s police-related recommendations, which is for Bonfield to mull the issue over the summer and then advise the council on what to do.

Mayor Bill Bell responded quickly to Reece’s email and signaled no particular inclination to change strategy.

 But if Bonfield wants to suggest “certain actions prior to July, I am sure the City Council would entertain that recommendation for discussion,” Bell said.

Bonfield is scheduled to give the council a memo on Monday to describe “how and when he plans to respond to the” recent report of Durham’s Human Relations Commission, city spokeswoman Beverly Thompson said.

The commission among other things urged city leaders to require police to obtain written permission from motorists before conducting what are called “consent” searches of vehicles.

Judges, lawyers and law-enforcement professionals use the term consent searches to describe those a police officer or sheriff’s deputy conducts without having before-the-fact probable cause to suspect the target of a crime. They’re allowed, but only if the target gives permission verbally or in writing.

The commission’s recommendation, if adopted, would bar consent searches of cars and trucks based only on verbal consent.

The PA’s request, as worded, went further and took in all vehicle searches. But officers don’t need a target’s permission to search if they have a warrant. And courts since 1925 have said officers also have the authority to search a vehicle without consent if they have probable cause to believe it’s linked to a crime.

City officials in receiving the Human Relations Commission’s report last month made a point of saying they want to obtain Police Department buy-in for any changes.

Disputes about consent searches have cropped up in other North Carolina cities, most notably in Fayetteville.

There, elected officials imposed a moratorium on consent searches only for a judge and the state attorney general’s office to tell them they’d exceeded their authority under state law. The dispute – amounting to an open revolt by police against the moratorium – led in 2012 to the retirement of Fayetteville’s police chief and the resignation of its city manager.

Reece’s message isn’t the only one the Durham council members received this week about the matter.

Three members of the Human Relations Commission who dissented from the panel’s findings -- Jeffrey Clark, Dick Ford and Misty Odell -- on Tuesday submitted their report on the matter, taking issue among other things with the majority finding that racial bias and profiling was present in the Police Department’s practices.

They noted that the finding was the result of a late-in-the-process change of position, the majority of its members until then having taken the position they couldn’t referee the statistical arguments of the FADE Coalition and the Police Department.

FADE – short for Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement – leaned on numbers showing that police disproportionately target black motorists for searches.

The Police Department, without disputing that, said blacks are also disproportionately among those arrested and those victimized by crime.