Encouraging direction on police review

Mar. 05, 2014 @ 04:57 PM

For several weeks, Durham's Human Relations Commission has been hearing from the Durham Police Department and its critics, and weighing what recommendations to make to the City Council.

The commission has been patient, deliberate and to all appearances even-handed in its work so far. The process has helped to channel concerns about perceived racial profiling and several officer-involved shootings last year, and sent a message the city is taking the concerns seriously. Now the commission is reaching the point of debating what to conclude and suggest.

In their discussions Tuesday, it appears to be heading in an encouraging direction.

The board generally agreed the Civilian Police Review Board should in fact have more civilian control and be specifically mandated to review police actions, not just the processes the police department's internal affairs officers have followed in their investigations.

The commission agreed the City Council should appoint the review board, which now is appointed by the City Manager. The board would have "independent investigatory" powers and could recommend disciplinary action against officers.

We should be clear that police officers have a difficult, dangerous job and most officers perform it admirably. But it is clear that some parts of our community are deeply suspicious that minorities are more likely to attract unwarranted attention from police. The officer-involved shootings, especially the case in which Jesus Huerta died from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot while handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car, raised troubling questions and provoked intense protest.

A serious review of such incidents by an outside body would help shore up corroded public confidence in the department. Such independent panels are not uncommon.

Some critics who have appeared before the commission have suggested ramping up the review board’s authority even further. They would give it binding power to impose disciplinary action on police. That would by-pass the city manager, who by state law has ultimate authority to hire and fire department heads and to impose sanctions on employees.

We are pleased the commission is avoiding that route. Investing oversight of city employees in a professional manager has a long history, a management method to insulate employees from politics and the shifting winds of elected boards. And removing the final authority to discipline would undermine a manager ultimately accountable for the performance of his subordinates.

Philosophical issues aside, removing that ultimate authority from the manager would require changes in state law. Those changes, at the most optimistic estimate, would probably take considerable time and would likely face considerable wariness – especially emanating from Durham, politically out of sync with the majorities on Jones Street these days.

Even without breaching the wall of the manager’s authority, the changes the commission is moving toward recommending would considerably strengthen the civilian review board, and would be an important step toward providing a better process for resolving community concerns over police.