A start toward ensuring trust

Sep. 21, 2013 @ 03:58 PM

The report last week that crime in Durham fell in the first half of this year should be cause for congratulatory high-fives to our police department. It is not police alone, of course, who contribute to drops in crime, but their work is critical – and they certainly get the lion’s share of the blame when crime is on the rise.

But rightly or wrongly, the crime report was drowned out in the public conversation by problems – real or just perceived – circling the department.

Mayor Bill Bell acknowledged that Monday when Police Chief Jose Lopez presented the good-news crime report to the City Council. 

And Bell pinpointed the critical problem facing the department – and the city administration – right now.

“You can’t totally ignore these issues, whether they are valid or not,” Bell said. “When people keep saying the same thing over and over again, people are going to start believing it if you don’t respond in a different type way.”

Three days later, the mayor nudged the city’s response in a new direction.

With a group of people appearing before the council’s work session Thursday to protest a string of incidents with the police department, Bell suggested a city agency needed to take a look.

He told city administrators he wanted the city’s Human Relations Commission to get involved and said he plans to take an “active role.” He added an element of urgency to his directions.

“Not next year or next month, but within the week, get it started and see where we go from there,” Bell said.

As we indicated Friday in writing about the latest incident to raise questions about police actions – the fatal shooting of an apparently suicidal man after an hour-long downtown standoff – there is much we don’t know about these incidents.

Perhaps the most potentially serious was the fatal shooting of Jose Ocampo, killed when police answering a stabbing call said he lunged at an officer with a knife. Other witnesses maintain he was trying to hand the knife to the officer and didn’t understand the English-language demands to drop it.

Controversy has arisen over a purported remark by Lopez that a defense lawyer deserved to be shot (Lopez says he doesn’t recall the remark but apologized if he did) and over whether an assistant chief’s failure to win promotion was discriminatory.

As if to add to the “it never rains but it pours” siege police may feel, last week also brought the settlement of a four-year-old case in which a former police sergeant had charged gender discrimination.

As Bell emphasized on Thursday, the city must be sure “people have trust in our Police Department.”

Right now, it is clear at least some segment of the community does not. It may be small, but it appears to be growing.

The Human Relations Commission has not had a high profile or record of aggressiveness in recent years, so it remains to be seen whether its investigation will satisfy critics. But its engagement is at least an important start toward clearing the air over the department’s and the chief’s performance.