A response properly measured

May. 24, 2014 @ 05:24 PM

The city’s top officials moved another methodical step closer this week to addressing the growing criticism of the leadership and performance, in some areas, of the Durham Police Department.

The city received a long-awaited report from its Human Relations Commission that concluded – although not without dissent – that “racial profiling and bias” are evident in the department. The commission calls for requiring officers to get written consent before searching a car, barring probable cause to believe the driver was involved in a crime. It advocated giving a civilian review panel more oversight authority over the police, providing more racial-sensitivity training and monitoring of stop-and-search incidents to watch for evidence of profiling.

City Manager Tom Bonfield promised to review the report and reach his own conclusions on how to proceed before summer’s end.

Even as the commission delivered its report, two influential Durham political groups amped up the demand for change in the police department. “Tragically, the Durham Police Department has lost the trust and confidence of the people of Durham,” Charlie Reece, spokesman for the People’s Alliance, said at a news conference Thursday. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People joined in the news conference.

We understand the erosion of confidence; ours has diminished sharply, too.

As concern and complaints have roiled around the police department over the past several months, Bonfield and the City Council have taken pains to respond in a measured, even-tempered manner.  To a great extent, we believe they have succeeded.

As complaints about officer-involved shootings, racial profiling, overly aggressive responses from everything from protests to arrests have mounted, the council and administration have been neither in denial nor in a panic. 

Several council members have made clear their own discontent with some actions – especially the police response to a demonstration last December that ended with tear gas wafting through streets filled not just with protestors but pre-holiday diners and strollers.

They also have made clear, however, their commitment to a fair and transparent process and their confidence on the city manager.  We, too, believe that everything in Bonfield’s background and performance here lends credibility to his approach to resolving a serious problem.

We should make clear – as council members and others have, too – that police face a difficult, dangerous job where split-second decisions often must  be made under pressure in potentially incendiary or even lethal situations. Efforts to uncover actions that consciously or unconsciously violate citizens’ rights or undermine public confidence will in the long run strengthen the department, not weaken it.

But assuring that officers’ and commanders are confident their concerns are heard and that they are treated fairly are critical to the outcome of this volatile situation.

The city has carefully negotiated this landmine-laden field so far.  We are optimistic it will continue to do so – and confident officials understand the intense scrutiny they face and the high stakes involved.