Restoring trust

Aug. 23, 2014 @ 03:39 PM

Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield, in a guest column on this page, makes a number of important and valuable points about his review of the Police Department.

One is his reminder of a truth we can sometimes forget as specific police actions or practices come under deserved and essential scrutiny. Our police officers “are a dedicated group of men and women whose top priority is to protect and serve our community,” Bonfield wrote. That is worth underscoring – and it is worth remembering that daily many of them literally risk their lives to make this a safer place to live and work.

The other point that is vitally relevant as Bonfield, police administrators and the City Council try to reassure the department’s critics and the rest of the community is this:

“Trust, accountability and transparency are the hallmark values of a harmonious police/community relationship.”

The report itself is a major step in restoring those values.  Bonfield certainly acknowledges it is but one step. We have a long way to go. 

We welcome much of what has emerged so far about the report.  Bonfield has signaled that one change will be to limit officers’ use of “consent” searches. On Thursday, two political-action groups urged – and at least one council member signaled agreement – that those searches be even further limited.

We acknowledge Bonfield’s point that there can be risk to officers’ safety if the rules are too stringent. But Councilman Steve Schewel raised appropriate skepticism about whether video-camera documentation of the search-request process would be adequate.

And if it is not, “our other option is written consent,” Schewel noted. “I would hope you would go in that direction,” he told the manager.

The turnout for Thursday’s work-session discussion of the report makes clear the public’s interest in resolving that and other questions about the department’s policies and procedures, especially as they indicate a reality or perception of racial profiling. Any suggestion of such patterns greatly diminishes the trust and respect in the department, especially in minority communities that feel the disparity of it.

It is clear that the city administration recognizes and respects that community interest.  We might wish the review process had been a bit quicker, but at the end of the day, the time has been well spent on a thorough and thoughtful report.

As the debate continues over the ensuing weeks, we’ll take heart in the wisdom of another point that Bonfield makes in his column today. In Durham, we take pride in how we handle challenges such as this – “openly, jointly and in a way that moves us forward as community.”

That is a goal we all should share.