Prudent approach on police

Jun. 17, 2014 @ 05:30 PM

Tom Bonfield is not, by all evidence, someone to shoot from the hip.

His tenure as city manager has been marked by a careful, methodical approach to issues facing Durham. He’s prone to thoughtfully – and quietly, without a lot of static – weighing all aspects of an issue.

That’s the procedure he has told the City Council he plans to follow in considering the recommendations the Human Relations Commission has made for policy changes at the Durham Police Department.

He will take the next couple of months not only to review the commission’s recommendations but to drill deeper into what its members think should be done. He has promised active participation by others on his management team and by city attorney Patrick Baker’s office.

And the council Mondary appropriately reiterated its support of that plan, despite the insistence of some critics, including the People’s Alliance, for swifter action. Critics are particularly eager to stop what they believe is overly aggressive requests to search cars with no more cause than the race of the occupants.

We understand the impatience. The police department’s standing with at least some sectors of the public has been precarious for months, and not only over the racial profiling concerns. Many critics assert police have used excessive force both in dealing with individual suspects and, in one widely panned incident, tear-gassing demonstrators in the middle of downtown.

But the issues the HRC investigation and its recommendations are complex. There is room for reasonable people to differ over its analysis of department practices and certainly over the proper response.

And the police deserve a fair hearing from their boss, the city manager. If profiling does occur, is it systemic or the product of a few officers? Are they well-intended but poorly trained? Or are they angry and malicious?

Bonfield is no doubt fully aware that gratuitously or unfairly undermining police morale will in the long run serve the city badly.  Police are inclined to feel, not without reason, that the public takes the protection they offer for granted while being all too eager to jump on misdeeds real or perceived.

The manager left open the possibility he could act more quickly if it became evident that a recommendation were in effect a slam-dunk. “If during the course of this review it becomes apparent that a particular recommendation is appropriate and within my authority to direct its implementation, I will do so immediately,” he wrote the council.

With that in mind, it is only prudent to continue on the measured path he has outlined and the council has endorsed.

Council member Steve Schewel pointed out that the council customarily weighed input from its advisory boards, and that is what it would do with the HRC recommendations.

“We will take them up and look carefully at the merits of each one,” he said. “That’s what we were elected to do.”

And that is the right thing to do.