Moving forward on police concerns

Apr. 05, 2014 @ 03:31 PM

The Durham Human Relations Commission is inching toward completion of its evaluation of a range of citizen complaints against the Police Department, and the results are likely to be a mixed bag.

While the commission last week postponed a vote on its report, main conclusions have emerged and are unlikely to change in the final review April 29.

The commission appears poised to recommend changes that, if adopted, would help shore up confidence in the department in some segments of the community.

But it is likely to take a pass on answering one of the most volatile and admittedly complicated charges leveled against Durham police – that they engage in racial profiling in asking to search vehicles and citizens.

As attorney Scott Holmes, a department critic, wrote, “Until recently, the evidence of racial profiling has been largely supported only by anecdotal evidence.” But analyzing data collected by the state for more than a decade, the department’s adversaries concluded black motorists are far more likely to be searched at routine traffic stops than white motorists.

 The department responded with its own thick report.  While its authors acknowledged it was “not intended to deny the existence of racial profiling, nor to deny the possibility that some officers may be engaged in bias based policing” it presented a wave of statistics to counter the profiling claims.

The commission, taking the position that as member Dick Ford said, “none of us are statisticians,” is likely to suggest the council engage an outside expert to weigh the competing sets of claims.

But the commission is likely to recommend a policy sought by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and others. They want police to see written consent for any searches that aren’t based on probable cause.

The department already has such forms, but they are seldom used in the field. We understand police concerns that the written-consent policy could be cumbersome and that it might help real criminals evade detection.

But the added transparency and the insurance that citizens are more likely to understand their rights when police ask to search, would seem to outweigh the reservations.

The commission also appears ready to recommend the City Council give substantive power to the now rather toothless Civilian Police Review Board. The board, under the recommendation, could investigate complaints against police, rather than merely looking over the work of the department’s internal affairs division.

We have no reason to doubt the integrity or the commitment of internal affairs, but it stands to reason an independent body’s investigation would inspire greater confidence among citizens who feel they have reason to distrust the police.

This has been an arduous winter for the human relations commission, bombarded as it has been with the passions and suspicions of all sides of this debate. Their work, we believe, will in the long run mean warmer police-community relations. We hope, though, that the council will continue to press for a continued and thorough examination of the dueling data on profiling.