Durham County

City Council members question police handling of protest incident

City Council members have expressed dismay over police officers’ not citing of a driver of a Dodge pickup who drove through a group of protesters outside City Hall Hall on Monday.

Protesters marched to City Hall in honor of May Day, rallying inside City Council Chambers and outside on City Hall Plaza.

When a group of protesters wearing orange traffic vests blocked traffic on North Mangum Street next to City Hall, the driver of a Dodge pickup slowed down but drove through the group, forcing them out of the way. No one was hurt.

Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael on Tuesday said police “do not plan to cite the driver.” Some protesters struck the truck with their hands and one protester hit the truck with a sign as it rolled by.

Councilwoman Jillian Johnson emailed other council members, Mayor Bill Bell and City Manager Tom Bonfield Wednesday evening, outlining her concerns over a lack of police intervention and legal admonishment of the driver.

“The fact that these people were breaking the law by being in the street does not eliminate their right to be protected from violence,” Johnson wrote. “This action was dangerous and risked people’s lives. Is it legal to shoot someone who is in the street illegally? Is it legal to punch them in the face? Why is it legal to intentionally attack them with a vehicle? Drivers should not be allowed to attack pedestrians, regardless of what the pedestrians are doing at the time.”

Johnson alleged that the lack of police action against the driver had the potential to create an “extremely dangerous” precedent.

“This video is already being shared on hate websites as an example of what people should do when they see Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the street,” Johnson wrote. “If hateful people know that they will be free from consequences for attacking BLM demonstrators with vehicles, they will feel more empowered to do so.”

Johnson added that the incident may be interpreted as an attack on political speech by Durham and the police.

Approximately 30 minutes after Johnson sent her email, Councilman Charlie Reece responded, writing that he, too, held “deep concerns” pertaining to the incident and requested that City Attorney Patrick Baker brief the City Council on the legality of the driver’s actions.

Bonfield responded with a message Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis had sent him regarding the incident.

“On Monday, May 1, 2017, protesters congregated on the sidewalks and roadway in the area of the Durham County Jail,” Davis wrote. “The Durham Police Department was aware of the group’s intent to protest, though no city permits to occupy or close streets were requested.

“The Department did not pursue charges against the truck driver entering the area, as the driver had the legal right of way. Protesters illegally occupied the roadway, and video footage further revealed protesters intentionally attempting to place themselves in the path of the slowly moving truck. (see violation cited below)

“§ 20-174.1. Standing, sitting or lying upon highways or streets prohibited. (a) No person shall willfully stand, sit, or lie upon the highway or street in such a manner as to impede the regular flow of traffic. (b) Violation of this section is a Class 2 misdemeanor. (1965, c. 137; 1969, c. 1012; 1993 (Reg. Sess., 1994), c. 761, s. 17.).”

Bonfield wrote that despite “what some think should happen, based on the law and various accounts of what happened” and because no pedestrians were injured, that he concurred with “the DPD conclusion,” meaning he felt police did the right thing.

Reece was not convinced.

“The police analysis relied way too heavily on that ‘right of way’ determination. I’ll need to hear from the City Attorney before I feel comfortable with that,” Reece said. “As a former prosecutor, the party that has the right of way — for the purposes of traffic — is not immunized from criminal culpability.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks