Durham County

Years of protest changing how police, sheriff’s officers keep people safe, protect rights

High-profile confrontations in recent years have changed how local law enforcement responds when faced with crowds of protesters.

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews addressed the issue Tuesday, noting that his staff talked about how to safely respond to Monday’s protest in downtown Durham and about the potential for damage to the Confederate statue. They also talked about how to control the crowd but keep the public and officers safe, he said.

“Collectively, we decided that restraint and public safety would be our priority,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office has dealt with a number of mostly peaceful protests this year over public concerns about traffic checkpoints and conditions at the Durham County jail.

Five Inside-Outside Alliance protesters were arrested in March after disrupting a Durham County commissioners meeting over the sheriff’s plan to start a jail video visitation program. One protester challenged his arrest and was found not guilty of two charges; a third charge was dismissed.

Andrews referred to that court challenge in a statement Tuesday, adding, “now may be the time for Durham to consider what is the best way to respond to continued protests while respecting every resident’s right to voice their opinion.”

Chapel Hill protest

The question is one many law enforcement agencies across the country are facing

Chapel Hill police drew their own criticism in 2011 after donning riot gear and pointing weapons at people during a raid on a group of self-described “anti-capitalist occupiers” who took over the Yates Motor Co. building on West Franklin Street.

The raid launched a series of community discussions and changes to the department’s policies, including how its Special Enforcement Response Team is used and how it responds to peaceful demonstrations and large-scale incidents.

In neighboring Carrboro, police worked with a former mayor in 2012 to peacefully clear a group of protesters from a vacant downtown building.

However, the department was called out that same year by citizens and local officials when 22 officers responded to a “Guerilla Gardening” protest outside the same building, where police filmed about 50 people peacefully demonstrating and arrested one person for impeding traffic while chalking the street.

Jesus Huerta case

The Durham Police Department has been a much bigger lightning rod for protesters, particularly since the 2011 Occupy movement and after local high school student Jesus Huerta died in 2013 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while handcuffed in a patrol car.

Protesters pummeled officers, police department buildings and patrol cars with rocks and bottles during the ensuing protests, while another group launched a protest in front of the Durham Performing Arsts Center. Officers in riot gear responded with tear gas and a sonic crowd-dispersal weapon. Police arrested nine people about a week later after they marched from The Streets at Southpoint mall and blocked Fayetteville Road for about 40 minutes.

Protesters returning to the Police Department a second time were met by dozens of armored police officers and were dispersed with canisters of gas.

City Councilman Steve Schewel said at the time that he was sympathetic with police facing violence, but warned that the community needs a way to use the minimum required force for peace and public safety, while protecting citizen rights to speech and assembly.

Ferguson protests

The Durham City Council approved rules of conduct for marchers in early 2014, but those were largely ignored when protesters blocked downtown streets and Durham Freeway traffic later that year, throwing rocks at police while protesting deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.

More than 30 people were arrested during Durham’s Dec. 4-5 protests, and several officers were assaulted. An “undetonated explosive device” was recovered later near the protest area.

Protesters have continued to block the streets since 2014, but the police have not always made arrests. In 2015, for instance, several hundred protesters marched unimpeded from the police department to the jail to stand in solidarity with Baltimore after six of its police officers were charged in the death of Freddie Gray.

And Durham police helped direct traffic in 2016 when protesters shut down the intersection of Duke and Chapel Hill streets to condemned police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Later that same year, however, police arrested 54 people, including Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, and charged them with impeding traffic during a Fight for $15 minimum wage protest on Roxboro Road.

Police continued letting protesters take the streets this year, including in May when activists blocked North Mangum Street near City Hall. Police were criticized for that march not because protesters blocked the street, but because they did not cite the driver of a Dodge pickup who drove slowly through the protest group.

Police Chief C.J. Davis defended the decision, saying the driver had the right of way and protesters illegally occupied the street, intentionally placing themselves in front of the truck. Johnson, who sharply criticized police inaction, warned it could create an “extremely dangerous” precedent and encourage similar acts.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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