Durham County

Durham sheriff, under fire, tells leaders: Uphold the law

Sheriff Mike Andrews, facing criticism from some city and county elected leaders, sent a letter to them and others Thursday urging them to respect and enforce the law.

Andrews called on the city to disband groups who block streets and sidewalks without securing a proper permit. He called on the county to require people to give notice and get permission before gathering on county property and disrupting operations.

In a two-page letter, the sheriff asked “the elected leadership of both the City and County of Durham to declare that they expect the laws to be observed and that persons who refuse to obey the law; whether they concern permits, blocking roads, bringing weapons to demonstrations, wearing masks at demonstrations or on public property, or engaging in the destruction of property, should expect to be held accountable.”

The Police Department in recent years has escorted some street marchers and allowed some demonstrations to block the street without permits. In general, City Manager Tom Bonfield has said it is a three-week process to get such a permit.

The county doesn’t have a permitting process for public demonstrations and doesn’t require notice to gather on public property, said County Manager Wendell Davis.

Andrews said those practices need to change.

He asked leaders to set guidelines that protect the rights of peaceful assembly, encourage compliance with local laws, hold people accountable, and protect public and private property.

“On Friday August 18, the images on a man wielding an axe, another with a gun visibly strapped to his hip and a protester armed with a semi-automatic weapon in downtown Durham where a daycare and places of business operate a short distance away were disheartening to witness,” Andrews wrote. “I hope never to see again such reckless disregard for human life during a purportedly peaceful demonstration.”

The letter was sent to Durham County commissioners, Davis, the Durham City Council, Bonfield and Police Chief C.J. Davis.

County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said she hasn’t had time read the letter carefully. Any policy change would need to be vetted by the county attorney and go through a process that would likely start before the Joint City-County Committee meeting, which has elected leaders from both boards.

Following the confusion about the rumored white supremacists rally, however, Jacobs does think it is important that officials better understand the current policies and practices, she said.

City Councilman Charlie Reece said he appreciates Andrews’ letter, but he also respects the way the Police Department has handled demonstrations.

“The city of Durham has gone out of its way to provide its residents with the full measure to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Reece said. “I think the police chief and the city manager are handling it just right.”

Andrews’ letter asks for guidelines for public demonstrations and that Durham’s leadership be committed to enforcing those laws.

“We need to have in place a reliable process for groups who want to demonstrate, picket, parade, or meet, to provide advance notice of their intended action,” he wrote. “This is particularly true when they will be occupying public property, or seeking exclusive use of sidewalks or streets.”

“The leadership must be fully, and vocally, committed to the enforcement of those laws and ordinances designed to promote public safety in the hopes that communicating those standards will reassure the majority of our community and deter the minority from expecting they can engage in lawless behavior,” he wrote.

The letter follows an Aug. 14 protest in which activists pulled down a Durham County Confederate statute on Main Street. Some elected leaders have criticized the Sheriff’s Office for charging 11 activists with felonies, asking District Attorney Roger Echols to consider leniency moving forward.

On Aug. 18, another crowd gathered downtown in response to the rumored white supremacists rally. The rally never materialized, but hundreds gathered before the old courthouse in what turned into an hours-long anti-racist rally.

Earlier this week, Sheriff’s Office Maj. Paul Martin said county commissioners are setting a dangerous precedent by questioning the felony charges in the toppling of the Confederate statue. He said commissioners’ interference equates to “absolute anarchy that totally undermines the constitution of this country.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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