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Chalmers' challenge 

Durhamites have a fatalistic attitude toward their police department. They don't expect much–and with some reason. The department's crime-solving rate has improved to around 17 percent from a low of 5 percent, but still has a long way to go. And residents have reason to be outraged when it takes investigators six months to identify an alleged serial rapist because no one knew they could ask the state laboratory to speed up DNA tests--allowing the rapes to continue.

Tha's why it's disappointing that the most significant thing about the swearing-in Jan. 6 of Steve Chalmers as Durham's police chief was simply that it marked the end of an excruciating search, and not that it inspired hope for the future. It's too bad for the city, and it's too bad for Chalmers.

For Durhamites, hiring a new chief was an opportunity to address the problems and build upon the successes of Chief Teresa Chambers, who left a year ago. She boosted morale and instituted systems to spot crime trends early that were starting to show results. City Manager Marcia Conner probably had that kind of innovation in mind when she chose two outsiders for the job, only to have them each withdraw. The first, Gregory Watkins of Kansas City, Mo., pulled out when neither Conner nor her hand-picked search firm followed up on reports that he had a history of domestic violence charges. The News & Observer did. The second, Doug Scott, pulled out when the city couldn't meet a need for benefits that he says he'd warned Conner about in advance.

The job then fell to interim chief Chalmers, a serious, thoughtful man who's been on the force since 1975. He was passed over when the search firm failed to understand what he says were his honest answers about domestic violence charges--ultimately dropped--made by his ex-wife.

Chalmers' focus has long been on community involvement. After stints as a beat cop and a detective, he helped develop the city's active Partners Against Crime program, and later became commander of Community Services. That's undoubtedly where he developed an attitude that's unusual among police--the belief that when problems reach them, it's a sign the system has failed. Normally low key, Chalmers becomes animated when he says money is better spent up front on education and social services than it is simply on more police.

He was always the choice of the rank and file for chief. They say it's because he understands their problems and has earned their respect. Others think it's because he might not be as aggressive in pushing the department forward as someone without old pals on the force.

It's now up to Chalmers to create the optimism that Durhamites are always hoping will break out. He must show that he can be as aggressive and innovative as anyone from the outside, without worrying about whose shiny shoes he's stepping on.

  • Chalmers' challenge

More by Richard Hart

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