Durham City Council to discuss changes to police searches, pot arrests on Tuesday | Durham County | Indy Week
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Durham City Council to discuss changes to police searches, pot arrests on Tuesday 

It has been a summer of discontent.

Racial tensions, police shootings of unarmed black men in several states, the growing mistrust between Durham cops and the African-American community: It was against this backdrop that City Manager Tom Bonfield released his report to City Council Thursday about ways to improve the Durham Police Department.

More than 150 people attended the meeting, and even after Mayor Bill Bell moved it from the second-floor committee room to Council Chambers, people had to stand.

They were there to hear from Bonfield, who had spent the summer conferring with the city attorney, staff, police and advocacy groups on his recommendations, which were in response to feedback from the Human Relations Commission and Civilian Police Review Board.

Within the report's 131 pages, a mixed portrait of DPD emerged: A department that has improved in easy-to-fix areas such as camera software and complaint forms, excels in some ways, but fails to collect data that could increase transparency and trust.

Bonfield's report did not accept all of the FADE Coalition's five recommendations, which included requiring written consent for vehicle searches and expanding the authority of the CPRB. However, it did suggest changes that might be considered radical in more conservative communities: deprioritizing low-level marijuana crimes, requiring written consent for home searches, extending the amount of time citizens can file a complaint against police from 14 to 30 days, mandating the collection of more detailed arrest data, and providing more racial bias and sensitivity training for DPD officers.

Initial discussions, though, centered on consent searches. While Bonfield agreed with the recommendation that written consent should be required for officers to search homes, that does not extend to vehicle searches.

Officers are concerned that they could lose "situational" control of a traffic stop or endanger themselves if he or she has to retrieve a consent form. DPD argues that patrol cars are equipped with cameras and microphones that are required to be on during all traffic stops. DPD officers could also wear cameras to preclude the need for written consent, the report said.

These cameras can reduce the number of incidents of use of force, according to a Police Foundation report, and also decrease citizen complaints.

However, Ian Mance, an attorney with the FADE Coalition and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said recorded consent has its drawbacks. The footage could be erased, for example, A 2002 Michigan Law Review article notes that the presence of cameras may be preceived as a threat, depending on the race of the person stopped: "People of color are more likely than whites to experience the Fourth Amendment as a technology of surveillance rather than as a constitutional guardian of property, liberty, and privacy," the article states.

"If white people were facing this, no one would be discussing the challenges a piece of paper would present," noted Mark-Anthony Middleton of Durham CAN. "Forty percent of our population is not hallucinating and numbers don't lie."

Other troubling numbers came out of the report. While Durham's marijuana arrest rates were almost 23 percent below the national average in 2012, the arrests that do occur disproportionately affect African-Americans. From January 2013 to July 2014, 86 percent of those arrested in Durham for low-level marijuana crimes were African-American. That equals 660 of 768 misdemeanor arrests.

"The mass incarceration of young African-American men is the greatest issue facing society and low-level marijuana arrests are part of that," said City Councilman Steve Schewel. "I wish we could decriminalize marijuana possession, but that's not going to happen. So we have to deprioritize it."

Mayor Bill Bell said he would write a letter to the Durham District Attorney, judges, sheriff's department, magistrates and the probation department looking for buy-in. "We can't do this by ourselves," Bell said.

In addition to the lopsided arrest statistics, the lack of DPD data was also troubling.

DPD should have been completed its 2013 report in the spring, but missed its deadline. As of the writing of Bonfield's report, it was still unfinished.

DPD does not review individual officer data, which could detect instances of suspicious stops on a more granular level. DPD justifies this lack of information because "the department has firm and clear policies prohibiting bias-based policing" and "overall data did not suggest a need for in-depth review of individual officers." DPD also noted that such an :in-depth review could already be triggered by a complaint of bias-based misconduct."

Yet one of the main criticisms of DPD has been that it is difficult to file a complaint, and that there is a mistrust of internal affairs department investigations.

DPD now acknowledges that "more frequent and in-depth monitoring of the data and potential trends or individual irregularities is appropriate." Collection of additional data began Aug. 1.

DPD will present a report of traffic stop data to Council twice a year, although significant disparities will be immediately reviewed within DPD.

"I take this very seriously," Bell said. "I'm committed to trying to find solutions to issues of race here. "

City Council, which had less than two days before the work session to read the hefty document is expected to discuss the report further at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 2, at 7 p.m.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Long arm of the law."

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