In 2014, when then-police chief Jose Lopez asked the Durham City Council to increase the size of his force, the council punted on his request, instead commissioning the International Association of Chiefs of Police to review the Durham Police Department's operations and management. The IACP presented its findings to the council last week; the top lines confirmed what most observers already knew: Durham needs more cops. It also offered some worthwhile suggestions, such as reorganizing the DPD's controversial High Enforcement Abatement Team (which has been accused of racial bias), improving relationships with residents in public housing, and increasing the department's focus on patrols.
But beneath the surface, a more interesting question arose: Does the DPD have an actual problem with racially discriminatory policing, or is this all a matter of "perception"?
The report suggested the latter. "Although we acknowledge that some officers may engage in disparate or discriminatory practices," it said, "in our assessment, racism is not an institutional problem within the DPD. However, this perception has become a reality for many citizens, and they view all actions by all officers through this prism."
Indeed, the IACP attempted to discredit other research on racial disparities in Durham policing, saying that the studies—one last year by the Research Triangle Institute and another by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Frank Baumgartner—"have material flaws," IACP consultant Mitchell Weinzetl told the council at a work session last Thursday.
Council member Jillian Johnson probed Weinzetl about those alleged "material flaws." Weinzetl responded that he "wasn't in a position to say those things aren't occurring," but rather he believed that the studies had "extraneous variables."
"So what you're saying is that you didn't find evidence [of racially discriminatory policing], but also that you think that these two studies that did find evidence are flawed," Johnson countered. "I'm questioning whether your expertise is equal to that of the people who did those studies."
The department's biases have been well documented over the years, including low-level pot busts, traffic stops, and probable-cause searches disproportionately targeting young black men.
The RTI study found that, between 2010 and 2015, black male drivers were much more likely to be pulled over by police than whites, and that the likelihood increased during the daytime, when the police could more easily identify a driver's race.
Baumgartner, meanwhile, has produced two studies on the subject. One in 2012 looked at traffic stops throughout North Carolina; a second, in 2014, examined more than 250,000 traffic stops in Durham between 2002 and 2013 and determined that African Americans were three times more likely to be searched than whites. (At the work session last week, Weinzetl noted that Baumgartner's 2012 study didn't mention Durham. He seemed unaware of the later study, which did.)
In addition, another study released earlier this year—unmentioned in the IACP report—by Durham attorney C. Scott Holmes and his N.C. Central University law students found that 90 percent of those arrested by the DPD for resisting an officer are African American. Of the 195 people charged with resisting, a misdemeanor, only twenty were white.
"Perceptions may be a problem," council member Don Moffitt told Weinzetl. "I think they are a problem. But to describe the issue as 'perceptions' alone is to gloss over the issue."
The IACP report, while acknowledging a "lack of public trust" between the cops and the communities they serve, was also critical of city officials, especially city manager Tom Bonfield.
"The city council has exerted a high level of oversight over the police department," it said. "This level of oversight and the associated actions by government officials have contributed to a sense of distrust among these entities, which has also contributed to a deterioration of community confidence in the police department. Many within the police department feel unappreciated and unfairly persecuted, and this has led to significant morale issues within the agency."
In other words, according to the IACP, racial discrimination is a perception problem, but city council scrutiny of racial discrimination materially affects police officers' morale and needs to be reined in.
The city paid $91,323 for this report.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Perception and Reality"