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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Durham City Council's long afternoon: parsing the report on the police department

Posted by on Thu, Sep 4, 2014 at 9:13 AM

Mayor Bill Bell’s directives for the Durham Police Department could be distilled into three main points: Don’t bust small-time pot smokers. Get written consent for vehicle searches. Walk, not just drive, the neighborhoods you patrol.

This afternoon, Bell and his fellow City Council members are expected to parse the city manager’s 131-page report, which is based on the 34 recommendations from the Human Relations Commission and 10 from the Civilian Police Review Board.

Earlier this week, Bell and other Councilmembers hit on these and other recommendations to improve trust and transparency between the community and DPD: such as collecting and analyzing more comprehensive data of traffic stops—and doing that more often.

While Council can vote on their own recommendations, it is ultimately up to City Manager Tom Bonfield to enforce any procedural changes.

City Council members largely agree that DPD should deprioritize low-level marijuana arrests, although that will require buy-in from the judicial system. Bell said he is discussing that proposal with new District Attorney Roger Echols, as well as the county sheriff, magistrate and judges.

“It is said by some that marijuana can be a gateway drug,” said Councilman Eugene Brown on Monday night. “But when you think about it, the arrest of our young people for housing small amounts of marijuana can also be another gateway— one to our jails and our criminal justice system, a system where too often we find our prisons become not places of rehabilitation but schools and colleges of crime.”

(The gateway drug to heroin, The New York Times reports, is not pot, but prescriptions such as OxyContin, oxycodone and Vicodin.)

Bell and Council also support written consent for vehicle searches. While the city manager’s report supported that form of consent for home searches, it stopped short of recommending them for vehicles. DPD argues that if officers have to return to the patrol car to retrieve a written consent form, they could “lose control” of a traffic stop or endanger themselves. (DPD did not explain why officers can’t bring the form with them when they approach the car.)
However, that argument has not swayed Council, including Steve Schewel, who called written consent “critically important.”

If a search turns up nothing, Bell said, and “the vehicle is dismantled, who is responsible for reassembling it. People have come to me, said they’ve been stopped and searched and their car dismantled, and it’s been left for them to put it back together.”

More than 200 of Durham’s 520 police officers live in Wake, Person and Alamance counties, and another 100 don’t live within the city limits, Bell said. These officer may not have the same personal connection—and investment—with the city as officers who reside here.

“People are more concerned about what’s going on in communities where they live rather than where they work,” Bell said.

At McDougald Terrace, one of the city’s largest housing projects, Bell said that residents would like to see police patrolling on foot and interacting with residents rather than merely monitoring the area from their cars.

“We need to require police officers to document the fact they are walking the neighborhoods, especially in high-crime areas,” Bell said. “[The report’s recommendation] that ‘officers are strongly encouraged to get out of their cars’ is not sufficient. It should be mandated.”

The work session begins at 1 p.m. in the second-floor committee room at City Hall.

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