Durham City Council begins spelling out views on police issues

Council begins spelling out views on police issues

This piece first appeared on the Herald-Sun website on Sep. 02, 2014 @ 10:44 PM

Most and perhaps all the members of Durham’s City Council favor asking city police officers to obtain a motorist’s written permission before undertaking a “consent” search of a car or truck.
The apparent consensus – which includes Mayor Bill Bell – emerged Monday as members discussed City Manager Tom Bonfield’s recent report on the Durham Police Department.
Bonfield endorsed requiring written permission for consent searches of buildings, but for vehicle searches proposed leaving it to officer discretion whether or not to get it in writing.
He cited “officer safety or situational control of traffic stops” as reasons to continue practices in that regard.
Bell, however, said he is “not persuaded” that a written-consent requirement would harm department operations.
The mayor noted that police only need consent in the absence of probable cause to believe a crime’s been committed, an arrest or a warrant.
“Barring any of these circumstances, I think a person who’s been stopped by police should be offered an opportunity to sign written consent before a vehicle is searched,” Bell said.
Councilman Eugene Brown said later he agreed with the mayor’s comments, and Councilwoman Diane Catotti said she thought the council can “go further” than what Bonfield had proposed.
Councilman Steve Schewel signaled last month he also favored written consent, and Monday’s meeting saw Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFaddden do likewise.
“Written consent needs to be in place as soon as possible,” she said. “I know it’s legal to do it, and that’s one of the first steps we can take. And we should take that step now.”
Councilman Don Moffitt said he “can support” requiring written consent. Councilman Eddie Davis didn’t address the issue specifically, which by definition means he didn’t voice any disagreement with his colleagues about it.
Davis was alone on the council in alluding to the recent disorder and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the killing of a black youth by a white police officer.
“We have to make sure we prevent issues here in Durham from escalating to the point they have escalated in the Midwest,” he said.
The written-consent proposal is on the council’s plate because of requests from groups including the local NAACP, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the FADE Coalition that point to large racial disparities in the Police Department’s stop-and-search statistics.
Written consent assures that people in dealing with a search request know their rights, including their right to refuse an officer permission to search, they argue.
The disparities themselves involve blacks being the target of vehicle stops and search requests more often than whites, well out of proportion to their presence in the city’s population.
Bell addressed the associated racial-profiling allegations head-on, saying the department’s figures merit detailed study, perhaps with the help of an independent expert.
“The Durham Police Department says that in carrying out their duties, they do not carry out racial profiling,” Bell said. “The raw statistics, as provided by the Durham Police Department, do not bear that out.”
Moffitt added that Police Chief Jose Lopez’s quarterly public report to the council on city crime statistics should from now on also include stop-and-search data, to assure “transparency and accountability.”
He also said the city needs to publish quarterly reports on the number of complaints about officer conduct made to the department’s Professional Standards Division, along with data on the outcomes of those complaints.
Accompanying that, “I need to know if there are individual outliers in the data,” he said. “If 72 percent of the complaints are about one individual, we need to know and that needs to be in the reports.”
Council members by and large agreed with Bonfield’s assessment that any response to calls from the FADE Coalition and the other groups for a de-emphasis on marijuana-possession enforcement needs buy-in from other players in the criminal-justice system, including Durham’s new district attorney, Roger Echols.
But they made it clear they sympathize with the coalition’s views on the matter. Brown said traditional enforcement tactics in the long run may generate more crime than they quell, by exposing young people to prosecution and jail.
“It is our young people who are really being crucified by this, and it really in my judgment must stop,” he said.
Monday’s discussion stopped short of being the council’s definitive word on the manager’s report, as members agreed they want to discuss in more detail during a work session coming up on Thursday.
For that meeting, “come prepared to decide which of [the manager’s recommendations] you support or don’t support or want tweaked,” Bell told his colleagues, adding that the council has to “bring this to a conclusion.”
Moffitt, however, said the council can’t “change an institution overnight.”
“These issues are going to be ongoing,” he said. “This work is going to go on for a long time.”