Sheehan

This chief is willing to talk

Staff WriterSeptember 14, 2007 

The man speaking and gesticulating at the Durham Police Department's front desk couldn't find anyone who understood him.

He was frustrated. So was the front-desk officer, who was calling around to find someone who spoke Spanish.

He might have called up to the fifth floor, to the office of Police Chief Jose Lopez, who will be sworn in officially today.

The Bull City's new chief would have been happy to listen and translate. That is what makes him really new. Not that he is bi-lingual but that he'll try lingual -- he's willing to talk.

That is a whole new attitude for a department that doesn't want to hear criticism and doesn't answer it.

Lopez realizes there are problems.

Sitting in his new office, Lopez admits that when he told his friends and colleagues in Hartford, Conn., that he was going to Durham, they thought he was nuts.

The city's crime rate is higher than other cities its size. The Durham PD has been accused of shoddy, possibly biased detective work in its highest-profile cases. Then there is the Duke lacrosse debacle.

Still, Lopez sees Durham's problems as more image than reality.

"You'd think that we were inundated with crime," he said. "It's no more here in Durham than anywhere."

"Did you know, I just found out today that there is crime in Cary," he said, deadpan.

In part, he blames the media for this portrayal; in part, he said, it is the department's own fault for closing itself off from public scrutiny.

Lopez promises to be accessible. He spent Monday in a succession of interviews and speaking at a Rotary club.

He was asked a lot of questions about the lacrosse case. He thinks these questions "re-victimize" the people of Durham.

He said he hasn't read the key reports on the city's handling of the Duke lacrosse case. They are on his to-do list, and he promises to fix whatever needs fixing. He won't elaborate further. He said he will not take action or make changes just to appease the people "who are looking for blood" in the case.

Rather, Lopez wants to turn his attention to "real" problems. He thinks high crime reflects poor social conditions, not poor law enforcement. He wants to target neighborhoods that need long-term help; he wants to partner with social service agencies to provide the help people need to rise from poverty.

He said outgoing Chief Steve Chalmers is assisting him with this effort, though officers in the department refer to Chalmers as ROD: retired on duty.

Lopez promises a more hands-on approach. The night before we met, at 2:30 a.m., he was called to a crime scene where one of his officers was hurt.

"I want to show these guys that I care, that I'm out there, too," he said. "I'll never ask anyone else to wash windows unless I've had to wash windows myself."

Lopez also plans to stay in Durham until he retires for good. For a decade at least.

Given that his secretary, Toya Littlejohn, has introduced herself to five chiefs in 12 years, that would be an amazing feat.

Then again, just the fact that he is talking at all is amazing enough to start with.

Ruth Sheehan can be reached at 829-4828 or ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com.

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