Inquiry needed over Durham PD’s informant payments

March 14, 2014 

The Durham boom has been something to behold, from the American Tobacco Campus to the ever-expanding reputation of Duke University in the City of Medicine to the Durham Performing Arts Center, drawing big shows and big performers and big audiences from all over.

So why can’t a city with so much going for it get the police department right?

Here we go again. Now a coalition examining drug law enforcement and punishment has offered documents it says support its contention that there is racial profiling in the Durham Police Department’s drug enforcement unit. In the cases examined by the coalition, called Foster Alternative Drug Enforcement or FADE, all suspects were black or Hispanic.

An attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Ian Mance, says the documents indicate that $300 bonuses were paid to informants for convictions and testimony. Mance says the documents show that informants made deals with officers that “were contingent on the effectiveness of their cooperation in securing a conviction. If someone active in your case had a financial interest in seeing you go to jail, wouldn’t you want to know about it?”

A defense attorney, David Hall, said a bonus based on conviction could influence testimony, something a defendant would need to know in making his or her case. But if the defendant doesn’t know there’s a “conviction bonus” on the line, that defendant might just cop a plea and his or her lawyer wouldn’t cross-examine the witness who got the bonus.

FADE says, however, that the Durham district attorney’s office didn’t know about the money paid to confidential informants. Indeed, a Durham assistant DA said if the office knew about it, it would have provided the information to the defendants in the discovery stage of trial.

The Durham police, not surprisingly, deny the accusations. The department issued a statement saying it doesn’t pay for convictions, only for “cooperation through case completion.” But the same statement said department lawyers will be talking to the district attorney about how payments are handled.

This is possibly a big problem for the Durham police. If they’ve used payments and haven’t told the district attorney’s office about it when they should have, how many cases could be involved?

Durham residents couldn’t be blamed for demanding that their city council call for an independent investigation of this and other issues with the police department.

In recent years, there have been accusations of brutality, of profiling. There was the Jesus Huerta case in which a teenager in custody died in the back of a patrol car with his hands cuffed behind him. Police said he was hiding a pistol he used to shoot himself. And Chief Jose Lopez has done an extremely poor job of defending his department when it has come under fire. He is a public official but seems reticent to speak out. That doesn’t compute.

This department needs an independent investigation – and a tough one. Only then can confidence, now at a low ebb, be restored.

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