The first “Critical Community Conversation” Monday night displayed a range of ideas on how to address a deep divide between some Durham residents and their police.
That divide was highlighted when City Councilman Eddie Davis asked community organizer Nia Wilson what law enforcement should be doing differently.
“Um, how much time do I have?” said Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse, an East Durham nonprofit that promotes restorative justice and autonomy for communities of color.
Davis organized the event to bring community tensions into the open and prevent the confrontations and violence that have broken out in other cities, including Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.
About 200 people attended the forum at the Holton Career and Resource Center. Two other forums exploring education and youth programs and second chances for youth are also planned, but specific dates haven’t been set.
The two-hour event started with a panel discussion and ended with input from people in the audience.
Wilson said she was grateful that Durham was among the first three cities in the state to adopt a written form for consent police searches in the fall of 2014.
But a July 13 study by UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner and others indicates that in the first six months of the policy’s implementation, there was a decrease in consent searches and an increase in probable-cause searches, for which consent is not required. Those searches, according to the study, were mainly of black males.
The study and Wilson suggested that the policy change led officers to substitute probable-cause searches for consent searches. A probable-cause search indicates an officer has evidence a possible crime has occurred.
Lopez, sitting on Monday’s panel, disagreed.
“There is no way you can substitute a probable cause for consent search,” he said. “You either have probable cause or you don’t.”
Still, Lopez said, police are reviewing the numbers “to see what they can do to address it,” and what the numbers are actually telling them.
Abundant Hope Christian Church Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton said police officers should get out of their cars and explore the neighborhoods they police on foot, and the city should require that at least 75 percent of officers to live in the city. Officers should also treat the people they pull over with respect, while citizens also have to keep their composure.
“Let’s not start the conversation with tension,” he said.
James Johnson, executive director of the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club in Durham and a retired New York City police officer, said more programs should connect youth to police officers to humanize them.
Officers have a hard job, he said. They maintain an image so they won’t be taken advantage of, he said, which clashes with young people who are doing the same.
“That’s why community officers are so important because they learn to be themselves, and do their job at the same time,” he said.
As he spoke, Wilson squirmed.
“I don’t hear anybody talking about humanizing community members,” beyond their classification as gang members, she said. Wilson also had concerns about the fact that police officers are only “walking the streets” in “certain communities,” he said.
“I understand we have issues around crime,” she said, but increasing police protection and building bigger jails has failed to solve the problem.
Harold Chestnut, Partners Against Crime District 4 facilitator, said the message is reaching the wrong people.
“People in this room are not the people that should be hearing this,” he said. “It is those people out there in the street that we should be working with.”
Maj. Paul Martin of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office said the community must consider the role of the state and the money-driven nature of a criminal justice system in which those with money can easily post bonds while others remain in jail for years on minor charges.
After a nearly 50-minute panel discussion, individuals got up to two-and-a-half minutes each to share their suggestions.
For another 50 minutes, participants talked about racism, police abuse and children raising themselves, among other subjects.
Michael English, 25, said for his generation and younger there is a social awakening going on.
But this next generation, he said, isn’t good with words and hasn’t been taught to talk things out.
“What we are seeing in Baltimore or St. Louis is only going to escalate,” he said. “So, we can’t be reactive on a proactive situation that has happened somewhere else in the United States. We have to really come from this conversation and turn this into some type of action.”