Omar Beasley says he started getting pulled over more after Police Chief Jose Lopez took over the Durham Police Department.
“I can’t say how many times I was pulled over for no reason,” said Beasley, 44, a bail bondsman and member of the Durham Crime Cabinet, an organization that brings community leaders together to work on crime issues.
The stops were “inconvenient as heck,” Beasley said. He was delayed by stops at least 10 times while picking up his kids or making his way home after work.
Under the previous police chief, the city had started “Operation Bull’s Eye,” targeting resources to fight crime in a 2-square-mile area in East Durham.
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But when Lopez came in, he “doubled down” on that strategy, Beasley said. He described the strategy as “fishing” and a form of racial profiling.
Beasley, however, said he hasn’t been pulled over in the four years since he moved to a more affluent section of Durham near Brier Creek Shopping Center.
Focusing on black males in high-crime areas has been a common complaint against police under Lopez. Some community members say such actions have eroded their trust and ability to work with officers and possibly contributed to a recent increase in violent crime.
Others who have worked with the Police Department said they have seen improvements in the department and applauded programs Lopez started, such as the Mental Health Outreach Unit. Members of the Hispanic community say the chief reached out to that community and eased their fears about working with police.
“We lost a good leader,” said Alexis Padilla, general manager and programmer at radio station La Mega where Lopez took calls on a monthly radio program.
Lopez, who became chief in 2007, has repeatedly said racial bias and profiling are not part of his department and has pointed to his Hispanic heritage and a diverse police force.
Complaints nevertheless prompted Mayor Bill Bell in September 2013 to direct the city’s Human Relations Commission to investigate. After months of hearings, the commission concluded in March 2015 that racial bias and profiling existed within the department.
Despite the conflicting points of view, councilman and Crime Cabinet member Eugene Brown said the numbers ultimately tell the story: Violent crime has been rising in Durham since 2013.
From 2007 to 2014, violent crime decreased 5.4 percent to 765 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2014, according to numbers provided by the Police Department.
Violent crime in Durham jumped 12 percent in 2014 to 765 incidents per 100,000 residents. In the first six months of 2015, violent crime was up 13.5 percent from the same period last year.
Violent crime held steady in 2009 and 2010 at a rate of about 705 incidents. The rate increased in 2011 and 2012 to about 730 and dipped to 683 in 2013.
But the rate jumped to 765 incidents per 100,000 residents last year. In the first six months of the year, violent crime was up 13.5 percent compared with the same time in 2014.
“The trend was not in the direction that we needed,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, violent crime in other Southeastern cities and national communities of similar sizes has dropped steadily since 2009, according to information provided by the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau. Using a projected number for 2014, the figures indicate that those cities’ violent crime rates had dropped nearly 25 percent over that period from 747 to 562 incidents per 100,000 residents.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said he met with Lopez about two weeks ago and gave him three choices: to retire with notice, resign or be fired. Lopez, 61, plans to retire at the end of the year.
Of the 21,939 traffic stops Durham officers made in 2014, nearly 60 percent were of black people, compared with the city’s population of about 40 percent black residents. An analysis of stops that resulted in a search between 2002 and 2013 shows that black males 19 and younger were nearly two times more likely to be searched after a stop than white males of the same age.
The Police Department has acknowledged the disparity but maintains it does not reflect bias or racial profiling. They attribute it to a high number of black drivers in high-crime areas where residents are also asking police for more help.
People in communities along Alston Avenue feel harassed. People who live across town, near Duke, are not facing these indignities.
Ian Mance, staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice
The practice breeds resentment among some residents and makes them less likely to cooperate with officers, said Ian Mance, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
“People in communities along Alston Avenue feel harassed,” he said. “People who live across town, near Duke, are not facing these indignities.”
A study made public this year by the U.S. Justice Department found that the city’s homicide rate for black men between the ages of 15 to 34 was 41.6 per 100,000, eight times the national rate. For Hispanics, it was 38 per 100,000 and for whites, 7.2.
Bell, the mayor, called the homicides “unacceptable.”
The Police Department faced criticism and street protests after the death of Jesus Huerta, a handcuffed high school student who died in 2013 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the back seat of a police car. The police shootings that year of Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, shot by an officer four times, and Derek Walker, who pointed a gun at himself and police during a standoff in downtown, raised more concern.
Mance said one incident “encapsulates” Lopez’s tenure as the police chief.
Several years ago, a man called 911 to report a body lying in the street, Mance said. When police arrived, they arrested the man, who was a college student, and charged him as being part of a home invasion that led to a homicide.
After a month in jail, the man was cleared of all charges and released. Mance said a deputy chief publicly apologized to the man, but Lopez intimated that the man was probably still involved in the crime “on some level.”
“He is pathologically incapable of admitting a mistake,” Mance said.
‘A nice guy, but ...’
Neighborhood activist and Durham Planning Commission member Melvin Whitley said the city has fallen 10 to 15 years behind in crime abatement under Lopez.
“He is a nice guy,” Whitley said, “but we need the kind of community-based policing” that previous Police Chief Steve Chalmers implemented.
Chalmers went after top-tier criminals, such as drug dealers, versus people who might have a few grams of crack cocaine in their car or pocket, Whitley said.
Before Lopez took over, officers gave out their cellphone numbers to people in the neighborhood, Whitley said. People could call an officer directly. Now people have to call the department, and then a police car shows up at their house. That’s a problem for people who don’t want to be identified as reporting criminal activity.
“People are more afraid of the police than they are of criminals,” Whitley said.
Bell said he would have liked to see more officers getting out of their cars and interacting with the people who live in the neighborhoods they patrol.
“I just didn’t get the sense that enough of that was being done,” he said.
But others have very different perspectives.
Chief Magistrate Donald Paschall Sr. said he’s been impressed with strategies in which special forces focus on problem areas in the city and on collecting guns.
District 5 Partners Against Crime’s co-facilitators Alice Cheek and Michelle Irvine also described positive changes.
Cheek said Lopez came to more meetings than other chiefs. When he interacts with members of the community, Lopez always embraces them or shakes their hand.
“I liked him,” she said.
Irvine, director of operations at the Carolina Theatre who has been in Durham for five years, said officers in the central police district have improved their monitoring and communication about protests in the downtown area.
Those protests have ranged from allegations of police civil rights violations and outrage that followed the death of Huerta, to people objecting to the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
“It’s just been much more proactive than reactive,” Irvine said.
El Centro Hispano has had a mostly positive relationship with the police department, said Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of the organization that seeks to help the Hispanic/Latino population in Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Always, he was reaching out to us and the community and trying to improve the relationship.
Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano
“Always, he was reaching out to us and the community and trying to improve the relationship,” she said.
For the past four to five years, Lopez appeared regularly on La Mega 1310 AM, spending an hour on the first Tuesday of the month taking phone calls, said Padilla, the station’s general manager.
People would ask him about getting a ticket, reporting criminals near their business and other challenges they faced. Lopez would calm their concerns about reporting crime and calling police because they feared being asked about their immigration status.
Now that Lopez is retiring, Padilla and others are worried, he said.
“He was our leader,” Padilla said.