An investigation has cleared the only Chapel Hill police officer accused so far this year of using excessive force, according to a recent report.
The complaint stemmed from a traffic stop, said police spokesman Lt. Kevin Gunter. He declined to describe what happened, citing state personnel laws.
The traffic-stop complaint was one of six claims the department started investigating between April and June, according to a second-quarter report to the town’s Community Policing Advisory Committee.
Besides the excessive force claim, the department investigated two claims about officer demeanor or attitude and three alleging improper conduct.
One officer was cleared in a demeanor claim; another served a five-day suspension for improper conduct. (Police would not disclose details.) The second demeanor claim and the other claims of improper conduct remain under investigation or review.
Police Chief Chris Blue said the department tries to balance employees’ right to privacy and provide accurate information to the community. Although the reports that officers file after responding to calls are public, the details are not made public in an internal investigation because the information might identify the officer involved to fellow officers or the public, he said.
The number of second-quarter claims is a “significant decrease” from the second quarter of 2012, when there were three complaints, 11 public contacts and three administrative investigations, he said.
The department began compiling quarterly reports in 2010 to learn and improve, Blue said. In the fourth quarter of 2011, it started listing the types of claims. Blue said more details were added on the committee’s advice, not because of the Yates Motor Co. raid in November 2011. The police response to the takeover of the vacant building by self-described anarchists led to months of discussion and policy review.
Blue said he is proud of the department’s progress.
“We really are concentrating on customer service and treating people the way they want to be treated,” he said. “It’s been a lot of luck, too.”
Gunter said traffic stops and arrests typically generate the most complaints, usually about an officer’s demeanor or behavior.
Each claim is thoroughly vetted, he said. The final report includes reviews and recommendations from every person in the officer’s chain of command. Disciplinary measures range from one-on-one supervisor counseling to being fired, and cases that are cleared still might show a need for better training, patience or communication skills, he said.
Officers want to be consistent and fair, but the work is very different from 20 or 30 years ago, Gunter said. There are more drugs and gangs, and sometimes a different level of respect for law enforcement, he said. Each situation is different, and it’s not always the young or inexperienced officer that acts inappropriately, he said.
“Generally speaking, everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “Whatever it is, our goal is to correct the behaviors.”
There are ample opportunities to try again.
For the first six months of 2013, the department’s 108 officers responded to 19,268 calls for service and made 862 arrests. That’s up 7 percent from 17,903 calls and 852 arrests in the first six months of 2012.
Last year’s total number of service calls was 34,729, resulting in 1,678 arrests and 73 use-of-force reports. Several dozen use-of-force reports are filed each year, because officers file one each time they wrestle an uncooperative suspect into handcuffs or use pepper spray, a stun gun or other weapon. They are only allowed to use the force necessary to maintain control in a situation, Gunter said.
In 2010 and 2011, the department had 88 and 94 use-of-force reports, respectively. There were no use-of-force violations, Gunter said.
Durham and Raleigh police report having more officers and more use-of-force incidents:
•Durham Police Department:
There were 513 sworn officers and 44 use-of-force incidents – nine were based on citizen complaints – between January and June. Six incidents are still under investigation; the rest were cleared, police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said. Last year, the department reported 136 use-of-force incidents. Five were found to have violated department policy, and two were ruled excessive. In a third case, the officer failed to file a report, which is a policy violation. A sixth case was unresolved. Durham police did not find any violations after reviewing 179 use-of-force cases in 2011 and 136 cases in 2010.
•Raleigh Police Department:
There were 777 sworn positions and 216 use-of-force incidents reported as of June 30. Last year, police reported 379 use-of-force incidents, with 350 in 2011 and 305 in 2010. The department’s policy was violated at least once in 2011 and in 2010, police reported.
Blue said the department encourages the public to share any concerns they have. That’s where the department gets some of its “very best information,” he said.
“If we’re going to take the time to record this information and share it, we ought to make it useful,” Blue said.