As of Oct. 1, Durham police will be required to get written permission for consent searches of vehicles pulled over in traffic stops.
City Council members gave tacit approval to written consents, as recommended by City Manager Tom Bonfield, at their Thursday work session. Formal approval by vote was unnecessary, as the manager has direct authority over the Police Department, not the mayor or council.
Council members, though, could have asked Bonfield to revise the policy and come back with a different version. The consent rules taking effect Oct. 1 are a revision of Bonfield’s original policy proposal, done after a majority of the council said they favored requiring written consents. Bonfield had originally recommended just a “preference” that patrol officers use them.
Besides vehicles, the written-consent policy applies to “consent searches of residences, businesses, vehicles, and electronic devices.” It does not affect searches carried out with a warrant or when an officer has probable cause to search. In those cases, consent is unnecessary.
Mandatory signatures on bilingual printed consent forms that spell out a citizen’s right to deny permission for a traffic-stop search is the most significant policy change in Bonfield’s response to alleged racial bias and profiling by Durham police.
The policy is one of 44 Bonfield made ( goo.gl/3SYRvR) and has implemented in response to 10 recommendations from the Civilian Police Review Board and 34 from the city Human Relations Commission. It concluded after six months of hearings that “racial bias and profiling are present” in police practices.
The commission recommended mandatory written consent as a tool for reducing the marked racial disparity that police records show between white and black motorists who are searched at traffic stops, and Bonfield’s revision was well received.
• “I am pleased,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Cora Cole-McFadden. “Of course we still have miles to go before we sleep.
“Our willingness to effectuate some changes to rebuild community trust is certainly a blessing,” she said.
• “I’m tremendously grateful to the council and the manager for taking this issue as seriously as they did and seeing this process through to the conclusion,” said Ian Mance, an attorney with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
• “It’s a good day for Durham,” said Mark-Anthony Middleton, a minister with Durham CAN. “Maybe not (time) for a victory lap, but maybe ... a nod.”
Middleton said he hoped the city’s response to the Human Relations Commission will move the community toward a dialog on racial disparities, “face to face.”
Besides requiring written consents, Bonfield has directed police to collect more data on traffic stops, review it twice a year to spot indications of racial disparity and report every review to the city manager. The reports will be public information.
“I am optimistic we will see a marked decline in the number of minority drivers who are searched on an annual basis,” Mance said. “I think that the combination of the written-consent policy and the periodic reviews of stop and search data should help to drive down those numbers significantly.”
Durham will be the second city in North Carolina to require written consent. Fayetteville adopted the policy in 2012 in response to racial disparities in traffic-stop searches, and Mance said since then the number of minority drivers stopped has gone down.
Thursday’s council session came almost a year after a group of citizens brought complaints about police bias to the council and Mayor Bill Bell immediately responded by referring the issue to the Human Relations Commission. The commission held a six-month series of public hearings and discussions among its members before reporting to the City Council in May.
“This has been a long journey,” Bell said Thursday. “We haven’t solved all the issues, but I for one think we are in a much better position today than we were when we started.”
“I hope we have all learned and we benefit from what we’ve been through,” he said. “As an organization and as a community, we’re better off. But the proof is in the pudding, we’ll see where we go from here.”