Police Chief Jose Lopez deflected criticism and said he had not foreseen being forced out of his job, during a brief press conference Wednesday.
“The criticism that I have heard has been from a very fractured portion of this community. It hasn’t been from the community,” Lopez said.
“Quite frankly, the negative comments that are made, I only hear them at a podium or in front of a camera and not in the places where the real people of the city of Durham live, work and play,” he said.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said he met with Lopez about 11 days ago and gave him three choices: to retire with notice, resign or be fired. Bonfield announced Tuesday that Lopez, 61, would be retiring at the end of the year.
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Lopez, whose annual salary is $143,544, will receive half that for six months of severance pay.
In general, Bonfield said he was concerned about a rising crime rate, poor relations between the police and community and low employee morale.
On Wednesday Lopez, who was appointed top cop in September 2007, blamed low employee morale on a pay issue he said has been a challenge since 2007 and other outside factors.
“I think they are dealing with a lot of the restraints that are being held against them, not being able to do a lot of the things that the United States Constitution allows them to do,” he said.
Most of the officers have high morale, he said, especially considering the challenges that police face today.
Lopez again said racial bias and profiling are not part of his department and pointed to his Hispanic heritage and a diverse police force. People who review reports on the department’s website would “clearly see that the Police Department is not involved in racial bias,” he said.
Complaints of profiling and other racist behavior by police 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.
Lopez described his policing strategy as “best practices in law enforcement” with him continually exploring what other departments were doing and adopting affordable and effective programs while making them better.
Some of the programs that are still in use today include the Mental Health Outreach Unit and an officers’ training program.
At the start and the end of the 13-minute press conference, Lopez appeared to hold back emotion as he paused and his voice wavered.
“I encountered a group of extremely professional individuals,” he said. “I also encountered a community that was extremely embracing, and that’s why, more than likely, I’ll be staying here in the Durham community.”
Ultimately, Lopez said, he can’t think of any regrets.
“I know that there have been some challenges, but if I had been a police chief without challenges, I’d have a halo,” he said. “I honestly believe that what I have come upon here in the city has been extremely positive and moving.”
Bonfield said Tuesday that the city will conduct a national search for a new chief this fall.