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 for about nine years.
The stops were “inconvenient as heck,” he 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 address crime in a two-square-mile area in East Durham.
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But when Lopez came in, he “doubled downed” on that strategy, Beasley said. He described the strategy as “fishing” in the form of racial profiling as police focused on East Durham.
Beasley, however, said he hasn’t been pulled over in the past four years after 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, according to some community members, who say such actions have eroded their trust and ability to work with officers and possibly contributed to a recent increase in violent crime.
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.
But others who have worked with the Police Department said they have seen improvements in the way the department addresses crime and other challenges.
Despite the conflicting points of view, Councilman and Crime Cabinet member Eugene Brown said the numbers ultimately tell the story: Violent crime has been increasing in Durham since 2013.
Overall, from 2007 to 2014, the violent crime rate has decreased by 5.4 percent to a rate of 765 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2014, according to numbers provided by the Police Department. Violent crime held steady in 2009 and 2010 at a rate of about 705. The rate increased in 2011 and 2012 to about 730 and dipped to 683 in 2013.
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 to 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 rate has 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. Bonfield announced Tuesday that Lopez, 61, would be retiring at the end of the year.
In general, Bonfield said he was concerned about a rising crime rate, poor relations between the police and community and low employee morale. Lopez has indicated that low morale is due to factors outside of the department’s control, including pay challenges that have been present since 2007.
‘A nice guy, but ...’
Neighborhood activist and 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, Whitley said, went after top-tier criminals, such as the drug dealers, versus targeting people who might have a few grams of crack cocaine in their car or pocket.
“We are not picking up as many guns as we did before … violent crimes are up in Durham because there are more guns,” Whitley said. “And now I got drug dealers on my street corner again.”
Before Lopez took over, officers gave out their cell phone 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.
Under Lopez’s leadership, police officers weren’t as respectful to residents, Whitley said.
All those concerns were compounded when Lopez would make statements linking the increase in crime to a community that wouldn’t work with him and his department.
“People are more afraid of the police than they are of criminals,” Whitley said.
But others in the community had very different perspectives.
Chief Magistrate Donald Paschall Sr. said he’s seen improvements in the city’s policing strategy. Paschall said he has been impressed with strategies in which special forces focused on problem areas in the city and collecting guns.
District 5 Partners Against Crime’s co-facilatators Alice Cheek and Michelle Irvine also described positive changes.
Cheek, who has been involved with PAC 5 for 10 years, said Lopez came to more meetings than other chiefs. When he interacts with the community, Lopez would always embrace them or shake their hand.
If he made a promise, he made a solid effort to try to fulfill it, Cheek said.
“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 Jesus Huerta, the Durham teen who shot himself while handcuffed in police custody, to people objecting to the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
“It’s just been much more proactive than reactive,” Irvine said.