The president of a group representing local law enforcement officers blamed Durham’s elected and appointed leaders this week for the city’s challenges with crime.
“We felt if you supported the chief and the department the way he supports us that we would not be having the problems that we are right now,” Mike Evans, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Durham County Lodge No. 2, told the City Council.
Two weeks ago, City Manager Tom Bonfield announced Police Chief Jose Lopez’s retirement at the end of the year. Bonfield said he gave Lopez the option to retire with notice, resign or be fired. He said he was concerned about a rising crime rate, poor police-community relations and low morale.
Bonfield has acknowledged that police officers gave city management a poor score on a recent survey and that morale is an issue that city officials want to address, In an interview Wednesday, he said some of the concerns relate to situational decisions, such as the new policy that requires officers to get written permission for consent searches.
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Evans said Monday that police officers’ low morale stems from low pay, an issue that they have had for years, and the city not hiring more officers to keep up with population growth.
“It has nothing to do with the chief,” Evans said. “The Police Department supports the chief.”
Evans compiled figures averaging out the violent crime rates during the past four chiefs’ tenures. Those figures indicated that Lopez on average had the lowest number of violent crime incidents per 100,000 residents during most of his tenure, which began in September 2007.
City Council members have indicated they are concerned about the increase in violent crime in recent years, including a 13.5 percent increase over the first six month of the year compared to same time last year.
While the City Council increased pay for some officers in 2009, it created a situation in which some officers are making more money than others who have been there longer, Evans and others said after the meeting.
“There is a lot of (salary) compression and a lot of bypassing,” said Master Officer Thomas Douglas, who has been with the department for 18 years.
Starting pay is also a big issue, officers said. Durham officers who are are getting trained here and getting some experience soon leave for better pay.
Evans also told the City Council that while the “times we are living in are bad, it’s bad all over the United States, and I think it’s time for the community and the Police Department to work together. ”
That comment drew laughs and verbal rebuttals from some in the audience.
“That’s the problem,” said Jackie Wagstaff, a former City Council and Durham school board member who was at the meeting.
Some members of the community have said actions, such as pulling over black drivers in high-crime areas and the department’s handling of high-profile cases, have eroded their trust and ability to work with officers.
Bonfield said he is aware of the concerns about uneven pay for officers in certain positions.
For years the city has gone back and forth a number of times trying to come up with a solution to address it in a fair way, Bonfield said. There was a proposal in recent years to bring in a consultant to help the city work through the issue, but it has been delayed due to turnover in the Police Department’s human resources department.
“I acknowledge there has been a concern about that issue,” Bonfield said. “I don’t necessarily think it is an issue causing the officers to leave.”
Bonfield said that the city’s starting pay for officers may not be the highest compared to peer cities, but it’s “certainly not the lowest.” The city hasn’t had any trouble recruiting officers, he said.
Bonfield agreed that the police and fire departments need additional resources based on growth and demand, he said, “but to date neither department has been able to substantiate how they would use those resources.”
Mayor Bill Bell has also said the Police Department failed to make a convincing case for more officers during budget talks last year.
This year the city has committed to better identifying the needs and determining how to deploy resources as it prepare recommendations for next year’s budget, Bonfield said. Part of that process includes hiring a consultant to review the existing deployment of Police Department resources and make recommendations, he said.