Editor’s note: This is the second of two profiles on the finalists for Durham police chief, first published on the Bull City Rising blog. See our profile of Deputy Chief Cerelyn Davis of the Atlanta Police Department at www.thedurhamnews.com.
After Maj. Michael Smathers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reviewed the dashcam video of fellow officer Randall Kerrick, he knew the evidence looked damning.
“I initially had concern the very first time I saw that video,” Smathers testified in a deposition last year. “But I watched it dozens of times that day … and that feeling never left me.”
In 2013, Kerrick, who is white, shot an unarmed black man, Jonathan Ferrell, 10 times, killing him. The officer was charged with voluntary manslaughter, but a jury deadlocked on the case, and he was not convicted. Kerrick resigned last October.
At the time, Smathers was over the Criminal Investigations Bureau, which deals with all of the violent felony crimes, including criminal allegations against police officers.
“It’s upsetting to charge a fellow officer,” Smathers said in his deposition, “and it was historic in the history of our police department to do it.”
Smathers’ experience in a diverse city could address some of Durham’s concerns about the next chief, especially his work in community policing, clearance rates and police reform. Smathers, who currently oversees the Field Services Division, also managed the armed robbery and sexual assault units, worked in SWAT and officer training, and supervised patrol officers.
In 2012, Smathers attended an Innocence Project event in Albany, N.Y., where he joined several public defenders, crime victims and wrongly convicted suspects in urging New York state to reform its police interrogations and identification procedures.
Smathers discusses several of these reforms, including allowing jurors to see and hear police interviews, in transcript of a Department of Justice podcast. “We just continued to hear from jurors and from our prosecutors that it would enhance their confidence in the work that we were producing and we were testifying to if jurors and prosecutors could hear the interviews themselves. So we thought, why not. There is no compelling reason to not share what goes on in the interview room.”
Smathers was also the commander of the Crisis Negotiation Team, another area relevant to many Durham residents. Over the past three years in Durham, several incidents, including the high-profile, officer-related shooting of Derek Walker, who was threatening to commit suicide with a gun in CCB Plaza downtown, raised concerns about the use of force against people with mental illness.
However, there were questions about Smathers’ handling of the policing at the 2012 Democratic National Convention — although some decisions, made at the federal level, were beyond his control. That year, Charlotte had received a $49.8 million federal grant to provide security at the convention for 6,000 delegates and 30,000 visitors, as well as the city’s residents.
Smothers was the commander of the Mobile Field Force Platoon, and led policing at various demonstrations and crowd management assignments. The event was largely peaceful, although 25 people, mostly demonstrators, were arrested over the three-day event, including 10 immigrants in the county illegally who were protesting the convention.
An U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General’s report noted that “some arresting officers were inexperienced in the protocols and procedures for handling evidence in a mass arrest environment.”
CMPD responded that “All arresting officers were training in the protocols and procedures for handling evidence in a mass arrest environment. However, the practical application in the field was a lesson learned.”
Charlotte elected officials had passed a law giving the city manager the power to declare certain gatherings “extraordinary events.” That designation marks off part of the city as an “event zone,” and gives police broad powers for search, seizures and arrests – all constitutional issues.
On the financial side, the Inspector General’s report found that the city largely complied with the grant requirements, but did receive “reimbursements for $79,311 in unallowable personnel costs. The city also received $53,676 to purchase two sport utility vehicles that it did not modify in ways certified to the BJA as being necessary, which served as the justification for the purchase. As a result, we recommend OJP remedy the $132,987 in unallowable or unnecessary grant reimbursements.” (CMPD agreed with the findings, except for the one regarding sport utility vehicles.)
In the past 20-plus years, Smathers, who is white, started as patrol officer, where, according to his resume, he spearheaded an aggressive community outreach to Latino communities. As captain of the Charlotte Eastway Patrol Division, an ethnically diverse area of the city of 809,000, he received a community policing award for “leadership and reducing crime.”
He also supervised the CMPD’s lab and evidence bureau, another area that has been discussed in Durham. A years-long backlog at the state lab has resulted in suspects being jailed for months in Durham, even more than a year, without being convicted. Durham officials have floated the idea of funding a county crime lab or hiring technicians at the state lab that would work solely on local cases.
And while Smathers was head of the Criminal Investigations Bureau, CMPD reported a homicide clearance rate of 81 percent in 2014, compared with Durham, which had a clearance rate of 68.2 percent over the same time period.
CMPD has 1,850 officers, significantly more than Durham, which has roughly 500 – and a turnover rate of as many as 60 a year.
Two years ago, Smathers was shortlisted for the chief’s position in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The finalists for police chief will meet the public in a community forum from 7 to 8 p.m. April 6 at City Hall. It will be televised live on Durham Television Network (DTN), which is available on Time Warner Cable channel 8 and AT&T U-verse channel 99, on DTN’s live stream from the city’s website, and live streamed from the city’s Facebook page.
Durham crime trends
Durham’s overall crime rate has trended down for the past 15 years.
In 2001, there were 7,955 reported crimes per 100,000 residents, including 974 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
But while the property crime rate has continued falling, Durham’s violent crime rate has risen in recent years. The reversal was cited as one of the reasons for the city’s ousting of Police Chief Jose Lopez last year.
▪ In 2013, there were 5,268 reported crimes per 100,000 residents, including 684 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
▪ In 2014, there were 5,293 reported crimes per 100,000 residents, including 765 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
▪ In 2015, there were 5,084 reported crimes per 100,000 residents, including 877.5 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
Staff writer Mark Schultz