Deputy Chief of Police Cerelyn Davis and Maj. Michael Smathers did not so much sit in their armchairs, as perch on them during a community meeting Wednesday night at City hall.
The two finalists for Durham police chief — Davis is from Atlanta, Smathers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg — faced more than 100 citizens, some of them the department’s most vocal critics.
These citizens had submitted nearly 70 questions about community policing, transparency, officer retention, traffic enforcement and use of force.
Wednesday’s meeting was Davis’ and Smathers’ last opportunity to win over Durham for the opportunity to lead and transform a department that has endured sharp citizen criticism for its conduct, high turnover and low morale.
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“That there is a full house tonight speaks to your commitment to your city,” Smathers said.
The FADE Coalition, a social justice group, has long criticized the department’s use of force and conduct toward blacks and Latinos. Its members asked the candidates if they would consider curbing regulatory traffic stops – those dealing with expired tags, a broken tail light – as Greensboro Police Department recently did, in order to reduce racial disparities in those stops.
“In Atlanta we have consciously done this without a formal directive,” said Davis. “Petty stops are not important. What’s important is violent crime and property crime. We would stop for a seatbelt violation only if there were other safety hazards. I would be receptive to accepting these same principles.”
Smathers called these types of stops “not meaningful” and “detrimental to community relations.”
He added that ticketing for equipment violations can further burden low-income people who may struggle with the expenses of maintaining a car. The relations in those communities, Smathers said, “are fractured.”
About 60 officers a year leave the Durham Police Department, some for other jurisdictions, others for other careers. That constant churn, Smathers said, costs not only tax dollars in training and recruitment, but “connections with the community when officers move on.”
In Charlotte, officers receive incentives to live in the city, such as take-home cars, career development and home loans. Flexibility has also been key, he said. “You give them the opportunity to move throughout the department.”
In Atlanta, officers are offered a signing bonus in return for a commitment of five years. The workplace culture is also important, Davis said.
“You make an environment where people are proud to come to work each day,” she said. Providing officers with career development helps them feel invested in the department, she said, as does ensuring they are in the best job for their skills and interests: “These are incentives that are important but don’t cost any money.”
Use of force
Over the past three years, one of the main concerns about the Durham Police Department has been its use of force, including officer-involved shootings.
Davis said her department adheres to the White House’s policy on 21st-century policing, which emphasizes de-escalation. Atlanta police officers are trained in conflict resolution, she said. “How to avoid physical contact and adversarial situations. We call it ‘verbal judo’ — a way of talking to accomplish a common goal. Bravado is not important in police work; common courtesy and respect are.”
Smathers echoed Davis’ remarks, noting that “the preservation of life” is the most important aspect of policing. He categorized an officer’s role is a “guardian” versus “a warrior.”
“We teach officers that it’s OK to allow a situation to defuse. We don’t always have to rush in and control,” said Smathers, who led his departments’ SWAT unit. “It takes a culture change. Officers have to make split-second decisions in high stress situations. It’s OK to stop, take a breath and move back.”
Of Durham’s 37 homicides in 2015, 10 were the result of domestic violence. Davis said Atlanta police officers are trained to “use common sense” in dealing with victims of both domestic violence and sexual assault. For example, “maybe a woman officer should interview a female rape victim,” Davis said. Atlanta also has a psychological unit to provide on-scene support of crime victims.
Smathers commanded the sexual assault unit in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. That department partners with trained medical personnel to provide emotional and physical support to victims, especially during the difficult time of evidence collection, but also afterward "We have an ongoing counseling and emotional support,” he said.
Overall, each of the finalists’ answers reflected his or her overarching philosophy of community policing.
“Community policing is a heartfelt commitment to being engaged with people,” Smathers said. “How do you want to be policed in your community? I need to hear your concerns about what’s driving your fear, and what your experience with the police has been. We have to have transparency to earn the trust to be successful. Without that we will not have inroads.”
“It’s more than a textbook definition,” Davis added. “It’s establishing relationships with communities. We ask, ‘How satisfied is the community?’ If they’re not, we’ve not been successful. We can’t expect the city to love on us. We’re there to answer your concerns about how we act and what we say.”