Commentary: Time to fix Durham’s police problem

06/13/2014 12:00 AM

06/11/2014 6:10 PM

The Durham Police Department has a serious problem, and it is time for our city leadership to take action.

Public confidence in the department’s ability to enforce the law in an equitable fashion has been severely diminished.

The city’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) recently concluded by a vote of 11-3 that the practice of racial profiling is embedded within the culture of the department and made a series of recommendations of how to address the issue. The reticence of three dissenters – a police officer and two conservative activists – to speak critically of the Police Department cannot be allowed to give the City Council license to kick the can down the road on such a critical issue.

Last year, Mayor Bill Bell tasked the commission with investigating allegations that a culture of institutional racism was endemic in our Police Department. The commission held six months worth of hearings, received hours of testimony from the police chief himself, and reviewed hundreds of pages of reports.

Despite the department’s best efforts to convince the HRC otherwise, the commission found the personal stories and statistical evidence of racial disparities in traffic stops, searches, and drug arrests too compelling to ignore. Much of this evidence is available for public review on the HRC’s website and has been made available to the council. The process as a whole was fair, transparent, and provided more than ample time for the department to state its case.

The weight of the responsibility to address these disparities now rests with the City Council. Despite the significant role of City Manager Tom Bonfield in this process, it is the council that is ultimately responsible for and accountable to this community. Suggested recommendations include the adoption of a mandatory written consent-to-search policy, periodic review of officer stop and arrest data, the deprioritization of low-level marijuana arrests, racial equity training, and an overhaul of the anemic Civilian Police Review Board.

This five point agenda, initially put forth by the FADE coalition, found considerable support in the HRC and has been endorsed in full by our respective organizations. If adopted, this package of common sense policies would help mitigate the highly racialized outcomes generated by our police department. Most are low or no cost and could be adopted with a simple voice vote at Monday’s council meeting.

Every additional day the city drags this process out is another day that innocent Durham citizens are being hurt. The department’s own statistics show that, even after controlling for age, gender, time of day, and reason for stop, blackness is a statistically significant predictor of the likelihood of being pulled out of one’s car and searched during a routine traffic stop. African-Americans are 165 percent more likely to be subjected to the practice, all things being equal. And they are over 300 percent more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana offenses, despite equal usage rates.

The numbers are clear, extremely troubling, and demand immediate remedial action. The Durham City Council, City Manager Bonfield and broader Durham community cannot afford to wait any longer.

This commentary was submitted by Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations & Neighborhoods), the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the Durham People’s Alliance, the Durham NAACP, the Board of Directors of Durham Congregations in Action, Action NC, the George H. White Bar Association and the N.C. Public Defender Committee on Racial Equity.

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