Mayor Bill Bell threw his support behind required written permission for vehicle "consent searches" by Durham police Monday night, as he and City Council members responded to City Manager Tom Bonfield's recommendations for addressing alleged racism in the Police Department.
Bell's position was a departure from Bonfield's, which called for officers to obtain written permission for consent searches "of premises and investigative encounters" but only encouraged use of written consent forms.
The mayor then went beyond Bonfield's recommendations, saying that "steps have been taken" to make minor marijuana offenses a low-level priority for the city's criminal-justice system as a whole, and that he wants police officers to spend more of their patrol time out of their cars, "walking the neighborhoods and meeting the residents."
The council put off endorsing Bonfield's recommendations, pending further discussion and some information from the city administration at council members' Thursday work session.
"We need to bring this to conclusion," Bell said. "Come prepared to decide which of these recommendation we support, which we don't support and which we want to tweak."
Bonfield's recommendations are responses to each of 34 recommendations from the Human Relations Commission, which concluded after six months of public hearings that "racial bias and profiling (are) present in the Durham Police Department practices."
Bonfield also responded to 10 recommendations from a self-study by Civilian Police Review Board. He posted his recommendations on the city website ( bit.ly/1v9LC6H) Aug. 18, and the council took public comment from a standing-room only crowd at City Hall on Aug. 21.
Many of those comments criticized Bonfield's report for not supporting written consent for traffic-stop searches. Data show a large disparity between stops and searches of black and white motorists.
Bell restricted comment Monday night to council members and departed from one of his usual practices.
He normally waits until other City Council members have a chance to speak before stating his own position on an item. Monday night, however, he spoke first. His positions on written consents and arrests for minor marijuana possession received support.
"I do believe in the decriminalization of marijuana," said Councilman Steve Schewel. "We're not going to get that from the state legislature, so we have to figure out what we're going to do here in Durham."
Councilman Eugene Brown said that marijuana is sometimes called a "gateway" drug, but "the arrest of our young people for small amounts of marijuana can also be a gate that leads into our jails and into our criminal justice system where we find too often our prisons become not places of rehabilitation, but schools - colleges, graduate schools - of crime."
Councilman Don Moffitt said he supports written consent but also wanted to see quarterly reports on police stops, rather than the semi-annual requirement Bonfield recommended.
"By using data and (video) recordings, we can identify where there are problems," Moffitt said.
Moffitt said he would also like quarterly reports on citizen complaints about police and what is done about them.
"Whether the manager's recommendations go far enough is an open question," Moffitt said. "We must work collaboratively on creating a more fair and just society. This work is going to go on for a long time."