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Study: Durham misdemeanors down but blacks arrested more than whites, Latinos combined

Misdemeanor arrests in Durham have dropped in recent years, but African Americans still account for most of them, a new report shows.

From 2007 to 2016, overall misdemeanor arrests dropped 33.8 percent, the report states. In 2007, there were 12,211 charges, which fell to to 8,079 in 2016. In comparison, felony charges dropped by 12.8 percent to 4,084 in 2016.

The numbers look at a decade during which activists in Durham raised questions about racial bias in policing and successfully pushed for more tracking of data, along with new programs and policies. Researchers and others involved in the court system said the study will lead to better understanding and more changes.

“It is our hope that this report will influence decision makers that determine how individuals are treated after arrest and that [it] will affect those individuals making those arrest decisions,” said Zachary Thayer, an assistant public defender, at a press conference about the report Friday. “This report is a start on the right path of creating a justice system where all people are treated fairly.”

The study, a partnership between N.C. Central University’s Juvenile Justice Institute and the Durham Police Department, examined misdemeanor arrests by age, gender and race.

Durham is one of seven communities around the U.S. participating in the Data Collaborative for Justice project to evaluate trends in misdemeanor enforcement.

Robert Brown, chairman of NCCU’s Department of Criminal Justice, said while researchers are seeing fewer misdemeanors and felonies across the nation, the majority of charges involve lower-level crimes. It will take more research to pinpoint what’s influencing changes in individual communities.

Brown said researchers look forward to working with community partners and the national network to better understand how they can use data to make more informed decisions and answer questions about a myriad of problems within the system.

From 2007 to 2016, misdemeanor arrest rates for 16- and 17-year-olds had the biggest drop out of all the age groups. The arrest rates decreased by 73 percent, from 9,008 per 100,000 in 2007 to 2,410 per 100,000 in 2016.

Arrest rates of people ages 18 to 20 dropped 64 percent.

During that time, Durham County began its misdemeanor diversion program. The program allowed 16- and 17-year-olds charged with first-time low-level offenses, such as marijuana possession, to keep their records clean.

The program was expanded to include 18- to 21-year-olds in 2015. In May, the program increased the eligible age to 25, said Kelly Andrews, program coordinator. Officers also have discretion to refer people age 26 and older, Andrews said.

The program has had 662 referrals since it started, Andrews said. There is a 99 percent completion rate and 8 percent recidivism rate for participants out of program for one year.

Disparities

The study also showed, while arrest rates declined, African Americans were arrested at much higher rates than whites and Hispanics.

Over the 10-year period, the arrest rate for blacks declined 48 percent to a low of 4,408 per 100,000 in 2016.

For whites, arrest rates decreased by 41 percent to 851 per 100,000. Hispanic arrest rates declined 46 percent to 187 per 100,000 people.

In both 2007 and 2016, arrests of black males accounted for nearly three-fourths of the arrests, compared to 14 percent for white males, according to the study.

Over that 10-year time-frame in Durham, there was a shift in the city’s conversation about policing.

Complaints of profiling and other racist behavior by police prompted Mayor Bill Bell in September 2013 to direct the city’s Human Relations Commission to investigate. After months of hearings, the commission concluded in March 2015 that racial bias and profiling existed within the department.

City Manager Tom Bonfield has since overseen a number of changes, including requiring police to review and share traffic stop data semi-annually and requiring signatures for consent searches of vehicles.

Bonfield eventually forced former Police Chief Jose Lopez to retire at the end of 2016 under mounting criticism of his response to concerns about racial bias and a rising violent crime rate.

Police Chief C.J. Davis started in June 2016, promising to focus on community policing and repairing relationships.

“The effects of this change in leadership cannot be fully determined in the available data,” the report states.

Davis’ changes include requiring officers to issue citations — instead of making arrests — in certain misdemeanor offenses.

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