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Durham City Council rejects police chief’s request for more officers in 4-3 vote

Durham mayor, police chief address violent crime in city

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel addresses recent crimes in the Bull City during a press conference at City Hall with newly elected Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Police Chief Cerlelyn “CJ” Davis.
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Durham Mayor Steve Schewel addresses recent crimes in the Bull City during a press conference at City Hall with newly elected Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Police Chief Cerlelyn “CJ” Davis.

The City Council rejected the Police Department’s request for 18 additional patrol officers during a budget work session Thursday.

The council voted to amend City Manager Tom Bonfield’s recommended budget by removing the Police Department’s $1.2 million request and instead allocating about $650,000 to increase pay for the city’s part-time workers to $15.46 beginning next year.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson offered the amendment, which was adopted 4-3 and supported by council members Vernetta Alston, Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

Johnson said the Police Department didn’t need the extra officers given a long-term improvements in crime trends, staffing levels and response times.

“I don’t think we need 18 additional patrol officers,” she said. “Our calls for service are down. Our response times are faster. And crime is on a 20-year downward trend. So that signals to me that things are going well.”

Caballero said it came down to a choice between increasing pay for part-time workers and hiring more police officers without raising taxes more, and she chose the part-time workers.

Mayor Steve Schewel had offered a compromise that would have funded nine officers and given raises to part-time workers, but it was voted down 4-3, with Johnson, Reece, Alston and Caballero opposing his amendment.

Thursday’s vote comes after a recent audit found 28 Police Department employees received at least $10,000 in overtime pay last year, the most of any city department.

It also comes as reported incidents of violent crime are up 17%, as of June 1, compared to the same period last year. There have been at least 21 homicides in Durham this year, according to the Police Department website.

Police Chief C.J. Davis had wanted to deploy the new officers in District 4 where officers’ beats and work schedules would be adjusted. The Police Department now has 547 sworn officers.

Davis said the request came after a study made several recommendations on staffing levels, community engagement and quality of life for officers. She initially asked for 72 officers over the next three years but scaled back the request to the 18 officers for a two-year pilot program. Bonfield agreed with the smaller request.

Councilman Mark Anthony Middleton, who supported Davis’ request, said he found it reckless not to provide the additional officers.

“Our city is growing,” he said. “We want the successes we’ve seen in McDougald Terrace in other parts of the city but without expanding the Police Department’s capacity? We’re going to regret this if we don’t do this.”

Activists in Durham are divided on issue. Nearly 50 people, some for and some against, spoke Monday during a public hearing on the request.

The group Durham Beyond Policing presented a counter proposal during Monday’s council meeting. Its proposal asks for the creation of a community-led safety and wellness task force, rather than hiring more police officers. The groups in the coalition also want more money spent on paying all city workers livable wages.

But Thursday, Omar Beasley, chairman of Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, sent a letter to the City Council supporting the Police Department’s expansion request.

“The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People believe that the safety of our community is equally as important as addressing the root causes that help exacerbate the poverty in our community,” he wrote. “Therefore, we ask that the City Council vote to support the budget of the Durham Police Department and their efforts to make Durham a safe city for all of its citizens.”

The council also rejected a proposal to start a ShotSpotter test program. ShotSpotter is a surveillance tool that alerts police when gunshots are detected by monitoring sensors. Middleton wanted the test program for some of the city’s public housing communities.

The City Council plans to adopt the budget for fiscal year 2019-20 at its next meeting June 17. The proposed budget of $476.2 million plan increases property taxes for city residents by 3.6%.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.