Police Chief Jose Lopez went off script in a discussion about alleged racial bias Tuesday night, leaving some residents unhappy and community organizer and pastor Mark-Anthony Middleton “incredulous.”
The setting was a meeting of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods. The group works to build relationships with local policy makers and holds assemblies where it asks them to publicly commit to work on its goals.
Tim Conder, pastor of Emmaus Way church downtown, asked Lopez to express the Durham Police Department’s commitment to policies intended to reduce racial profiling during traffic stops and searches.
Lopez walked to the front of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and said he felt “confronted” and could not do what the group was asking.
Middleton, pastor of Abundant Hope Christian Church, has been coordinating meetings between Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods and the Durham Police Department for some time now.
“We negotiate with power publicly,” Middleton said. “We don’t profit by ambushing people. There were no surprises last night other than the chief’s response.”
Lopez insisted he had been caught unprepared, despite the fact that Durham CAN meetings – and their content – are largely arranged in advance.
“You’re trying to get me to commit to something right now,” Lopez said.
At this, a loud “yes” came from those sitting in the sanctuary area, which can accommodate about 300 people. Most were packed, sweating, into the pews. Some stood and fanned themselves along the back walls; still more sat in folding chairs or cross-legged in the church aisle.
“I need you to take a leap of faith,” Lopez said to the agitated crowd.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Conder said he was surprised by the chief’s refusal and that Durham CAN had intended to give Lopez an opportunity to speak to a large audience about progress the Police Department was making.
Citizens from 20 Durham churches and organizations were gathered Tuesday night at St. Philip’s in a muggy, standing-room-only event organized by Durham CAN. Several topics were discussed: a jobs and education effort associated with a proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Project, affordable housing and police reform.
Lopez was one of many local officials present, including Mayor Bill Bell and Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden.
Conder said CAN-affiliated clergy had discussed the policy reforms (See box) during a “very productive” meeting held several months ago in DPD headquarters with Lopez and Deputy Chiefs Larry Smith and Anthony Marsh.
Of the 21,939 stops conducted by Durham officers in 2014, nearly 60 percent of the stops were of black individuals, compared to the city’s population of about 40 percent black residents. An analysis of stops that resulted in a search between 2002 and 2013 shows that black males 19 and younger were nearly two times more likely to be searched after a stop than white males of the same age.
The Police Department has acknowledged the disparity but maintains it does not reflect bias or racial profiling. Officers make more traffic stops in high-crime areas targeted by the department’s Operation Bull’s Eye, a program that focuses on high-crime, high-service areas in East Durham. Durham officials said during a recent press conference that the disparity is due to a high number of black drivers in the high-crime areas, where residents are also asking police for more help.
Lopez said the department is asking for written consent to do searches when an officer lacks probable cause to think a crime has occurred. But other searches do not require that.
“You have to understand that sometimes there’s probable cause to search a vehicle, during which time you’re not going to need consent,” Lopez said. “But if an officer is going to ask someone to freely allow their vehicle to be searched, yes. We do require that the individual sign consent – not only in the vehicle, but also in the home.”
The police began requiring written consent to searches in last October, after a months-long Human Relations Commission inquiry in 2013-14 concluded that racial bias and profiling were present in the department
What Durham CAN wanted
Durham CAN asked Tuesday night that Police Chief Jose Lopez affirm his commitment to requiring written consent before searching motorists, as well as two other policy reforms the Fayetteville Police Department has implemented to address racial profiling:
▪ That the officer conducting the stop and search must provide the driver of the vehicle with at least one reasonable factor implicating the driver or occupants in possible criminal activity.
▪ That traffic stops and searches based solely on the individual’s nervousness, prior criminal history or presence in a high-crime area would no longer be permitted – these factors would no longer be sufficient cause for search.