Members of the community, from Black Lives Matter organizers to sitting City Council members, say the hiring of a new police chief must involve many different voices.
“I hope the city will do something to ensure that needs and voices of communities that are both over and under policed ... are central to the hiring process,” said Nia Wilson, director of the SpiritHouse. The Durham organization is part of the Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) coalition, whose organizing led to city finding of racial bias and profiling within the department.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said the community will be involved in the process, but he isn’t sure yet what that will look like.
“I can’t imagine any scenario that there wouldn’t be public involvement,” he said. But there is “such a range of involvement possibilities, we just need a little bit more time to map that out.”
Staff will look at how other communities have recently conducted police-chief searches, what consultants they used and what those processes looked like.
“I don’t think we will have a lot of information for a few weeks,” Bonfield said.
On Tuesday, Bonfield announced Police Chief Jose Lopez would retire at the end of the year. Lopez, 61, became the Bull City’s top cop in September 2007 after spending 23 years in Hartford, Conn., where he rose through the ranks to become assistant police chief.
In Durham, Lopez has led a department under scrutiny for alleged racial bias, several officer-involved shootings and the death of a teenager in police custody. Many criticized Lopez’s communication style and accessibility and his ability to relate with all segments of the community, particularly the black community.
Bonfield said he met with Lopez about two weeks ago and gave him three choices: to retire with notice, resign or be fired.
Lopez, whose annual salary is $143,544, will receive half that for six months of severance pay.
In general, Bonfield said he was concerned about a rising crime rate, poor relations between the police and community and low employee morale.
Lopez said he had not foreseen losing his job.
“The criticism that I have heard has been from a very fractured portion of this community. It hasn’t been from the community,” Lopez said during a short press conference Wednesday.
“Quite frankly, the negative comments that are made, I only hear them at a podium or in front of a camera and not in the places where the real people of the city of Durham live, work and play,” he said.
Lopez blamed low employee morale on a pay issue he said has been a challenge since 2007 and other outside factors.
“I think they are dealing with a lot of the restraints that are being held against them, not being able to do a lot of the things that the United States Constitution allows them to do,” he said.
Lopez again said racial bias and profiling are not part of his department and pointed to his Hispanic heritage and a diverse police force. People who review reports on the department’s website would “clearly see that the Police Department is not involved in racial bias,” he said.
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.
At the start and the end of the 13-minute press conference, Lopez appeared to hold back emotion as he paused and his voice wavered.
“I encountered a group of extremely professional individuals,” he said. “I also encountered a community that was extremely embracing, and that’s why, more than likely, I’ll be staying here in the Durham community.”
Time to go
In an interview last week, Bonfield said he decided at the beginning of the summer that it was time for Lopez to go.
He said he waited to act because he didn’t want it to appear he was removing Lopez in response to any specific incidents this summer that had heaped more public criticism on the chief.
“I couldn’t say it was any one specific reason,” Bonfield said. “It was a variety of things, principally, looking to the future. What we needed, and what the community expected in the leadership.”
Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey called Lopez a “tremendous person.”
“I regret to hear about his retirement on a professional level of knowing him and knowing how dedicated he was,” she said.
Lopez was receptive, she said, when she expressed concerns about cases in which she thought officers’ activities were inappropriate. His support, she added, was also crucial in the county and city establishing and expanding its misdemeanor diversion program, in which some first-time, nonviolent offenders ages 16 to 21 avoid a formal charge and criminal record.
But, Lopez was “at times tone-deaf to the voice of the Durham community,” Morey added. “That was his downfall.”
Mayor Bill Bell said he did not want to judge Lopez’s performance.
“I have to assume he did the best job he could do and have to hope he was doing the best job he could do,” Bell said. “Things happen, and you have to hopefully learn from them going forward.”
But things kept happening.
▪ In 2013, three people died in interactions with Durham police, including Riverside High School student Jesus Huerta, who died in November from a self-inflicted gunshot while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.
▪ In July 2013, police shot and killed Jose Ocampo, a Honduran man wanted in connection with a stabbing. Police said Ocampo was brandishing a knife, though some said the man, who spoke little English, was surrendering the knife handle side out when he was killed. A police investigation said a knife removed from Ocampo’s hand was held by the handle.
▪ In September 2013, police shot and killed Derek Walker during a standoff at CCB Plaza downtown after he pointed a gun at an officer. An investigation later revealed that Walker, distraught after losing a custody battle with his ex-wife, was carrying a CO2-powered pellet pistol, which closely resembles a real firearm.
This summer, the chief drew more criticism after a meeting of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods where he declined to make a public commitment to reducing racial profiling during traffic stops and searches. Lopez said the group caught him off guard.
Last month, defense attorney Alex Charns called for Lopez’s resignation after the chief expressed “disappointment” with a jury’s decision in the case of Carlos Antonio Riley. Jurors acquitted Riley of shooting an officer in the thigh during a traffic stop. Charns contended the officer pulled the trigger during a struggle.
Most recently, some community members questioned the Police Department’s use of force in the Sept. 5 shooting of La’Vante Biggs.
Biggs, 21, was pointing a gun at himself and then an officer outside his Angier Avenue home when he was fatally shot. He had called 911 that morning and made statements such as “It’s not nobody’s fault,” and hung up.
Biggs’ mother, Shanika Bigggs, later said he had been depressed about a recent breakup and not seeing his children.
Four officers fired 12 shots. Later police learned that Biggs’ gun was a replica Airsoft air gun, which closely resembled a real gun, according to police.
The mayor said he has questions about the shooting. “Why were so many shots fired?” he asked. “I need to understand that.”
Bell, Councilmen Eddie Davis and Eugene Brown said it was Bonfield’s decision. While Bonfield reports to the City Council, Lopez reports to Bonfield.
After Bonfield announced Lopez’s retirement, Davis said it was “a good day for Durham.”
Lopez’s departure, Davis said “might bring a better police and community relationship, and I think it will give the city an opportunity to assess what we really need in a police chief.”