Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis and Maj. Michael J. Smathers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department have much in common.
Both have decades of law enforcement experience. Both work in large police departments in major Southern cities. Each has weathered controversies as a police officer. And each wants to be Durham’s new police chief.
The public can ask questions of the candidates at 7 p.m. Wednesday (April 6) at Durham City Hall.
Smathers’ first priority, he said, would be to address the increase in violent crime.
“I would restore and improve relationships with certain communities,” he said, referring to members of largely black neighborhoods.
Under former Chief Jose Lopez, “it appears that at times the department was unwilling to hear criticism,” Smathers said. He would be “open and receptive” to having discussions about the “thorny, complex issues of policing and use of force,” he said.
Davis agreed that the mistrust must be overcome.
“What is apparent is that the relationship between the community and police is not what it could be,” she said. “We have to change the manner on how we interact with citizens.”
“People need to know we are not there to terrorize them,” she added.
Racial bias concerns
Many citizens and social justice groups have asked for more intensive anti-bias training for Durham Police Department officers.
A recent RTI International study, commissioned by Interim Police Chief Larry Smith, found DPD’s HEAT unit, which specializes in vice, gang violence and drug interdiction, disproportionately stopped black male motorists.
“I will have racial bias, cultural bias and implicit bias training,” said Smathers, who is white. “We all have biases. It requires constant vigilance.”
In Atlanta, Davis said, officers have undergone cultural diversity training.
“It should not be something that you just check off a box,” said Davis, who is black. “It should be done in a manner that awakens the senses of the officers to say, ‘I do have bias. I do need to change the way I interact with different people: the LGBTQ community, African-American males.
“To change the department culture, you must change on an individual level.”
There have been numerous protests in Durham over police conduct and jail conditions. During some of those protests, demonstrators have accused officers of being heavy-handed.
Smathers said such situations don’t have to be adversarial.
The officers’ role is “to facilitate those First Amendment rights and the safe expression of those opinions. I embrace and welcome those expressions. I’m not threatened by them and I would with those groups,” said Smathers, who oversaw the crowd control and security at the 2012 Democratic Convention. At the DNC, which attracted about 50,000 people, including the media, 25 people were arrested, including 10 immigrants in the country illegally.
More than 13 percent of Durham’s population is Latino, according to 2014 census figures, and some of these residents are here illegally. Other forms of identification, such as a Mexican consular card or a local ID, have been suggested as a way for these residents to open a bank account, enroll their children in school and identify themselves to police.
Davis said she would consider accepting non-traditional ID, as long as there is, “some level of confidence that the ID is sufficient to identify that person.”
Smathers said he is “supportive of it so we can have relationships with those communities,” particular when Latinos are crime victims.
Durham has shelved its proposed body-camera policy until there is an agreement about transparency, records retention and public access.
Davis said officers should not be allowed to review the footage before an investigation. “We want to know exactly what the officer was thinking in that particular situation,” she said.
“I’m aware of the transparency issues,” Smathers said. “I’m willing to be as transparent as the law allows. We have to balance that with compassion” – meaning that people could be captured on video who were unrelated to any crime. But we need to see how officers are performing.”
Smathers said he is a proponent of a process used in Boston. That city’s department invites a select group of citizens to “come in and review footage and the get the results out to its constituency,” Smathers said. “It’s an interim step to a full release, a good way to thread the needle.”
In 2013, Smathers supported charging a fellow officer with voluntary manslaughter after reviewing dash-cam footage of the white officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black man. Smathers said if confronted with similar situations, “I’ll follow the facts and make hard decisions based on the facts. I respect the process, even if it’s difficult.”
Davis faced her own scrutiny in 2008 over whether she ignored the case of a fellow officer’s husband who was later indicted on child pornography charges. She was fired, then exonerated and, after she filed a lawsuit, rehired.
“I don’t look at it as a cloud over me,” Davis said. “I went under attack, which for leaders in a 30-year career, is not unusual. I knew the truth would prevail.” Both police department employees who had accused Davis of a cover-up resigned two weeks before her appeal.
“As a leader, she said, “Your way is not going to be easy,” she said. “But if you stand up for integrity, you can be resurrected.”
City Manager Tom Bonfield is expected to offer the job to one of them by the end of April. The new chief will join the department in May.