A Durham City Councilman said the city needs to re-examine Police Department enforcement priorities following the release of a video depicting police entering a home after smelling marijuana.
“I don’t think it is a good use of our limited police resources,” Charlie Reece said.
Specifically, Reece said, said the city needs to take a closer look at the High Enforcement Abatement Teams (HEAT), a flexible squad of officers who focus on drugs, vice and gang violence within a police district and across the city.
A RTI International study commissioned by interim Police Chief Larry Smith found HEAT officers disproportionally stopped black drivers over a five-year period (2010-15), though the study also noted changes made over the past two years had largely eliminated the disparities.
Reece’s comments follow a Facebook post and video, which had about 200,000 views as of Wednesday but has since been taken down. The three minute and 21 second video depicted a chaotic situation after HEAT officers entered Vera McGriff’s home April 8 without a warrant after smelling marijuana. On April 9, McGriff, 48, posted the video, which raised questions about harassment, use of force, warrantless searches and racial profiling.
Smith said in a memorandum to City Manager Tom Bonfield that the incident followed an April 4 arrest, which stemmed from complaints from a neighboring apartment community. Five HEAT officers visited McGriff’s home around 10:30 p.m. April 8 to follow up on the arrest of Khadir Cherry, 25, who was arrested four days earlier on the charge of possession with intent to manufacture, sell or distribute marijuana.A warrant was obtained after officers initially entered and secured the home.
The video also turned the spotlight on the HEAT unit, which McGriff and others want disbanded.
With a new police chief coming on board and a consultant’s Police Department staffing and deployment study pending, Bonfield said he expects a review to determine if HEAT should continue.
Smith said specialized team deals with some of the city’s biggest problems.
“Unfortunately most of those problems are down in mostly minority communities,” he said. “And if we are not careful that can have an impact on them as human beings. ... So that is one of the issues that are looking at.”
After officers entered the home, McGriff, Cherry and two others were charged with crimes that include maintaining a dwelling, assault on a government official and resisting a public officer.
Police Department spokesman Wil Glen said two officers were assaulted during the incident.
McGriff contends officers barged into the house, terrorized and falsely accused her family. The Police Department has begun a formal review of the incident, which Bonfield has asked to be expedited.
Nia Wilson, executive director for the community organizing nonprofit SpiritHouse, said officers are using marijuana enforcement “to intimidate and to actually terrorize people in the community.”
Smith rejected that.
“No enforcement of any laws is used to intimidate anyone,” he said. “Misdemeanor marijuana enforcement is already a low priority. However, investigations into the sale and distribution of any controlled substance and more importantly the violence often associated with that is a priority.”
Under state law, possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana is Class III misdemeanor. Possession of a half ounce to 1.5 ounces is a Class I misdemeanor.
Cherry was charged April 4 with possession with intent to manufacture, sell, and deliver marijuana, which is a Class I felony, the lowest level of felony possible.
The felony charge can be related to the amount of marijuana, or how it is packaged, said defense attorney Brian Aus. If the person doesn’t have previous convictions, a conviction would not result in jail time, he said.
However, those charge could result in an individual being taken to the county jail, along with having to post a bond, court costs and other fees. They could also be saddled with a charge that could mar future opportunities regardless of whether there is a conviction of the felony charge, Wilson said.
Statistics show that marijuana use is the same across the board, racially and economically, Wilson said. But incidents, such as the one on the video, “don’t happen in certain neighborhoods.”
McGriff said in a statement that her family was assaulted with a gun, Taser and baton, and detained for four hours while her elementary school age children watched.
“When they seized my home and we lay tased, swollen, bruised, cuffed and helpless on the floor, it felt like I was surrounded by an unruly gang that meant me and family nothing but harm,” McGriff wrote in the statement released Wednesday. “The terror, by these officers, did not stop when my 11-year-old son, recently home from the hospital, began to vomit and seize. Nor did they stop when my 10-year-old daughter screamed and called out to her mommy in fear. They did not care about any of us as human beings.”
Reece said the Police Department needs to implement recommendations made by Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) Coalition, including making marijuana enforcement the lowest law enforcement priority.
“Had this particular FADE policy recommendation been adopted two summers ago, it is difficult to see how a member of the DPD HEAT Team would have felt empowered to enter a private home based solely on the odor of marijuana,” Reece wrote on a Facebook post.