The police department’s Selective Enforcement Team responds to crises: drug raids, hostage situations – if needed, terrorism.
But when the squad gets a call, its dozen member have to suit up in the headquarters parking lot because they have nowhere else to get ready.
Anyone nearby can see when police are heading out. A few months ago, someone posted a picture of the SET team gearing up on Facebook.
The lack of security so frustrated the SET team commander, he taped the picture to his office door.
“It sat up there for about two weeks,” Sgt. B.G. Bishop said, “and then I couldn’t look at it anymore.”
When Cerelyn Davis starts work as Durham’s new police chief in June, she will face the challenges of reversing a rise in violent crime and repairing community trust.
She’ll also be working in a nearly 60-year-old building that three reports have concluded can no longer do the job modern policing requires.
“The current police headquarters building is one of the city’s most expensive to operate and maintain,” Robyn Williams Heeks, manager in the city’s Project Management Division, said in an email.
“Although a series of renovations have already taken place, facade, roofing, elevators, bathrooms, electrical and mechanical systems are all nearing the end of their useful life,” she said.
The current headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street was built in 1957 for a life insurance company. The city plans to build a new $71 million headquarters for the Police Department and Emergency Communications (911) on East Main Street, with construction possibly starting later this year.
Studies of both departments in 2001, 2006 and 2012 each described the existing headquarters space as inadequate or poor with no room to grow.
But the new building has been criticized by some who want to see the money spent on other needs.
“There’s a lot more we can do with $81 million” (an earlier estimate for the new headquarters), Max Davis, president of the Durham City Workers Union, said at a March rally that shut down part of West Chapel Hill Street.
Davis wants to see part of the money used to pay local government workers a living wage of $15 per hour. “$81 million just seems like a ridiculous amount of money to waste,” he said.
The city has completed many major projects since 2008, including a Parks and Recreation Operation Facility, Fire Station 15, the Durham Performing Arts Center and the Durham Station.
Those who work in headquarters say a new police building is overdue. On a recent tour, they described their work space as inadequate and unsafe.
Take the elevators.
There is only one set in the 5-story building for nearly 300 employees, plus visitors.
“We have individuals in custody here using the same elevators, using the same restrooms, as non-sworn 911 people,” said senior program manager Bill Gascoigne.
“I’ve been in the elevator with some pretty big people,” he said. “It’s just not appropriate.”
The problems run throughout the building:
▪ In the basement, one of two original 16-foot boilers can’t be fixed because there is no physical space in the room to make the repair.
▪ On the ground floor, suspects sit in a chair in an open area as officers complete paperwork – the same area any visitor or employee would pass through between the lobby and their destination.
▪ Upstairs, the interview room walls are so thin you can sometimes hear what’s being said in the next room, including when detectives are interviewing different suspects in the same case.
The 911 center is the nerve center of the city’s public safety response, dispatching calls 24 hours a day seven days a week.
Modern centers should be invulnerable to natural disaster and terrorist attack, yet Durham’s operators sit exposed behind big, single-pane windows that in the summer can raise the inside temperature to 78 degrees.
“We need to be secure,” director Jim Soukup said. “It’s a requirement for accreditation, but it’s also a good practice. If you take the 911 center out, it stops everything.”
The 911 center shares the third floor with the Police Department’s Special Operations Division, which handles vice, narcotics and works with federal task forces on crimes like gun trafficking.
Dispatchers trying to use the bathroom in the hallway have walked in to find suspects being strip searched.
Employees store their belongings in hallway lockers like in middle school because locker rooms have been converted into offices.
The break room is so small that operators trying to decompress after a suicide call have had to compete with the beeping of coworkers heating up their meals in the microwave.
As Durham grows, Soukup said, the center will need 10 to 15 more consoles over the next 20 years. He has nowhere to put them.
But it’s not just the inside of the headquarters that is showing its age, city officials said.
As the tour ended, the group bypassed an exit door blocked with a saw horse because bricks had fallen off the back wall. The modernist structure has granite, cement, brick and steel in its facade, another factor the city memo said makes additional renovations too expensive.
Lori Blake-Reid, facilities operations manager, pointed to bolts drilled into slabs of granite “to keep it from falling and killing someone.”
“I just really look forward to getting our folks in some space where they don’t have to work like this,” she said.
Staffing: By the numbers
The Durham Police Department had 421 sworn positions and 70 civilian positions in 1998 (the last year for which figures were available), compared to 512 sworn positions and 117 civilian positions now.
Of those, here are the positions based at headquarters:
▪ Number of staff currently at HQ – 217 Police, 82 Emergency Communications – total of 299
▪ Number of staff that will be located at the new HQ – 298 Police, 82 Emergency Communications – total of 380.*
▪ Number of staff projected to be in new HQ in 2025 – 366 Police, 100 Emergency Communications – total of 466
* This includes 81 Police staff moving into HQ from the District 5 substation on Rigsbee Avenue, which will close.
Source: Durham Police Department