Durham News

Police call for public apology from Durham city councilwoman

Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson at a rally in March against a new $81 million Durham police headquarters planned for East Main Street downtown.
Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson at a rally in March against a new $81 million Durham police headquarters planned for East Main Street downtown. mschultz@newsobserver.com

Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson said she doesn’t plan to apologize or resign following public backlash to a Facebook post that said “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.”

Law enforcement officials asked Johnson Wednesday to publicly apologize for the Monday Facebook post.

“It is a slap in the face of everyone that protects our city and our country,” says a statement from the Durham County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 2. “While Ms. Johnson is entitled to her opinion, she is an elected official and should be held to a higher standard.”

On Wednesday, Johnson said in an interview she posted the statement on her personal Facebook page after members of the U.S. House of Representatives unsuccessfully called for measures to curb gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists following the Orlando shooting in the Pulse nightclub.

“I am all about keeping guns away from dangerous people,” she wrote, “but I feel like more of us should be pointing out that the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers, and that the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling and Islamophobia.”

Johnson’s initial post drew emails Tuesday and Wednesday from residents, current and former members of the military and law enforcement calling for her resignation and chiding her for her comments. At least three emails expressed support for her stand.

Johnson posted a clarification Wednesday morning, saying “state-sanctioned violence causes more harm” than non-state sanctioned violence.

“I believe this is true both because the approval of those in authority and often the general public gives a veneer of acceptability to actions we would otherwise condemn, but also because states have the capacity to spend huge resources equipping and funding people to use force in defense of their interests.”

The post expressed concern about incarceration rates, police-related homicide rates and how much money the United States spends on the military.

“We should not ignore these facts, or wrongly assume that those who believe that this situation is fundamentally unjust” and should not continue harboring a hatred for police and soldiers, the post states. “I certainly find a great many of the actions taken by militaries and police forces here in the U.S. and around the world extremely troubling, and I also respect the humanity of those who do not share this disagreement.”

Johnson does not believe all individual officers cause harm, she wrote in a text to a reporter, her “issue is with the institution.”

Mayor Bill Bell, a U.S. Army veteran, said he disagrees with Johnson’s initial statement but elected officials have the right to express their thoughts.

“She doesn’t speak for the council,” Bell said.

Councilman Eddie Davis said the comments may damage the relationship that council members have being trying to build with the Police Department.

“It certainly sends a signal that not all of the council members are as supportive as they ought to be,” he said.

Johnson, 34, was elected to the Durham City Council in November. She was the second-highest vote getter among six candidates vying for three at-large council seats.

Durham resident Rodrigo Dorfman, 49, said Johnson was elected because she was not a career politician and speaks her mind, “sometimes in draft mode.”

“If you can’t handle the underlying message you are part of the problem,” he said. “If I were a black youth, I would be much more afraid of a cop than a terrorist.”

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews is “disappointed” by Johnson’s remarks, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said.

In a statement, new Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis said the city is fortunate to have “faithful, dedicated police officers who are committed to serving residents.”

“The Durham Police Department, in conjunction with city leadership, recognizes the sacrifices our officers make daily and thank them for their service,” the statement said.

Mike Evans, president of the Durham County Fraternal Order of Police, said he has been getting texts and phone calls from officers and members of the military.

“We are offended that we would have a city official that would make this kind of comment when the Police Department is working so hard to build trust in the community,” he said. “How are we going to build trust with the community when you have a city official making these types of derogatory statements.”

Since joining the council in December, Johnson and other new member Charlie Reece have been more outspoken and active on social media compared to other members.

In addition to frequent social media posts, Johnson has also participated in a breastfeeding “nurse-in” at Costco and protests about conditions at the Durham County jail and one expressing opposition to the city spending millions of dollars on the new police department headquarters.

The Facebook post is the latest police-related controversy in Durham as Bull City leaders hope Davis will help address concerns about racial disparities in traffic stops and other enforcement, violent crime and lack of public trust within some communities. In addition, the Durham NAACP, the mother La’Vante Trevon Biggs and others have raised questions about the department’s use of force. Police say Biggs, 21, was suicidal and holding a weapon when police responded to 911 calls from him and his mother in the 1700 block of Angier Avenue. The Durham NAACP and Biggs’ say police mismanaged the situation and that Biggs’ death could have been prevented.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges