Barry Saunders

Chief Lopez wasn’t exactly a friend to the media

Hey, Chief, was it something I said?

Durham’s top cop, Jose Lopez, is leaving the post at the end of the year.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said this week that he gave Chief Lopez the options of retiring with notice, resigning or being fired: Lopez picked door No. 1.

The chief and I got off on the bad foot eight years ago when, shortly after he took the job, he haughtily informed our reporter not to call him at home after 8 p.m.

Say what?

When an N&O reporter rang up the chief at home and asked if he could confirm that two people had been arrested in a home-invasion car crash and officer-involved shooting, Lopez said, “No, I can’t confirm that because I’m at home and I haven’t been in to work. ... I’m at home, trying to relax. Calling me at home at 8 o’clock on a Sunday night is not reasonable.”

It might not have been reasonable if criminals observed a similar schedule, promising not to knock people in the head, knock over stores or commit mayhem after 8 p.m.

The chief was being a diva, I wrote, and compared him to a Hollywood celebrity – and judge of “American Idol” – with the same trait and the same initials as his.

He was right to be incensed by that because it was a borderline cheap shot. I was wrong and immediately tried to apologize – first by telephone, but he never returned my calls, then in person when we encountered each other on the porch of a Durham restaurant at Brightleaf Square on a beautiful, sunny day.

Me: (Extending my hand): “Chief, I’m Barry Saunders of the N&O and I’d like to apologize for ...”

Lopez: (looking at my hand as though it contained a half-et possum): “I know who you are.”

Lopez then wheeled away with military abruptness, leaving poor me in the middle of the restaurant porch with an extended hand and, along with other diners who’d witnessed the incident, a feeling of deep embarrassment.

Being the sensitive soul that you all know and love, I reflexively conjured Scarlett O’Hara, put the back of my wrist to my forehead and swooned. “Whatever shall I do? Wherever shall I go? The chief don’t like me no mo’.”

I swear, that snub must have bothered me for the next five – no, 10 – seconds.

Getting over the fact that Chief Lopez didn’t accept my sincerely proffered apology was easy: I never got over the fact, though, that except in rare instances, his department and he remain slow in responding to requests for information that some might consider vital. Other reporters have said they experienced the same problem, although the chief apparently has no aversion to TV cameras.

You’re right, of course, dear readers: Keeping reporters happy is not a prerequisite for being a good police chief. Recognizing that keeping the public informed of lurking dangers such as a maniac on the loose or a series of break-ins in a particular community is, though.

If Lopez or his department mouthpiece were going to call or visit every Durham resident and alert them to what dangers were afoot, then his reluctance to timely respond to information requests could be countenanced: barring that, he has an obligation to talk to the news media so we can tell people what’s going down.

City manager Bonfield said the city will conduct a national search for his replacement. Not all of the problems confronting the DPD can be attributed directly to Lopez – he often looked genuinely pained at the murder scenes at which I saw him – so don’t expect Marshall Dillon to come riding in on his trusty steed to immediately improve community relations and take a bite out of crime.

Whoever Bonfield selects, though, should understand that being a police chief is not a 9-to-5 job – or even a 9-to-8 one.

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