Barry Saunders

Saunders: Durham needs a police chief like Fayetteville’s

Fayetteville police chief Harold Medlock is not only willing, but eager, to invite scrutiny from the public and the Justice Department.
Fayetteville police chief Harold Medlock is not only willing, but eager, to invite scrutiny from the public and the Justice Department. The Fayetteville Observer

Outta the mouths of babes, right?

As kids in the 1970s, whenever one of our buddies could get hold of a car, we liked going to Fayetteville for its distinctive adult nightlife at places where the only ID required was green with a picture of Abraham Lincoln on it.

Even at that tender age, my buddy Rodney summed up the city in a way that still holds true. Despite its beloved charms, Fayetteville, he said, is a Charlotte that didn’t quite make it.

So Chief, you interested in making a move?

That’s what I wanted to ask Fayetteville’s police chief, Harold Medlock, after he met with reporters last week in Durham to discuss a new Open Data Policing plan that was unveiled by the Southern Center for Social Justice.

Durham is fixing to start looking for a new chief to replace the soon-to-be-departed Jose Lopez, and a chief who is not only willing, but eager, to invite scrutiny sounds like just what the Bull City needs.

The SCSJ showed reporters an app that allows anyone access to data that show who’s being stopped by police, where and why, as well as who’s doing the stopping. Say you think it was an unrighteous stop that had you pulled over to the side of the highway for 45 minutes while police dogs sniff your car, clothes and slobber all over your Nabs on the front seat – as happened to me two years ago by South Carolina deputies.

With the new app, all you have to do is go to the SCSJ website, tap in the whens and wherefores, and you can find out whether you were really singled out for suspicion of doing something wrong or just because that particular officer didn’t like the way you look.

Not only was Chief Medlock in Durham to extol the program’s virtues, but he had earlier asked the Department of Justice to investigate his department and suggest ways to improve how it serves Fayetteville.

As I’m sure many Fayetteville cops did, I asked “WHAT?”

I wanted to know why a police chief would sign up for something like that, as well as embrace an app that will shine a light into heretofore hard-to-access corners of police work.

“It’s a way of opening our police department up to our customers, to the people we serve,” Medlock said. He said that after learning about the DoJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office, “we invited ourselves to the party.” As for the app that’ll show who’s being stopped, why and where, he said, “The data are what the data are. The days of policing in secret are over.”

I was doubly impressed that he knew “data” are plural.

The Department of Justice issued a report last week with 76 recommendations on how the Fayetteville Police Department can, among other things, reduce its use-of-force incidents and improve its relationship with the community.

Man, voluntarily inviting the Department of Justice to investigate your cop shop seems about like going to the dentist for a root canal before you get a toothache.

Ian Mance, a staff attorney for the SCSJ, called Medlock “one of the more progressive and forward-thinking police chiefs in North Carolina. I’ve been so impressed by the numbers (of arrests) in Fayetteville. Four years ago, Fayetteville was going through what Durham went through last year.”

He was referring to the widespread disaffection of residents toward the department and an us-against-them mentality that seemed to permeate all interactions.

The Fayetteville Police Department has reduced by half the number of traffic stops while also seeing a decrease in the number of traffic fatalities.

Medlock inviting the DoJ to investigate his department, Mance said, “says a lot about him. They had some critical things to say, but his mentality seems to be, ‘Let’s air this out and talk about it.’”

I’d already been a fan of Medlock, going back a couple of years when some heinous crime was committed in the ’Ville and he went on television to implore citizens to get involved. He seemed as hurt by what had happened to the victims and his city as the relatives of the victims.

So come to Durham, Chief, and we can promise you all of the charm and crime you can handle. Sure, previous chiefs have shut down most of the sin dens like the 14 Karat Dinner Theater and Brothers III that made the city so delightfully decadent but weren’t included in Chamber of Commerce brochures. But you won’t get bored.

We’ve got great barbecue and fish, and institutions of higher learning such as Duke and NCCU. There is the beautiful and acoustically superb Durham Performing Arts Center and the ballpark a long home run’s distance away. You have to be careful when going to take in a show at DPAC, though, because some geniuses decide to build an equally but incongruously impressive jailhouse right across the street.

Because of their proximity and grandeur, it’s likely that more than a few visitors have gone to the jail seeking tickets for “The Lion King.”