Bull City Politics: Incumbents who rejected more police officers take heat at forums

This is the first in an occasional series of Durham political columns heading into the Oct. 8 municipal primary. For a list of the candidates go to bit.ly/2m8jE1u

City Council incumbents in Durham are still defending — and this week got booed for — a budget vote last spring.

Residents at a candidates forum Tuesday night asked Councilwomen Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero and Mayor Steve Schewel about a June decision not to hire more police officers and to instead raise the minimum pay for city workers to $15 per hour.

Tuesday’s forum at the East Regional Library was hosted by Durham Democrats Precinct 30-1. About 50 residents attended.

They also questioned the candidates about affordable housing, what now happens with money intended for the Durham-Orange light-rail project, immigration and how economic prosperity can reach other parts of the city beyond downtown.

Many questions also were asked about this fall’s $95 million affordable housing bond referendum. The money would help pay for the Durham Housing Authority’s 10-year expansion plans, Schewel said. DHA wants to dramatically increase the number of affordable housing units on its downtown properties by partnering with developers to build mixed-income neighborhoods.

More officers requested

Last winter, Police Chief C.J. Davis sought 72 more officers over four years, but when City Manager Tom Bonfield rolled out his budget proposal in June he included only 18 additional officers for a pilot program in District 4. The council rejected that, 4-3.

Johnson and Caballero, who have consistently said there are better ways to fight criminal activity than by continually adding more police officers, responded much the same way during the forum.

“We need more resources in the community to reduce crime,” Johnson said. “There has been an over-investment in enforcement. We need to put the time and energy into stopping crime before it starts.”

They also pointed, despite a recent uptick, to a long-term decrease in crime in Durham and suggested that a community safety task force could help head off crime before it happens.

“We have the tools here to solve our problems,” Caballero said.

Councilman Charlie Reece, who also supported the budget change, did not attend Tuesday’s forum.

The City Council began talking about creating a task force last week but have not said who might be on it and how it might work.

City Council candidate Victoria Peterson said she would call for an additional 100 officers if she was elected.

Candidates Ricardo Correa, Jackie Wagstaff, Joshua Gunn and John Tarantino said they supported Davis’ request.

Schewel also was asked about police staffing. He had offered a budget compromise proposing nine more officers, but it too was rejected, 4-3.

Durham has about 550 officers, which puts it right on average with other cities the same size, he said.

The issue also came up Monday at a Partners Against Crime District 2 forum where those who had rejected more police were booed.

Resident Antonio Jones, who attended both forums, said Tuesday’s forum was less pointed for Caballero and Johnson.

“Monday night, it was clear the residents wanted answers concerning the recent crime increase and the proposed $95 million housing bond,” Jones said. “Overall, many thought the incumbents were tone deaf or uninterested. Some of the challengers appeared to be more engaged.

There were 27 homicides in Durham as of Sept 7, according to the Police Department website. Violent crime is up 6.8% compared to last year at this time.

What’s next

The field in the City Council race will be reduced from 10 to six after the Oct. 8 municipal primary. Early voting in the primary runs Sept. 18-Oct. 4.

The general election is Nov. 5. Voters will elect three at-large members to the council and a mayor in the race between Schewel and challenger Sylvester Williams, as well as decide on the housing bond.

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