The announcement that Durham Police Chief José Lopez is being forced into retirement, while a clear response to community pressure, will not be enough to address the broken trust between the Durham Police Department and the community. To be sure, it was a step in the right direction.
Far from inspiring community confidence in public safety, Lopez’s leadership had become symbolic of racially biased and overly militarized policing that was clearly inconsistent with what most Durham residents want. Lopez’s often defensive and abrasive tone in public comments make him an easy scapegoat for the city’s law enforcement problem. Nevertheless, his exit is no cure-all for still rampant racial profiling by Durham police.
Over the last two years, reports of racial discrimination by DPD have come from the U.S. Department of Justice, the city’s own Human Relations Commission, numerous community groups, defense attorneys and even DPD officers themselves. We want a Durham where all of us can walk the streets without becoming targets of those tasked with keeping us safe. We want a Durham where all people can live free from fear.
Bias-based policing will not be solved by getting rid of one official. This is a systemic problem in Durham, with deadly consequences. The same Department of Justice report on crime in Durham found that Durham’s murder rate for young black men is eight times the national average, and it named “community perception of racially biased policing” as one reason for our heightened crime rate.
Even after recent reforms, young black men are being tased by Durham police simply for the crime of grocery shopping while black in the new “revitalized” Durham.
More than a new figurehead, we need policy change. More than an $80 million Main Street mansion for a dysfunctional but expanding police force, we need to hear from the community about how we are treated by police on our streets. It is clear that the much-celebrated police reforms implemented by City Council in 2014 – driven by widespread public pressure and community organizing – did not go far enough. At that time, council sought to rein in rampant racial bias in drug law enforcement, in part, through requiring procedural changes to consent searches. However, the data have shown DPD’s use of probable cause searches have simply surged instead.
City Manager Tom Bonfield is calling for “a new chapter in the book of public safety in Durham.” We indeed need change. The vehicle for true transformation of community-law enforcement relations in Durham is the Community Safety Act, written by LGBTQ grassroots organization Southerners on New Ground. It calls for standard operating procedures for law enforcement interactions with transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming individuals to support a consistent climate of safety and respect for the rights of these members of our community. It also calls for the creation of a Community Safety Review Board comprised of five Durham residents from the African-American, Latino, LGBTQ and faith-based communities.
This proposed ordinance extends the work of the FADE Coalition and was endorsed by the Durham People’s Alliance, iNSIDEoUT, SpiritHouse, Muslims for Social Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace, Raise Up for 15 and a diverse array of community groups and residents. The ordinance was proposed to City Council for consideration on June 4, but three months later the Community Safety Act remains on the desks of our city officials, and we wonder whether it’ll ever get its well-deserved spotlight at a council meeting or work session agenda.
None of these groups can be characterized as “fractured” or “fringe” elements of the community, and none of us called for Chief Lopez’s resignation. What we are asking for are meaningful reforms of community-police relations that will rebuild trust and accountability. Lopez will soon be gone, but when will the Community Safety Act move forward? For real change, it is time to listen to the voices of the people of Durham. We are clearly calling for local law enforcement policies and practices to support safety, dignity and respect for all people.
Serena Sebring is a campaign organizer for Southerners on New Ground in Durham.