Durham’s former police chief, Jose L. Lopez, lost the faith and trust of large segments of the community. He was asked to retire or be removed. The search for a new police chief is ongoing.
The Bull City has an opportunity to police itself more effectively by changing the culture of its police department. A new chief can improve policing in Durham if the department, the city manager and the elected district attorney put reforms in place.
No community cooperates with a police force it fears and mistrusts. When a community loses confidence in the fairness, compassion and restraint of its police, residents are afraid to place their lives and fortunes in the hands of police officers. Such an environment breeds avoidance, evasion and resistance. For this reason, distrust and fear of the police are bad for Durham residents and dangerous for its officers.
To regain the support of the community, Durham Police Department leadership should recommit itself to justice, fairness and the rule of law for every Durham resident. Our new chief should not seek to increase enforcement numbers at the expense of the constitution and the core freedoms it protects. Warrantless searches should be the exception, not the rule. An officer who stops young African-American men during 76 percent of his traffic stops would expect to be asked to account for this by the chief in annual review, not for the first time – years later – while under cross-examination in a court of law.
The police chief must support our jury system. Whether a chief agrees or disagrees with a jury verdict involving his officers, the jury system is a foundation of our constitutional democracy.
The police chief must believe that he or she is accountable to Durham residents and to those who interact with the police and should behave accordingly. We need an experienced police chief who supports community policing and who will listen and respond to community members as well as police officers.
We can have better citizen-police relations by enacting a number of training and open government reforms, including:
▪ Keeping de-escalation training current. Conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques are a perishable skill just like firearms training or defensive tactics and should be trained and refreshed as a first line choice for resolving disagreements in the field. Every time an officer uses legal but unnecessary force, that force breaks bonds with residents and undermines trust; it instills fear.
▪ Investigating the causes when traffic stop and search statistics show racial disparities for individual officers or squads, just as the Fayetteville police chief has done.
▪ Earning the trust of citizens by taking disciplinary action against officers who violate the rights of citizens. One bad officer makes life more dangerous for every other officer. Protect and reward officers who report the misconduct of others on the force.
▪ Allowing citizens to see use-of-force reports and in-car and body camera footage that involves their own interactions with police.
▪ Requiring every officer to take the specialized training about interacting with the mentally ill, people in crisis and the disabled.
▪ Treating DPD officers fairly and paying them well for the hard, dangerous job they do so that they do not have to work second jobs serving private interests.
▪ Setting up systems in cooperation with the district attorney’s office to ensure that prosecutors know about, locate and release evidence favorable to accused persons. The constitution requires prosecutors to know of evidence in law enforcement files that would be helpful to the accused.
▪ Working with the city manager to make all Internal Affairs investigations public – at least in summary fashion – to restore public trust unless there is a compelling reason to keep them secret. This openness is permitted by law with a declaration by the city manager that it is necessary. This information to too important to be kept hidden as a rule.
Durham residents will cooperate and support a police chief who is open and more respectful of their rights and who cultivates officers who live up to the high constitutional standards required of those who take an oath to serve and protect.
Alex Charns and John C. Donovan are criminal defense and constitutional rights attorneys in Durham.