Durham panel wants strong police review board

jwise@newsobserver.comMarch 6, 2014 

  • What’s next

    The Durham Human Relations Commission resumes its deliberations on dealing with alleged police racism at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Neighborhood Improvement Services conference room in the Golden Belt complex, 807 E. Main St. The meeting is open to the public, but only commissioners may speak.

— A city advisory panel investigating alleged police racism thinks Durham needs a stronger Civilian Police Review Board, among other measures.

The city’s Human Relations Commission had expected to finish choosing among dozens of recommendations during a two-hour meeting this week, but members agreed to come back Tuesday to finish the list when the meeting ran long.

“In my experience,” said City Councilman Don Moffitt, the council liaison to the commission, “as people get tired, discussion tends to expand.”

As it was, some ideas sparked lengthy discussion, while others inspired almost none as the commissioners reviewed more than 40 possible recommendations and voted on what to do with each one.

The ideas came from five months of public hearings the commission held after Mayor Bill Bell asked members to look into mounting complaints against police, including three officer-involved shootings and a study showing racial disparities in traffic stops, searches and arrests.

The commission rejected Chairman Ricky Hart’s suggestion for greater Police Department “transparency across the board,” saying the issue was covered in other suggestions. But it approved ongoing police oversight by the commission, City Council or some other body with “measurable benchmarks” for assessing its performance.

By a narrow margin, after lengthy conversation, they rejected the idea of making officers’ patrol-car videos public, for the sake of privacy.

“If your child is arrested and her friends get access to that video – you don’t want it made public,” Commissioner Misty Odell said.

The commission did hold onto the idea of eliminating officers’ ability to turn off their in-car cameras, recalling the error that left no video record of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta’s death in a patrol car last November.

By a larger margin, they lumped seven separate suggestions into one recommending that police do a better public-relations job of telling the public what officers are already doing to engage with citizens aside from making patrols and arresting suspects.

Review board

The commission has no deadline for finishing its work. Hart and Vice Chairman Phil Seib laid out a process for choosing suggestions to include in a draft report for commissioners’ critiquing before writing a final version and scheduling its presentation to the City Council.

Fourteen of the suggestions had to do with the Civilian Police Review Board, which currently receives appeals from citizens dissatisfied with their complaints’ handling by police internal affairs, and decides whether the handling warrants a further hearing.

According to city records, since 2003 the board has received 31 appeals and granted two hearings. City attorneys have said empowering the board, such as by giving it subpoena and disciplinary authority, would require state legislation, but the commission members liked proposals to study other board models with such power.

They also favored moving oversight of the review board from the city manager to the City Council; annual training for board members by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement; and appointing members through the five Partners Against Crime groups, which are organized according to police district.

“To make sure that people from all parts of the city are represented,” said Commissioner Susan Austin. “I think it’s important.”

Made the list

Among other suggestions passing muster last week:

•  Preference in hiring for Durham residents

•  Supporting programs for youths convicted of minor offenses to have their records cleared

•  Educating citizens on their rights when police ask search permission

•  Encouraging the Police Department to finish the strategic plan required of all city departments

•  Ensuring proper investigation when citizens who have complained about police claim officers have retaliated against them.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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