Commentary

Wilson: City must separate fact from fiction in police complaints

CorrespondentMarch 21, 2014 

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If the Fort Apache syndrome has taken hold at the Durham Police Department, it’s not hard to figure out why. The department is under siege from factions in the city for sins both real and, I suspect, imagined.

The hard-core left in Durham has never been comfortable with a public safety agency licensed to kill, not to mention capacity to inflict pain and suffering.

Durham has become a city of minorities, and minority communities are inherently suspicious, even fearful, of the police, seeing them not so much protectors of public safety but as a racist, oppressive tool of the dominant white culture.

So it comes as no surprise that the Durham Human Relations Commission, which sees the hammer of oppression everywhere, has come up with at least 50 ideas for police reform. Mayor Bill Bell asked the commission in 2013 to investigate alleged racism in the police department, responding to citizen complaints.

No one can say racism doesn’t exist in the department. The question is the extent of it. I doubt that the department, which has a minority police chief, a black deputy chief and numerous minority officers, is the veritable cesspool of racism alleged by its critics.

Yes, in recent months Durham police officers have shot and killed a man from Honduras and a black man, and a Latino teen died of a self-inflicted gunshot in the backseat of a police cruiser. All of that deadly violence, in addition to allegations of police misconduct and traffic-stop racial profiling, has minority communities on edge.

Three outbreaks of anti-police violence, egged on by young anarchists and leftists convinced that the police killed the Latino teen, caused thousands of dollars of damage to public property.

The Human Relations Commission is expected to present its report and recommendations to the City Council on April 10. The recommendations could include requiring officers to document all stops and searches and even have suspects sign a written consent to search.

But that’s just the beginning of the commission’s grievance list. It also wants racial-equity training (what we used to call thought control) for the Police Department as well as increased emphasis on officers’ mental health.

Furthermore, the commission voted for strengthening and diversifying the civilian police review board, always a sore point for any police department.

All this comes as a coalition of social-justice groups is accusing the Police Department of paying $300 bonuses to confidential informants for drug convictions. These groups say the department didn’t tell the district attorney’s office or defense attorneys about the payments.

The department maintains that it has done nothing wrong. But it doesn’t have to – pile on enough allegations and the department’s credibility and effectiveness are weakened.

Where the department has failed has to be corrected, of course, and that’s the responsibility of the city manager and the City Council.

No doubt some changes are necessary. Preventing officers from turning off their dash-mount video cameras, for example, is one in the best interests of officers and suspects alike.

The Human Relations Commission bids to send so many recommendations to the City Council that separating the wheat from the chaff will be a challenge. And with so many recommendations, you can be sure there is a lot of chaff.

In its deliberations for reform, the council must be careful to avoid crippling the Police Department. As physicians say, first do no harm.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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