Standing-room crowd hears Durham city manager’s report on police racism

jwise@newsobserver.comAugust 21, 2014 

— So many people came to hear City Manager Tom Bonfield’s report on alleged racial profiling by the Durham Police Department Thursday that the City Council had to move its work session from the usual Committee Room to the Council Chamber at City Hall.

“We understand the interest,” Mayor Bill Bell told the standing-room only crowd.

While the presentation was not a public hearing, Bell let people comment on the manager’s 131-page report that was posted on the city website ( bit.ly/1v9LC6H) Monday afternoon. Nineteen did so, most saying it did not go far enough in addressing claims of police bias.

“The city manager’s report ... falls short of what the people need,” said Durham attorney Charlie Reece, speaking for the People’s Alliance. “It will not do enough to eliminate the troubling racial disparities that exist ... that diminish us greatly as a community.”

Bonfield’s report is the city’s response to the Durham Human Relations Commission’s conclusion that “racial bias and profiling (are) present in the Durham Police Department practices.”

The Police Department has acknowledged racial disparities in traffic stops and searches, and in drug-law enforcement, but says those disparities do not prove racial profiling or discrimination.

Bonfield, though, said, “Our review and the data tell us in some areas unexplained racial disparities do exist.”

A number of speakers criticized Bonfield’s weak of support for the commission’s recommendation that written consent be required before searching drivers and vehicles during traffic stops. His report encourages written consent but leaves the decision to officers’ discretion – commenting that a requirement could jeopardize “officer safety or situational control.”

Minister Mark Anthony Middleton with the citizens group Durham CAN, said not requiring written consent was a negative “brand” on the city.

“This is the United States of America,” he said. “It’s supposed to be difficult to stop and search and detain people. We designed it that way.”

Councilman Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden said traffic-stop searches were the most important issue, but Cole-McFadden said she was also concerned with police recruiting.

“We need to look at who we’re recruiting, where they’re coming from, and the content of our orientation” for new officers, she said.

“It’s important that when (new officers) hit Durham soil they know who they’re working for … know the demographics and culture of this city,” she said.

Two former Durham officers spoke up for the Police Department.

Phil Wiggins, who said he had retired after more than 27 years as a Durham officer, said Durham has had female, black, white and Latino chiefs. “Racism is not tolerated by the Durham Police Department,” he said.

Several speakers invoked the rioting in Missouri that has followed a police officer’s fatal shooting of a young black man.

“We’re being targeted. It’s not a secret,” said Umar Muhammad, who identified himself as a member of the FADE Coalition, a citizens group that supports the commission recommendations and advocates designating marijuana enforcement the city’s lowest-law enforcement priority.

The Human Relations Commission made no recommendation on marijuana enforcement, but Bonfield’s response called it “of particular concern” and called for a police explanation of wide racial disparities in misdemeanor marijuana arrests.

Bell said he and council members would make their own responses at the next regular council meeting, on Sept. 2.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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