Durham citizens got a chance to hear the two finalists for Durham police chief answer some of their questions on Wednesday night — and agree on pretty much everything.
The audience packed Durham’s City Hall to standing-room capacity for Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Cerelyn Davis and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Major Michael Smathers.
Battling an uncooperative PA system that was too quiet, except when it occasionally crackled loudly, Davis and Smathers answered, during the allotted hour, just a handful of around sixty-five questions submitted by citizens.
Those were asked by Public Affairs Director Beverly Thompson, the moderator. Many addressed headline-making issues that led to public relations nightmares for former chief Jose Lopez, who retired at the end of 2015.
On the topic of gangs, David and Smathers both said prevention techniques are essential in fighting fluid gang activity that’s difficult to track.
Davis began her answer by talking about the Gang Unit under her Atlanta Police command, and its awareness of the “hybrid” nature of modern street gangs.
“They’re one name, one week,” said Davis, “and then a different name another week.”
She added that the most effective weapon is to get to kids early, to divert them from destructive gang lifestyles.
“You can’t save every child,” she said. “But at the same time, there have to be preventive measures. I want to add that in, so that it doesn’t appear that we’re just enforcing gang types of initiatives. Because we can’t arrest crime away. We have to put in pro-active preventive measures in our schools, and also in our various recreational facilities, and incorporate other individuals with like concerns, to try to educate young people to stay away from that type of activity.”
Smathers also talked about his long experience with gangs, and agreed with Davis about the importance of prevention. Regarding those who refuse to walk away from gang activity, Smathers said he’s prepared to take “aggressive” action, with the help of the GangNET database already in place in North Carolina.
“The preventive component of that is where you’re going to achieve long-term success, ” he added. “You’ve got to give these young people opportunities to seek a way other than the gang relationships that are so powerful and impactful on them.”
A question from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People addressed racial profiling, in the wake of a recent RTI International study that shows Durham police disproportionately pulled over black male drivers between January 2010 and October 2015.
Smathers said he’s aware of the study, as well as racial disparities in police practices “in general,” and its damaging effect on the trust between police and the community.
“We have to be willing to take a critical eye, and look at how we do things,” said Smathers. “I’ve had training and exposure to understanding racial bias, and how it impacts the delivery of police services my entire career. And it’s impacted me, and it’s made me a better police officer.”
He added that the process of dealing with police biases must be “ongoing,” and can’t stop with a “one-time snapshot” like the RTI study.
“It’s no a good feeling being profiled,” said Davis, when it was her turn to answer. “It’s not a good feeling when you are afraid that your relative is not going to be able to drive the streets of the community they live in without being harassed.”
Davis said it’s the responsibility of the police department to monitor arrests and traffic stops to ensure “bias-based profiling” is not taking place. She added LGBT and Hispanic communities, “or any other minorities” to the list of groups that deserve more diligent protections against biased policing.
Speaking more to that topic, Thompson asked a question in reference to a Greensboro police policy to de-emphasize traffic stops for minor infractions — a non-functioning tail light, for example. Should Durham adopt such a policy?
The two candidates voiced agreement on that issue, too.
Smathers said his policy is to focus on potentially dangerous moving violations when it comes to traffic stops. Frequent pullovers for equipment problems, he added, “[don’t] make our community safer.”
He added that it’s particularly hurtful in poorer communities, where people already struggle with keeping vehicles in good working condition. To be targeted by police for minor car problems, he said, causes fractured community relationships, and “a level of distrust that’s palpable.”
Davis concurred, and drew on what she called an unwritten policy of the Atlanta Police Department to cut down on stops for minor car problems.
“Many times when petty stops are made, it leads to hostile kinds of encounters,” she said. “It leads to pulling over an individual — sometimes, even an elderly individual — just trying to get home because of a busted tail light that they can’t get fixed. That’s not what’s important to us.”
For the rest of the hour, Davis and Smathers took questions on topics that included community policing; retention of good police personnel; proper training of officers to handle domestic violence and sexual assault cases; the importance of de-escalating potentially dangerous situations; and body cameras for police officers.
The latter has been a thorny issue for Durham. Last month, the Durham City Council indefinitely delayed a vote on ordering $366,000 worth of police body cameras, until a policy could be reached that would sufficiently address privacy protections, video maintenance, and public accessibility.
Davis said it’s important to get a high level of input from legal advisers, city officials and community members in order to implement a fair, effective policy.
“I believe that body cameras are going to be a positive aspect of policing,” said Davis. “Body cameras have a tendency to make everyone pay closer attention to their behavior.”
Smathers — who, at one point, said he would be “blindingly transparent” with the public as police chief — emphasized public accessibility in his response.
“I’m a full proponent of allowing an individual who feels like they’ve been aggrieved, in some way, to have an opportunity to come in and watch that video … and have that interaction with us,” he said.
One question was directed solely to Smathers, regarding his role in recommending manslaughter charges against Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer Randall Kerrick, who fatally shot unarmed Jonathan Ferrell in 2013. Kerrick’s trial last year ended with a hung jury, and the state did not pursue the case further.
Smathers was asked how his stand affected his relationships with fellow officers.
“I lost friends in my organization,” he said. “It was very difficult for our organization to accept the fact that we were charging an officer. That made it no less right. And it made it no less a thing that we needed to do.”
Afterward, during meet-and-greet time with the audience, City Council member Charlie Reece chatted with County Commissioner Chair Ellen Reckhow outside the Council chamber.
Both said they were impressed — with both candidates.
“I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision,” Reece said. “Every other question, I was turning to [Council member Jillian Johnson] and saying, ‘That was a really good answer.’”
Reckhow agreed: “They were both really good.”
Sierra and Tim McKoy told The INDY they were also encouraged by what they heard. The African-American couple lives in Northeast Durham, and they both work for the Fire Department. Sierra is an education coordinator in the department’s public information office, and Tim is a firefighter.
“I think we’d be fortunate to have either one as our police chief,” said Tim. As a lifelong resident, he said it makes him “upset to see such negative attention on the city,” regarding reports of murders and gun violence. That. he said, is why he and Sierra came out to the forum.
The couple said they’re also concerned about racial profiling in traffic stops. Tim said he was stopped once for a “crooked” license plate. (“And it wasn’t even crooked!” he said.)
“Stopping someone for a crooked license plate — how’s that making the community safer?” Sierra added.
Tim said that when candidates for police chief say they want to change that aspect of police culture, “that’s a positive thing. That’s the start of trying to get rid of some of the tension that we do have.”
Citizens in attendance filled out feedback cards to be reviewed by City Manager Tom Bonfield’s office. Bonfield is expected to make a job offer by the end of April, and the new chief will start in May.