A grassroots coalition working on behalf of young African Americans, the homeless, members of the LGBTQ community, and working-class residents played an integral role in the Durham City Council’s decision last Thursday to reject a $1.2 million police department request for eighteen more patrol officers, despite a sharp uptick in homicides so far this year.
Instead, the city will bring its roughly two hundred part-time workers up to $15.46 an hour, at the cost of about $650,000.
While deeply rooted community groups like the People’s Alliance supported and lobbied for the council’s decision, the Durham chapter of Beyond Policing—a coalition of ten local organizations comprising mostly eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds that want to divest from police and prisons and reinvest local resources in black and brown communities—was front and center.
Its members had spent months preparing for the vote: poring through city budgets, analyzing data, researching past council meetings, and lobbying council members one on one. They made their case during a public hearing the previous Monday. They also sent the council a fifty-page budget report, which included analysis of calls-for-service data and other police metrics. The report recommended that, instead of hiring additional police, the city fund a community-based wellness and safety task force “empowered to research and propose viable, cost-effective, long-term solutions to violence and harm.”
“We crafted a strong proposal for why we need Durham to invest in life-affirming services, not an unjustified expansion of the police force,” says Durham Beyond Policing spokeswoman Manju Rajendran.
The council voted 5–2 against adding eighteen additional officers, with Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson, Vernetta Alston, Javiera Caballero, and Mayor Steve Schewel opposing the DPD’s request. Schewel then proposed a compromise of nine new officers, which the council turned down 4–3.
The council’s majority echoed some of the coalition’s findings. Reece says he appreciated that the recommendations highlighted “possibilities for bringing our community together to talk about what other types of initiatives might increase community safety and reduce harm in our neighborhoods outside the context of law enforcement.”
Reece adds that the department’s clearance rates and response times are better than the national average. Even though there’s been a 17 percent increase in crime this year, he says, “making police staffing decisions based on three months or even five months of crime statistics doesn’t really make a lot of sense, even if you believe that more cops means less crime.”
Johnson says the DPD doesn’t need more officers, as its clearance rates and response times “indicate that they already have the resources they need to respond to the increase in violent crimes this year. I don’t think the police department needs any additional officers to meet our goals. They already have them.”
Johnson points to a recent audit that found that, of all city departments, the DPD had the most employees who receive at least $10,000 in overtime pay.
“We could significantly reduce the number of overtime hours by filling the vacancies in the department,” she says. “We paid thirty-five thousand hours of overtime, but we had forty vacancies.”
The DPD has 547 budgeted positions for sworn officers, an increase of 47—or nearly 10 percent—since 2006, most of which have been added since 2016. Since 2006, Durham’s population has grown by 27 percent and calls for service to the department have increased to 25 percent, although high-priority calls have fallen. The police department loses and has to replace about fifty officers each year.
According to an analysis Johnson sent to the rest of the council in late May, Durham’s police force currently has 19.9 officers per 10,000 residents, and the additional officers would have bumped that number to 20.2. The national average for midsize cities with between 100,000 and 500,000 residents is 16.9 officers.
“This means we already have eighty-three more officers than the national average for a U.S. city in our population range,” Johnson told her colleagues in an email.
In March, police chief C.J. Davis said she wanted to add seventy-two new officers over the next three years. After pushback from the council, last week’s request was scaled back to eighteen officers for a pilot program in East Durham.
Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton—who voted with Mayor Steve Schewel and DeDreana Freeman for the additional cops—says he’s frustrated by the perception that the extra officers are only needed because of rising crime or the increasing population.
“There are reasons to hire more officers that are not crime-related,” he says. “How long it takes someone to get a police report after a fender-bender, how long it takes police to secure a perimeter after an explosion like the one we had in downtown so that firefighters can get in there and save lives, or when there’s an Amber Alert and how quickly our officers can go out and look for our children.”
Middleton argues that calls for service and response times are down and clearance rates are up because the city has more boots on the ground.
“The idea is to not be reactionary,” he says. “Our residents should not notice a drop in service in order to spur us to increase staff. I want to be a proactive government, not a reactionary government, because we know the city is growing.”
Schewel says he understands the concerns about over-policing, but he trusts Davis.
“She’s done an incredible job of reforming the police department. She’s built trust in our communities of color,” Schewel says. The nine extra officers would let current officers “have a better work-life balance,” Schewel continues. “The long shifts are not good for the officer and not good for the community. But the council did not go for that.”
Rajendran calls that decision—and the council’s vote to spend $350,000 on eviction diversion—an enormous victory.
She says bringing the stories of Durham residents’ lives to City Hall “made enough of a difference to tip the vote toward justice” and away from “expanding the policing that harasses and harms our communities.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story has been updated to correct the amount the city spent on the eviction diversion program, clarify that Schewel voted against the original request for eighteen officers, and add additional information about police staffing.
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