On Policing and A New Police Chief

Policing is fundamentally an exercise of power, and there is an inherent imbalance of power between police and the community. The authorization by the state to use force, including deadly force, against others is an incredible amount of power, and I believe we give that power away with far too few meaningful checks on it. That is why we have police brutality and abuse. The problem is the structure of the system, not a “few bad apples.”

The way we give people their power back in the context of this system is to establish real, meaningful citizen oversight of the police. This transforms the very nature of police, from an institution that has power-over the community to an institution that has power-with the community. “Crime” (what we think of as crime – because there’s plenty of anti-social behavior that isn’t seen as criminal) is most commonly a the recourse of people who are forced to live with a lack of opportunity to survive in more productive and pro-social ways, and we obviously cannot police our way out of poverty and oppression. What we can do is only deploy police as a last resort, to do these two things:

1) Investigate violent crime

2) Protect vulnerable civilians

In that context, I think some of the goals of transforming the Durham police department are as follows (not an inclusive list, I’m sure there are more)

3) Reduce use of force incidents

4) Reduce arrests and prosecutions for nonviolent and drug “crime”

5) End racial disparities in policing

6) Hold police accountable to the community

So here we are with the opportunity to pick a new chief who can really start us down this road and be an agent for a shift in culture in the department to one of transparency and accountability. The first step in finding that person is, of course, the search process:

There needs to be substantial community involvement in that process in order to do two things:

1) To meaningfully build a conversation with the community, on our way toward implementing meaningful reforms together

2) To increase the possibility that we get someone who is more likely to serve our interests.

So far there has been a survey and several listening sessions with the consultant who is doing the search. I think the survey was lacking and the listening sessions were well-intentioned but poorly attended. That’s both our fault as a community for failing to turn our people out and the fault of the city administration for not reaching out more. We all need to do better on that account.

The process continues – when they narrow the field more, there will be opportunities for members of the public to participate in in-depth field interview process (mock community meetings, mock investigations, etc.) The city’s (and consultant’s) current plan is to have 2 police chiefs, one city manager, and one community member on this panel. I will be pushing for there to be 3 community members instead, thus balancing the number of police “insiders and outsiders” who will be on the panel. Also there’s a question of who the citizens are. It would be very easy to pick 3 citizens who have no concerns with the way policing is done in Durham to be included and then claim that we’d gotten community involvement. I think instead we need to actively reach out to groups that are critical of the police department, and of policing as a system, and bring those people and their very important ideas into the conversation.

So then we come to the kind of person we want. I think we want someone who is a change agent. Someone who has taken troubled departments with tense community-police relations and transformed them. Someone who has experience working with and within a racially diverse community. Someone who understands mass incarceration and can give officers reasonable instruction regarding how to treat teenagers caught smoking weed (LOWEST-LEVEL PRIORITY). Someone who understands how unjust and broken our immigration system is and can give officers reasonable instructions on how to respond to people who are driving without a license (because they can’t get one) or who are in domestic violence situations that are even more terrifying for them because of their immigration status. Someone who can model and show respect for de-escalation and non-lethal force, particularly in situations involving mental-health crises, as is clearly necessary based on the two recent shootings of mentally ill black men by the DPD. Someone who recognizes that police are not the solution to problems in our community and believes in efforts to reduce poverty, provide meaningful educational, economic, and social opportunities for our residents. Someone who will live here in Durham and feels a commitment to this community because it’s their home too.

I don’t want to discount the need to reduce violent crime in our community, particularly because those communities that are most impacted by aggressive policing are also disproportionately impacted by violent crime. There have been 2 murders within a half mile of my house in the last 6 months, in an area that’s generally much calmer. This is a situation that the community is very concerned about. But it’s important that as we seek to address these issues, we’re not just trading one problem for another – violent crime for violent policing. The DPD has been actively pursuing a number of people in Durham who are suspected of homicides and aggravated assaults, and they’ve found quite a few of these specific people who have been creating very dangerous situations for our residents. Things have quieted down quite a bit – far fewer shootings for the last month than there were in last few months of last year. It’s important that we focus on intervening with specific individuals who are responsible for causing harm, and not increasing policing and surveillance of entire communities in response to the actions of a few. That’s a no-win proposition.

What’s terrible about this round-up though, even though it’s effective, is that most of these people are very very young.  We need to intervene earlier with people who are in troubled circumstances. We need to recognize that the development of the part of the brain that is responsible for judgment isn’t complete until 25 years old, and those in difficult circumstances will need support beyond their teens to be successful. We need to be supporting young people by building strong communities and providing opportunities to contribute to those communities in meaningful ways. We need to figure out ways to keep our communities safe while still having compassion for perpetrators.

So, I’m so glad we’re having this conversation about how to change our police culture in Durham. Getting a new chief who can better serve our communities is a step in that direction, but it’s not the only thing we need to do.  I also believe we need to adopt and fully implement all of the FADE & HRC recommendations, end the war on drugs, increase capacity for mental health de-escalation, engage in real racial equity training, give meaningful power to the civilian police review board (or get rid of it), limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities, expand misdemeanor diversion programs, raise the age, end bail for nonviolent crime, have a community investigation of conditions at the county jail, end arrests that are solely for “resisting arrest” (and so much more).