By Ray Gronberg
DURHAM, N.C. — Critics of the Durham Police Department say officials need to curb its use of consent searches of motorists and raise the status and authority of a civilian review board that's supposed to deal with complaints about police conduct.
The proposals came during Tuesday evening during a forum of Durham's Human Relations Commission conducted at the request of Mayor Bill Bell.
A succession of speakers, many in some way part of a coalition called Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement, FADE for short, scored police for matters ranging from racial profiling in traffic stops to two recent officer-involved shooting deaths.
Several invoked the name or memory of one of the men killed in those shootings, Derek Walker, to argue for more use by police of trained psychologists and non-lethal tactics in dealing with the mentally ill.
"It's a disgrace for a young man of 26 [to be] standing there, asking for help, and he gets shot down," said James Chavis, a former co-facilitator of the city's Partners Against Crime District 1 group. "Our council and [city] manager are telling you it's OK. But people in the community are telling you it's not OK."
Chavis' comments clearly alluded to Walker, who wound up in an armed confrontation with police last month in downtown Durham after posting to his Facebook page that he hoped to die soon.
Walker apparently was distraught over a child-custody dispute.
The profiling complaints specifically addressed the use of consent searches to find and identify alleged criminals. Activists from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice say it's apparent from state-mandated record-keeping that Durham police are more prone to search vehicles driven by blacks, black men specifically.
The term "consent" means a warrantless search that occurs after an officer asks for and receives the motorist's permission to look through a vehicle.
Tuesday's forum occurred just two weeks after the city settled a gender-discrimination lawsuit filed against it by a former police sergeant, Hope Allen, who court documents indicate had instructed subordinates on methods to "get around" a U.S. Supreme Court decision that tightened restrictions on consent searches.
Allen, a black woman, sued after being fired over the incident.
Tia Hall, wife of Durham lawyer David Hall, told the Human Relations Commission that the city should immediately require police to obtain written consent from motorists before beginning a search.
Spencer Bradford, pastor of Durham Mennonite Church, added that the consent forms should advise motorists that they have the right to refuse a search.
Other speakers urged the panel to recommend beefing up the authority of the city's Civilian Police Review Board.
The board now hears appeals of citizen complaints against police that already have been investigated by the Police Department's internal-affairs staff.
Department critics, however, say the board is toothless and must be given subpoena power and the right to lead investigations rather than just hear appeals of their results.
City leaders should act on that immediately, or, "if they don't want to support it, put it to a referendum for the people to decide," said Jesse H. Gibson.
Similar proposals have surfaced in other North Carolina cities, and proved problematic to implement.
Fayetteville's city council, for example, wound up in court last year after attempting to impose a moratorium on consent searches.
A police group sought and obtained an injunction against the moratorium on the grounds that law-enforcement officers in North Carolina derive their authority from state law, not from local elected officials. The state authorizes consent searches.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper's staff also weighed in during that dispute to say the Fayetteville council had overstepped its authority.
The authority of civilian review boards over police also has been an issue in cities like Fayetteville, Charlotte and Chapel Hill. Police groups dislike them, complaining among other things of their potential to violate state-law guarantees of public-employee privacy.
Human Relations Commission Chairman Ricky Hart told participants in Tuesday's forum that the panel will mull their comments, conduct research and eventually make a recommendation to the City Council.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 The Herald-Sun