The message remains after almost a year, written in giant, capital letters and yellow paint.
About three weeks after George Floyd’s murder and during one of the largest protest movements in United States history, activists painted the word “DEFUND” across a street in downtown Durham with an arrow pointing to the Durham Police Department headquarters.
The sign is one of the first things candidates for the city’s next police chief will see when they arrive at the $71 million building on East Main Street.
“They’re going to walk by a big ole DEFUND police graffiti on the street,” said Larry Smith, a spokesperson for the Durham Fraternal Order of Police. “So most chiefs, I would imagine, that are looking to apply are going to Google the city and get some information and ideas for themselves about what the climate may be.”
The sign, which the city has allowed to remain on the street, underscores the tension surrounding public safety reform as the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death approaches.
Both Durham and Raleigh have Black women leaving the cities’ top-cop positions. Chief C.J. Davis is leaving Durham after five years to become police chief in Memphis, Tennessee. Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown is retiring from the Raleigh Police department after 33 years with the force, including eight as chief.
Now the Triangle cities, already making changes in their approach to public safety, have a chance to reshape policing further. Both cities are asking what community members want from their next chief.
“Now is the time to reimagine and hire someone who will reinvent your police department,” said Chris Burbank, vice president of law enforcement strategy for the Center for Policing Equity, a research center based at Yale University. “It is absolutely the time to do that.”
In Raleigh, a tumultuous year
Deck-Brown announced her retirement late last year. The city’s first and only Black woman chief, she survived a tumultuous year of protests, calls for her resignation and threats prompting a security detail at her home.
“I’ve had people who look just like me say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like being Black in America,’” she told The News & Observer in a December interview. “I do. I just happen to be Black in America in law enforcement. But I do. I don’t live in the uniform.”
Deck-Brown was an internal candidate when she was named chief in 2013. During her tenure the department added body cameras and she created a faith-based committee to promote trust between the community and police department. She mandated additional training for officers and oversaw the construction of a new law enforcement training center that will soon open.
But she was criticized for her handling of protests after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and for her response after men where fatally shot by Raleigh officers. She also opposed the creation of a police oversight board.
For years, Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT) sought an advisory board with subpoena power, demanding greater police transparency.
Deck-Brown hasn’t shown interest in addressing the “systemic issues within the department,” said Surena Johnson, coalition coordinator for PACT. The organization was one of more than 100 the city recommended that the firm Public Sector Search & Consulting interview as it helps the city hire its next chief.
“I’m exhausted from having actions not based on true and real solutions to the issues of police brutality, racism, and classism,” Johnson said in an email.
“The police department has been very evasive about releasing even public information,” she said. “Our policy book for the city of Raleigh isn’t public; that alone speaks volumes. What’s in there that the city doesn’t want us to know?”
The city’s police procedures are listed on the city’s website, but not all of the policies are public.
Activist Kerwin Pittman, who serves on the governor’s task force for equity in criminal justice, hopes Raleigh’s next police chief will come from outside the department.
The leadership is “entrenched in various racial biases but also lacking in accountability,” he said.
“Raleigh has, right now, on their hand, the opportunity to bring in a police chief that reimagines public safety in a way that is conducive to Black and brown populations,” Pittman said.
But changing the culture of a police department, as some activists want, isn’t as easy as bringing in an outsider.
Challenging the culture
Damon Williams was hired as N.C. Central University’s police chief in July 2020. He’s the vice president of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.
“The two chiefs leaving were big change agents,” he said. “They had some huge challenges they had to deal with. And they dealt with them when we probably have had more changes in the last five years in law enforcement outside the civil rights movement.”
Whoever the cities hire will have an opportunity to continue that growth and change, he said.
In his experience, there are three major challenges for police chiefs at a new department: culture, politics and resources.
“Trying to change a culture in a department can be like turning the Titanic with the rudder of a pontoon,” Williams said. “So one of the first things they have to tackle and understand is the police culture. And sometimes those cultures can be very resistant to change.”
A police department’s culture reflects its “history and lore and legend,” and new chiefs have to confront that wall to create a new standard, said Burbank, at the Center for Policing Equity. When he was chief in Salt Lake City, he knew people on his staff had gone through the internal affairs process and been found found guilty of lying yet remained employed.
“That did not sit well with me,” he said. “One of the first things I started doing was (I said), ‘If you lie on an official report’ or ‘You’re told you can’t lie’ or ‘If you lie at any time. You no longer work for me.’ In the beginning, there were a number of people I had to terminate. But after maybe a year and a half, everyone who worked in that police department knew that if you lied, Burbank was going to fire you.”
‘It’s a tough job’
Hunter Boehme, an assistant professor of criminal justice at NCCU, says police use of force and response to protests are among the biggest challenges that police chiefs face.
“It’s a tough job in the sense of, at some point you have to instill in officers to be the crime fighter or the law enforcer, but at the same time, they have to instill [in them the need] to be community leaders and community partners, and more on the soft side,” he said.
Boehme said some reforms — like community policing initiatives, implicit bias training, and peer-to-peer support training — cost a lot of money.
“In-service training is expensive because you have to take someone off their shift, and that costs money. And then you’ve got to replace someone on that shift and you’ve got to pay them overtime,” he explained. “But that money on the front end could save lives on the back end.”
Burbank agrees there should be training, but he said too often it’s seen as the silver bullet to fix all of a department’s problems.
“Absolutely they should be as very well trained as you possibly can, but more significant is why are you going on the mental health call? Why are you responding in this certain way when we can start to say ‘Let’s not engage in this activity?’”
People have been trying to solve systemic racism with a “hearts and mind perspective,” he said.
“We can scientifically say these are the activities that lead to a biased outcome, or these are the activities that lead to excessive force. Let’s not do those activities anymore.”
In 2020, Raleigh announced a new unit that would send social workers on some mental health calls. That unit should begin its work soon as those employees have been hired, said Raleigh City Manager Marchell Adams-David.
The new mental health unit shows the city “embracing a change in policing,” said Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin.
The city’s proposed $1.07 billion budget includes a nearly $5 million increase to the police department bringing it up to $116.5 million. The City Council hasn’t discussed cutting the police budget, like some activists want, in part because it is hiring a new police chief.
“With a new police chief coming in, you want a police chief to know and understand that you support the police department,” Baldwin said.
Reform in Durham
The DEFUND street sign notwithstanding, Durham leaders credit Davis with reforms that have already helped change the police culture.
She expanded the city’s U-Visa program, providing temporary legal status for unauthorized immigrants who are victims of crimes. She reduced traffic stops and car searches, which disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic drivers.
She arranged racial equity training for officers, and she hired a bilingual Hispanic liaison officer and a LGBTQ liaison officer.
Alexandra Valladares, the first Latina elected to the Durham school board, appreciates Davis’ efforts and wants the next chief to push those efforts even further.
“We’re becoming kind of metropolitan, you know, with people from all over,” she said. “But I think that for the police department, [I want] a continued commitment to ensuring that they are hiring bilingual staff, especially not just Spanish speaking.”
Finding someone who will advance Davis’ work while embracing the city’s approach to public safety could be a challenge, some City Council members told The N&O.
“We’re asking them to decrease their role, right? To have a smaller role in how we do public safety. And I think that’s a big ask,” Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said. “Especially for people who have come up through law enforcement and have been trained to think that law enforcement is the best solution for all kinds of public safety problems.”
A majority of City Council members have opposed some of Davis’ funding requests in recent years, including a plan to hire 72 officers over three years and a request to replace the department’s expired or broken tasers.
A new chief needs to be sensitive toward the public conversation, including those who want to defund the department and others who want to transform it, Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said.
“I think our new chief is going to have to learn not to take things personally, first off, and be adept at understanding that Durham, like the United States, is at an inflection point when it comes to what policing looks like,” he said.
Manju Rajendran, an organizer with Durham Beyond Policing who’s lived in Durham for about 20 years, said Davis seemed more aware of the department’s public image and collaborated more with other city departments than previous chiefs.
“But her police force continued to police in low-income communities and Black and brown neighborhoods in ways that resembled what we’ve seen before,” Rajendran said. “And she was in a constant effort to expand the reach and the expense to the city with her police department.”
She said residents need a chief who will cooperate with efforts to scale back the police’s responsibility in Durham.
Speaking for the Durham FOP, Smith said local officers have been open to any changes they found reasonable.
“But this idea of just doing away with the police is not reasonable. That is not realistic,” Smith said.
“I think there needs to be a balance,” he added. “A balance needs to be found, and hopefully, a new chief can find that balance.”
Residents can comment on the search for a new police chief through an anonymous online survey, available in English and in Spanish, until June 15.
The city’s hiring consultant is also hosting two virtual community feedback sessions.
▪ Tuesday, May 25, at 6 p.m. – bilingual session in English and Spanish.
▪ Wednesday, May 26, at 1 p.m.
For more information on the search timeline as well as how to participate in the feedback sessions, go to the Durham Police Chief Search webpage: durhamnc.gov/4519/Durham-Police-Chief-Search
Thousands of people filled out a survey about what they’d like to see from the city’s next police chief, though the city has not posted the results.
Finalists for the job will participate in a virtual forum at 6 p.m. June 10. The forum will be streamed on the city’s website, raleighnc.gov, on the city’s YouTube page and RTN TV11. People can submit questions for the finalists at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Call4Questions. Questions must be submitted by 6 p.m. June 6.
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