We've only had two months' time to start judging new DPD Chief Jose Lopez Sr., and of course it's too soon to have a bead on whether the plans he's floating for reorganizing the department's unit and precinct systems will have the desired impact on crime levels.
One thing can be judged already, though: Lopez's ability to handle the white-hot heat of the media spotlight. Which, given Durham's image and perception issues, is certainly a major factor in the effectiveness of any chief.
Unfortunately, this wasn't a skill that Lopez's predecessor, Steve Chalmers, seemed to possess. Chalmers came across in his rare public statements as a quiet man, one who preferred general statements to specific ones -- and one who seemed to prefer letting his deputy, Ron Hodge, make major public statements such as regular crime-level briefings to City Council.
Lopez has not had an easy time of his first two months in the Bull City, what with this week's shooting of some Raleigh criminals outside the Durham main branch library and the revelation that he's been overseeing an investigation into allegations that "fewer than 10" DPD officers have had sexual relations with prostitutes. Lopez also had to deal with Thomas Stith's immigration policy kerfuffle (a seeming strategic failure on the mayoral challenger's part that we estimate cost him 5-7 points at the polls.)
It's been reassuringly consistent to see how well Lopez has handled each of these situations with reporters and TV cameras ablaze. It's a critical skill in Durham, a city that has lower crime rates than Charlotte, Greensboro, or Winston-Salem, but which is somehow saddled with the odd reputation as some kind of American Baghdad by our critics. Like it or not, in a world where everyone in the region "expects" to see crime and lawlessness in Durham, the ability of a police chief to provide a reassuring, in-control voice of leadership for the 500-person department is not just a nice-to-have, but a necessity of the job.
And this is a strength Lopez has brought to the department in spades to date. In the City Council work session tete-a-tete with Stith, the media accounts had Lopez holding his own, even using humor to defuse a potentially tense situation. And watching broadcast news coverage earlier this week of the East Durham shooting of a carjacker by DPD staff, I was struck to see Lopez out on the street with his men before the break of dawn, speaking calmly and with authority to the assembled camera crews. His message was straightforward -- based on the accounts he'd heard, the shooting was justified, but that there would be an investigation as a matter of course.
Most impressive, however, was his deft handling this week of a swarm of print and broadcast media asking questions about allegations that several officers engaged in sexual activities with prostitutes. His response was clear and direct -- there was evidence discovered in a vice activity that pointed to such activities, and the department's internal affairs department had been investigating for over a month. The FBI had been contacted and Patrick Baker notified, but Lopez also emphasized a desire to make sure the allegations were substantiated before shedding limelight on the situation, noting that several officers had already been exonerated in the matter.
What I found impressive about Lopez's handling of the situation was his ability to present an image of a concerned, get-to-the-bottom-of-it image in terms of the investigation, while still pressing the need for a fair and thorough investigation to avoid smearing officers' names. In short, he struck the right balance of needs and concerns on the part of both the public and the department, all with the deportment of strong leadership.
We've talked here before about the need for a chief who can be direct and leaderful in the wake of a public matter, notably in the wake of Ron Hodge's disasterous comments about the lacrosse investigation while he was a finalist for the chief job. This week's events have just gone to reinforce the importance of a leader with communication skills.
Welcome again, Chief. Hope we haven't scared you off yet.