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DPD chief Lopez: Savvier in the limelight

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.


Michael Bacon
Michael Bacon

I agree with you on this topic Kevin...I know the Hartford, CT (where Lopez worked before) area and how diverse it is and knew he would be a good fit here in Durham...He has taken great leadership and has not been scared to break things down in the DPD. I applaud and have the utmost respect for Chief Lopez in taking on his own police department in his first couple months as being the new face. At times, I think the DPD can be a bit soft so I think it's a wake up call for everyone in that organization.

Ray Gronberg

Have to say I disagree with you on this one, Kevin. Breaking the Public Records Law to withhold the names of the suspended officers is not a way for a new chief to make a good first impression.

Kevin Davis

It's not clear to me the law was broken -- or, I should say, that assertion wasn't clear to a Superior Court judge (see story below.)

To my mind, I can see the value in not releasing the names during an active investigation, with the caveat that I'd be far _less_ comfortable, subjectively, had Lopez not brought in the FBI to look at the issue. I understand the need for transparency, but there's also a competing public interest in being able to complete an investigation.

"A judge on Wednesday ruled that the Durham Police Department doesn't have to release the names of officers put on administrative leave last week as part of a department investigation.

Several Durham officers were placed on leave pending the outcome of the internal investigation. WRAL learned the probe centers on allegations of sexual misconduct involving officers and prostitutes.

Police Chief Jose Lopez said the allegations surfaced shortly after he took over the department in September. Fewer than 10 officers, ranging from rookies to veterans, were involved, he said, declining to identify the officers or reveal other details about the case.

Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL, sued the city of Durham, the police department and Lopez, maintaining that the officers on leave should be provided to the media under the North Carolina Public Records Act. The company also argued that withholding the names was inconsistent with the police department's past practices concerning officers involved in shootings or official actions.

But Superior Court Judge Carl Fox agreed with the city that being placed on administrative leave doesn't constitute a change in employment status. Under state law, public agencies must divulge to the public any change in status for employees when asked."

Jonathan Jones

Maybe not so savvy in the limelight?

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