The Durham Police Department has had, shall we say, not the easiest of times in recent years, coming under scrutiny and criticism on everything from an in-custody death, to whether enforcement is racially unbalanced, to the controversy over a new headquarters on East Main Street.
Gunter -- who was recently named the force's officer of the year -- heads up his district's HEAT (high enforcement abatement team), which targets crime hot-spots and problem areas. But he's better known to District 2 neighborhoods as DPD's friendly listserv representative, responding to "hey Sgt. Gunter" questions that pop up from time to time.
In the days since Gunter's award was announced, I've seen neighbors from all political stripes -- including some who've been very critical of the D.P.D. in recent years -- hurry forward to congratulate the popular sergeant on the award.
Sgt. Gunter always closes his emails reminding folks to "Be Alert... the world needs more Lerts!" Based on the community response to his award, we might turn this around and say, police departments need more Gunters.
In Durham, as in other cities, that trust has been eroded. Certainly the ongoing prosecution of a structurally-biased war on drugs for a generation hasn't helped. Nor have the horrific and high-profile deaths of young black males in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, suburban Charleston, and elsewhere. (In Durham, the Jesus Huerta case raised its own tensions last year.)
Most recently, we have a Department of Justice report, requested by Mayor Bell, providing an outside analysis of Durham's gun-related crime rates and for ways the department could better engage the community.
We'll tackle the report in depth later, but the N&O's April coverage highlighted two of the challenging paradoxes of the findings: while crime rates have declined for many years and are on par with other cities, violent crime disproportionately affects young black and Hispanic males. At the same time, members of Durham's African-American community feel that law enforcement is overly focused on and aggressively enforces the laws in their communities.
As it happens, the very neighborhoods in Durham cited for young black male murder rates eight times the national average, are the same ones that the police have focused on, through Operation Bulls Eye and other concentrated enforcement efforts.
They're neighborhoods where the police may always be found, but where for too many members of the community, it's an unwelcome sight.
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It would be naive to assume that if we just leveraged the secret human cloning technology Duke has developed in the basement of the physics lab (oops, I'm not supposed to talk about that), we could simply replicate a thousand Dale Gunters, drop one on each street corner in Durham's high-crime neighborhood, and call it a day.
But, it's instructive to use the sergeant's success and overwhelming popularity in District 2 as a model for how you can engage with the public and build trust.
At times, Gunter has had to gently remind listserv participants to call 911 (not just email him) if they see a crime in progress, since he is not a 24x7, always-on response center. Yet the fact that residents are so accustomed to reaching out to Gunter anytime they see a concern shows the respect and trust that he's established.
I've never met Sgt. Gunter, but like a lot of District 2 residents, I feel that I know him, simply from his active engagement. To me, the things that make him stand out are the qualities that are crucial for D.P.D. and other agencies to look for in order to transform their relationships with local communities:
Responsive: As noted above, Gunter is quick to respond to questions and complaints raised on listservs, even if only to say "got it, I'm looking into this." Too often, communications with people at any organization bog down in bureaucratic, not-my-department answers. (Anyone who has dealt with, say, a large bank or some cable companies knows I am not picking on the public sector here alone.)
Humane: No one and no organization is perfect. In his many emails over the years, I've seen Sgt. Gunter defend police practices when questioned -- but always reasonably and rationally -- and also admit when things could have gone better. Similarly, the sergeant often talks about the ways in which the police do things other than make arrests and jail people. This has included taking about mentally ill people needing healthcare interventions, and giving proactive reminders of parking, dog waste and other rules noting he'd rather point people in the right direction than to give a ticket... to say nothing of his active participation in Halloween trick-or-treating, as a Beaver Queen Pageant judge, and in other community events. Gunter has built a reputation as a partner with the community to maintain order, not as the stereotype some hold of police officers as antagonists who are afraid of or dismissive of the community.
Experienced: As the D.P.D. notes in their Officer of the Year announcement, Sgt. Gunter joined the force in 1994. That kind of longevity in any career hopefully brings wisdom and discretion, making for a better officer. Durham's long been challenged to recruit, develop and maintain officers of such caliber and seniority. While the department runs one of the largest basic law enforcement training programs in the region, at times it has been challenged to even qualify recruits to standards before the program. And once officers have a few years' experience, the real-world training they get on Durham streets (and on the Durham taxpayer dime) makes them easy targets for poaching by suburban agencies elsewhere in the Triangle. Keeping the best officers on the force has to be front and center in any strategy for Durham's finest.
All of these things, simply put, make Sgt. Gunter a law enforcement professional overwhelmingly trusted by residents of the neighborhoods his units support.
Personally, I've had a number of good experiences with the D.P.D., from officers responding to false alarms at my house, to even last week when a man was behaving erratically outside my home.
I wish I could say all my experiences with D.P.D. personnel were as strong. I will never forget the time, years back, when I met with City staff and a key member of the department over a pedestrian death on Duke Street. When I and other neighbors described this as an example why traffic was out of control on our street, the staffer in question treated the whole matter dismissively, seeming to chuckle when the death was brought up.
Or there was the time that a D.P.D. leader appeared before a neighborhood meeting and, when asked about traffic enforcement, talked about a competing priority for motorcycle units: accompanying burial processions. While the leader was undoubtedly correct in describing budgetary constraints and leaders' priorities, the body language and tone created an atmosphere of defensiveness, not engagement.
Of course, I come from a relatively privileged background and live in a neighborhood that does not have the challenges of East Durham. If my experiences with these two D.P.D. mid-level leaders had been so off-putting, they were at least in the prism of conference rooms, sitting around desks with some coffee in the corner. One would hope they would not be representative of the street-level encounters that citizens and officers have every day in the neighborhoods that have come under so much scrutiny.
Somehow I suspect that if we had more officers like Sgt. Gunter, we'd have no trouble inspiring the "more Lerts" he is always calling for. Durham would be a better place for it.
But we're already a better place for having Sgt. Gunter in the first place.
Below is a video of the D.P.D. awards ceremony -- including many other officers honored for their courage and dedication in the line of work for, really, what isn't just any line of work.
Photo h/t: Barry Ragin's much-missed Dependable Erection blog.