If the tone between City Council and Police Chief Jose Lopez publicly, anyway, has often been chilly, then last night’s interaction was Arctic.
Witness Lopez’s zinger regarding Council’s hiring of a consultant to analyze DPD’s staffing and operations: “When common sense isn’t enough, you hire a consultant.”
Brrr, the room temperature dropped 20 degrees.
Over the past two turbulent years in particular, Council has peppered the chief with questions about the uptick in homicides and reports of racial bias. Now Council has bestowed accolades on DPD as well—for solving robbery cases, clearing homicides and a decrease in the number of lesser offenses—but officials’ concern about the state of violent crime in the city has been clear.
Last night’s presentation on the third-quarter crime statistics was Lopez’s last, with mixed results. (And the report was not available to the public on the DPD website yesterday; it is today.)
The good: Through September, reported sexual assaults hit a two-year low, although an attack occurred earlier this month on the Ellerbe Creek Trail near Club Boulevard and Washington Street. Overall property crime and burglaries have also dropped by 3 percent and 12 percent respectively.
The bad: The big news is the number of homicides: 34 year-to-date over 21 at this time in 2014 (that's the most recent number; the report shows them just through September). This fall, three people were killed and six were shot within one week. And as Lopez explained, four of the shootings injured kids younger than 3 years old. Nine homicides were the result of domestic violence.
For the victims, their families, friends, neighborhood and the entire city, this is tragic. If you think of Durham as a human organism, an infection or injury in one part affects the entire body. If you have a good heart and a bad liver, you’re still sick.
How sick is a question of a crime index—the murder rate per 100,000 people, which would tell us more about the true increase in homicides. Durham is a rapidly growing city, and more people, unless they’re all nuns, often means more crime.
Curtailing the murder rate is even more difficult, Lopez has long complained, because his department lacks enough officers to keep the streets safe and to build more trusting relationships with communities, particularly those of color.
In the last budget cycle, Lopez asked for 56 new officers and 15 new investigators, but he didn’t get them, because, City Manager Tom Bonfield said, the chief didn’t adequately make his case. (The News & Observer has a good wrap up. )
Councilman Eugene Brown asked Lopez about community policing—officers getting out of their cars in walking the neighborhoods. The chief invoked what he sees as a continued staffing shortage. “As far as officers just parking and walking, with our staffing we can’t do it [more],” Lopez said. “But we’re looking at reallocating resources to see what we can do. It’s always good to speak to and to meet your community. We emphasize that with our officers, but we have to look at workload.”
The workload could be reallocated away from petty marijuana arrests, City Council, the mayor and social justice advocates say. Although Lopez says DPD has never prioritized low-level pot busts, the ones that occur still disproportionately affect people of color. White pot smokers get away with it; blacks do not.
To which Lopez, ever charismatic, replied, “I would recommend to people concerned about this issue that they not smoke marijuana.”
That comment—which didn't consider the non pot smokers who are nonetheless concerned—sent the temperature in City Council chambers plummeting to about minus 16, about the same as in Barrow, Alaska.