Approximately 100 Durham citizens gathered Tuesday evening at City Hall to voice concerns about racial disparities in police stops, car searches, frisks and misdemeanor drug charges. The public forum was held before the Durham Human Relations Commission at the request of Mayor Bill Bell.
More than 15 citizens, activists and ministers addressed the 12-member panel to share stories of police behavior they believe is racially motivated and institutionalized within the department. Many speakers raised their voices, frustrated by what they perceive as an elephant in the room nobody seems willing to address.
"You know what's going on in this city. We don't need no more meetings," said resident Alfonso Jarrett, accusing the mayor and city council of ignoring the problem. Jarrett, who is black, said he is one of four male members of his immediate family to have been pulled over in his car by police without cause.
Police Chief Jose Lopez, who did not attend the meeting, has denied on numerous occasions that racial profiling exists among officers.
Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement, or FADE, a coalition group that analyzes the impact of drug criminalization, played a lead role in organizing volunteer speakers.
The Human Relations Commission was formed in 1968 to address issues regarding social, economic, gender and ethnic tensions in Durham. After the hearing on Tuesday, its members will analyze data related to the allegations and make a recommendation to city council.
Tia Hall, a FADE member, offered three suggestions for what the police department could do to ease frictions. From an educational standpoint, it could provide racial equity training to officers. From a policy standpoint, it could give more power to the civilian police review board, which she called toothless, and require written consent among suspects before car searches without warrants. From a community standpoint, it could dispatch commanders to more town hall-style meetings in minority and low-income neighborhoods to foster communication and trust.
"They should come into our space and really see what's happening," said Hall after the hearing.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice has played an advisory role to FADE, crunching police data from the North Carolina Department of Justice. That data suggests that African-Americans in Durham are approximately four times as likely as whites to be arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, despite evidence that whites and blacks use the drug at comparable rates. Black males, who represent 17.6 percent of city population, make up 65.3 percent of persons searched during traffic stops.
It is not clear when the commission will make its report to city council.