New Durham council majority could change course on future of police vacancies

·5 min read

The Durham City Council tabled a discussion this week on transferring up to 15 vacant police positions to the city’s new Department of Community Safety.

The safety department, which launched in July, is planning four pilot programs to provide unarmed, skilled and crisis-care response as an alternative to traditional policing in certain types of situations.

When the City Council transferred five Police Department vacancies to staff the department during last spring’s budget discussions, it agreed to come back around now to consider transferring up to 15 more.

“This transfer was considered at our last budget process meeting and was intentionally kicked down the road six months for us to consider now,” when the city would better understand the new department’s needs, Council member Jillian Johnson said at the council’s Thursday work session.

“And I would like us to see us consider how we might use the additional resources that we already have frozen in the police department, with vacancies that we know we can’t fill anytime soon,” Johnson said.

But that didn’t happen Thursday.

Instead, with new Mayor Elaine O’Neal out for a conference, the council agreed to put off the discussion for a later date.

It’s not clear where the current council stands on the issue, which is resurfacing after three fatal shootings by law enforcement officers in Durham County this month. In addition to O’Neal, the council also has a new member, Leonardo Williams, on board. And gun violence remains a major problem, with 50 homicides, a likely record, last year.

Although they did not discuss transferring the police positions, council members did hear Thursday from Community Safety Director Ryan Smith, who laid out the four pilot programs:

  • Crisis Call Diversion (CCD)

  • Community Response Teams (CRT)

  • Co-Response (CoR)

  • Care Navigators

What will the pilot programs do?

Crisis Call Diversion will put licensed, mental health clinicians in Durham’s 911 call center to triage, assess and respond to behavioral and mental health related calls for service that are “non-emergencies and non-life threatening.”

Community Response Teams will provide trauma-informed care by community members, who are not licensed, to respond to non-violent behavioral and mental health needs of people who are homeless.

The Co-Response program will send a licensed clinician and peer-support specialist out with a Durham police officer on high-risk calls involving mental and behavioral health needs.

Durham resident Imadé Borha spoke against that program Thursday.

“I experienced a police well check when I was living on the West Coast, and it was the most terrifying moment in my life,” said Borha, who runs Depressed While Black, a nonprofit that provides Black beauty supplies to psychiatric hospitals from New York to Chapel Hill.

Borha told the council how she had told her therapist she did not want to live and woke up to two armed officers at her home after a nap. She joined the meeting to support the message of the local coalition Durham Beyond Policing, which wants the city to transfer the 15 police vacancies to the safety department but strongly opposes the Co-response pilot.

“I want completely police-free interaction because people should not have to be worried about being killed when they are in a mental health crisis,” Borha said.

Last, the Care Navigators will be a two-person team of a peer support specialist and licensed clinician who will provide in-person or phone-based care within 48 hours after the initial encounter with crisis response teams. They will continue follow-up until residents are connected to the care they need and want.

When will these pilots launch?

The Department of Community Safety is developing and posting positions to begin recruiting for the pilot programs.

Currently, the new department has six employees, with Durham Beyond Policing and the city’s Safety and Wellness Task Force requesting more staffing from vacancies in the Durham Police Department.

Last May, a majority of City Council members pledged to move funding for 20 vacant police officer positions into the safety department. But with a new mayor and new council majority, the remaining transfers are not guaranteed.

“When we voted to freeze the 15 positions, it was 6-1 to vote. I was one of the people that voted to freeze it,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton. “But it was not a vote contingent on automatic transference of the 15 at this time. It was contingent upon staff coming back to us with recommendations and a report.”

“There is no science behind the number 15,” he continued. “But there are some in this debate who hope that by moving those positions, that they will be gone forever. For them it represents a diminution of the Police Department, like we won’t go back and add those 15 positions if the Police Department asks for it.”

Middleton also noted that the council just voted to raise police and firefighters pay to attract applicants to the departments..

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